It certainly sounded like the fat lady, and almost everyone had buttoned up their coats and left the auditorium. But yesterday it turned out to have been a spectacular case of mistaken identity. It was a very expensive one, for some, but nobody should feel remotely defrauded. For while an unfortunate minority discovered only despair in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle success of Binocular, its essential message was that hope, at Cheltenham, really does spring eternal.
If not quite back from the dead, Binocular was completing the sort of resuscitation otherwise required only by those who come here not for a celebration of life, but contamination of the liver. Last month his trainer, Nicky Henderson, in scrupulous obedience to his obligations to the betting public, announced that Binocular would not be running.
A close third after starting hot favourite last year, he had produced three indifferent performances this season. Henderson and Tony McCoy, his jockey, had concluded that Binocular was being inhibited by some kind of physical problem, and decided that he should have the rest of the season off while the experts pondered it.
In racing, however, there will always be people eager to make a cheap buck. And, pitiably, a handful of wise guys got it into their heads to lay Binocular on Betfair, at 999-1. Half a dozen wagers were matched at the maximum odds, and several more at other extravagant prices. The sums involved, though modest, presumably sufficed to cause much choking on cornflakes when the Binocular camp intimated a dramatic volte-face, barely a week before the Festival.
Binocular then schooled with all his old elan at Seven Barrows last Wednesday, and was formally restored to the field on Friday. And McCoy knew yesterday after just two flights that his mount had come back to life. Indeed, having allowed him to glide closer at halfway, he actually took a pull coming down the hill. He eventually sent him past Celestial Halo, who had set a strong pace in blinkers, after the second last and Binocular roared up the hill to see off Khyber Kim by three and a half lengths. It was another six back to Zaynar, with Celestial Halo fading into fourth. The heavily backed Go Native dropped out wanly after blundering at the second.
Life has certainly become complicated for trainers by an apparent imperative nowadays to keep the public informed of every lame step taken by their best horses. As Henderson observed: "The anatomy of a racehorse is a very delicate piece of equipment. We were just trying to keep the public informed of the way we saw things at the time. We had a lot of people working on him. He went to Ireland for a bone scan. That revealed zero, so at least we knew that we couldn't do him any harm in persevering. It was more a question of muscular fine-tuning. It's impossible to say exactly what it was that made the difference. But luckily he has just bloomed in time."
McCoy seemed pretty disgusted that the matter was even under discussion. "There's only so much you can do for some people," he said. "I was gutted with this horse during the winter. He wasn't hurdling or travelling the way I know he can. This is the first time that the real Binocular has ever shown up. I still can't believe he got beat here last year. To be honest, I can't believe he ever got beat."
The transformation had become apparent in a white-knuckle schooling session last Wednesday. "I went as fast as I've ever gone, schooling," McCoy said. "I frightened myself I went so fast, and I think I frightened the trainer as well. But I knew then that he would win today."
Henderson has now saddled five Champion Hurdle winners, and at 59 finds himself perhaps with more strength in depth than at any time in his career. He has, moreover, made a spectacular comeback of his own from the nadir of last summer, when prohibited from making entries for three months and fined an eye-watering £40,000 after one of his horses failed a dope test.
He denies that he felt goaded into this, his most prolific season. "I had a good summer break, I suppose, and maybe I was a bit refreshed," he said. "In fairness, it was a horrible experience. We were just trying to look after a horse. That's what we do for a living."
McCoy had started the day with a close-run second behind Menorah, with the odds-on Dunguib finishing third after being forced off the bridle for the first time in his career. Admittedly, the Irish favourite was set plenty to do by his rookie partner, Brian O'Connell, who also chose to keep him wide throughout. Once Menorah had kicked for home under Richard Johnson, Dunguib struggled to close the gap and instead it was McCoy and Get Me Out Of Here who ran down the winner to a head.
Dunguib was beaten just under two lengths, but his trainer proved no less composed in defeat than he had been after Dunguib's extravagant wins. "We could all jump on the bandwagon, but I'd have no criticism of Brian whatsoever," Philip Fenton insisted. "From the third last, we were probably fighting a losing battle – he was getting there, but not getting there quickly enough. I'm sure the horse has learnt more today than from his four previous runs. We have been beaten, but he has come back in one piece and we live to fight another day."
Johnson admitted that he had been half-expecting O'Connell's silks in the corner of his eye. "I thought we might see a sudden black-and-white flash, but fortunately it never came," he said. "It was a farcical race at Ascot last time but he's a very, very good horse. I've always thought a lot of him but he's never properly had a race run to suit him until today."
Philip Hobbs, Menorah's trainer, predicts plenty of improvement to come. "He could be very good," he said. "I couldn't believe how green he was at the second last. He's only five and I'd think we might go for the Champion Hurdle next year, though his long-term future lies over fences."
Totesport offer 7-2 against Binocular following up in 2011, and 10-1 about Menorah, Get Me Out Of Here and Dunguib. But then it's hard enough to know just who is going to run a week before the race – never mind 52.
The name game: Running today
Forpadydeplasterer (Queen Mother Champion Chase) Paddy Reilly, a property developer and sometime plasterer, was one of those who once bailed out cash-strapped Bertie Ahern. So was Charlie Chawke, head of the ownership syndicate.
Gus Macrae (Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle) Augustus McCrae is a fictional Texas Ranger in the Lonesome Dove series of books. Played by Robert Duvall in the TV film.
Massasoit (National Hunt Challenge Cup) Early 17th-century sachem, or leader, of the Pokanoket tribe in Rhode Island. Helped the Pilgrim Fathers avoid starvation as they established a foothold in New England.
On Raglan Road (Coral Cup) Poem by Patrick Kavanagh, perhaps best known as a song set to the traditional folk tune "The Dawning Of The Day", recorded by the Dubliners and others.
Sue MontgomeryReuse content