Whatever happened to Barry Geraghty? It was barely a year ago that the question was being asked, and knowing insiders in Irish racing were prepared to mutter some fairly pejorative answers. The jockey who rode five winners at the 2003 Festival had become a peripheral, questioned figure. The winter after that great breakthrough he rode 110 winners in his homeland; last season he mustered only 48.
But the margins of his calling have always been exorbitantly narrow, and yesterday he returned here to win two photo-finishes in just over an hour. First, he shared a bravura performance with the exuberant novice, Forpadydeplasterer, in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy; and then, unfeasibly, he followed up in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle on the 22-1 outsider Punjabi.
It was akin to dragging his world back on its axis with a horsehair. Inches either way, and there would have been no talk of redemption. But then that is the critical difference these top-class jockeys can always make. For any who had forgotten, Geraghty confirmed himself an authentic peer to Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy – contemporaries who have never ceased to define a gilded age among jump jockeys. He has now won the full set of championship races here, as well as a Grand National. He has never lost his head for heights. Whatever it was he might have lost since the days of Moscow Flyer and Kicking King it was palpably not his nerve.
The fact remains, however, that his career had somehow reached a plateau when he first teamed up with Punjabi. That was in this same race, a year previously, when Mick Fitzgerald elected to ride Afsoun instead. Punjabi finished a creditable third, but as Nicky Henderson's veteran stable jockey, Fitzgerald would have retrieved the mount at Punchestown next time but for taking a ghastly fall in the Grand National.
Geraghty's performance at Punchestown took Henderson's breath away, and the trainer knew just what to do when Fitzgerald's doctors finally retired him. For Geraghty, the days of drift were suddenly over. The new partnership landed running, enjoying a prolific autumn, permitting Geraghty only one, poignant, regret. The best young horse in the yard, Binocular, was owned by JP McManus, and he had his own, retained jockey in McCoy.
Few, certainly, had paid the slightest attention to Geraghty's prospects on Henderson's second string here yesterday. All eyes were on the flamboyant Binocular, who started the 6-4 favourite. After Osana set a reckless gallop to halfway, Hardy Eustace took over briefly but Walsh soon sent Celestial Halo into a narrow lead, three out, followed through by Geraghty. Approaching the last, McCoy was closing them down steadily, and the stage was set. The three of them put their heads down and slugged it out, Walsh pressing all the way on the outside, McCoy gradually wearing them down along the stands rail. He might not admit it, but the man in the middle knew that here was his chance to confirm, once and for all, that he had never been an interloper.
"It was touch and go in those last 50 yards," Geraghty admitted. "I knew that if Binocular was not at my boot going well, two out, that Ruby would be my main worry. I had no wish to take Ruby on too early, but he missed the last, and I winged it, so I had to commit. But he battled all the way. He's such a sweet, placid horse, and he'd been on a slack rein all the way round. Everyone had forgotten about him, but I really fancied him."
They held on, all out, by a neck, and Binocular a head away, with Crack Away Jack, Muirhead and Katchit pulling clear of the pack without ever landing a blow. Though it had rained less than anticipated, the ground certainly seemed to drag, the first four races all going to desperate, slow-motion finishes.
Henderson suspects that Binocular arrived short of his physical peak in more ways than one – he is still only five, and his preparation had been complicated by last month's snows. Punjabi himself had badly needed his prep race at Wincanton, the weather having retarded his recuperation from a cut suffered at Kempton on Boxing Day. "I know he didn't exactly look awe-inspiring at Wincanton," Henderson said. "But he had been three weeks in his box, the ground was desperate, and the race did its job."
He ruefully speculated that Punjabi's fall at Kempton may have cost the £1m bonus offered by WBX, the sponsors of the race he had won on his reappearance at Wetherby, should the winner win both there and here. "It might just have been the most expensive fall in the history of horseracing," Henderson said.
Punjabi would probably have struggled to cope with Harchibald that day anyway, but no matter. Henderson and Geraghty will be back for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday with Barbers Shop. Win, lose or draw, this result has put an unequivocal seal on their alliance. "I've always admired Barry's riding, and we've always been good mates," Henderson said. "The great thing about having someone like Mick for all those years was that you knew you could come to a place like this with someone who felt comfortable here. And Barry's in the same mould. He can ride these races with strength and coolness."
Geraghty was certainly back in his element. "If you didn't ride a winner for two months and came here to ride two in one afternoon, it would all be worth it," he said. "From when you're a child, it's what you dream of." For whatever might previously have been thought of Punjabi, Geraghty has always belonged here.
Chris McGrath, The Independents Racing Correspondent, has been highly commended in the Sports Journalists’ Association awards in the Specialist Correspondent category
Champion Hurdle: How they finished
1. Punjabi, Barry Geraghty 22-1
2. Celestial Halo, Ruby Walsh 17-2
3. Binocular, Tony McCoy 6-4 fav
Winning trainer: Nicky Henderson
Distances: Neck, head
23 ran. Non Runner: Sizing Europe
Chris McGrath: Cheltenham Tips
1.30 PARSONS PISTOL (nap)
2.05 Mikael D'Haguenet
3.20 Master Minded
4.00 The Polomoche (nb)
4.40 Alexander Severus
5.15 Meath All StarReuse content