Greatness rewarded – and it is the real McCoy

When Kauto Star was preserved from further risk you could sense the sport’s sigh of relief

Cheltenham

In all its rich history, there can never have been another Gold Cup where the applause for a horse that could not complete even half the course nearly matched that for the winner. But do not be deceived that Kauto Star's dignified exit, or the inability of his great rival to take advantage, represented any kind of anticlimax. The stage had been set for greatness and the jockey on Synchronised responded with the riding equivalent of Olivier playing Lear.

If you were obliged to condense into one race the bewildering career of Tony McCoy – so that future generations could understand how a man followed by an ambulance every day he goes to work might extend an unbroken reign as champion jockey to 16 seasons – you could now dispense with over 3,000 other winners. Here, in the evening of his career, was something to remember him by.

Among all the great horsemen to have tested themselves in this crucible, would any other have got Synchronised home in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup? You have to doubt it.

His mount was struggling sooner, and more obviously, than Kauto Star. Yet McCoy was driven not just by the same epic perseverance he brings to Plumpton on a wet Monday, but by an answering generosity of spirit. It grieves him how rarely he has had the chance to claim the sport's greatest prizes for his cherished patrons, Jonjo O'Neill and J P McManus. A couple of years ago they finally, famously, combined to win a Grand National – and the faintest possibility of some equivalent elixir yesterday was enough to introduce Synchronised to an unfamiliar margin of courage and stamina.

It would be as fatuous to compare McCoy's overall merit with previous paragons as it is to compare Kauto Star with Arkle. Both, however, share a competitive longevity that unmistakably infected a grey afternoon with intimations of valediction. The atmosphere in the packed precincts was tense, rather than excited. There was a nervous quality to the cheering prompted by Kauto Star even as he strolled around the parade ring. When he lost a prominent early position, and Ruby Walsh quickly decided to preserve him from any further risk, his prudence was saluted with relieved applause from the stands. After a challenging week, you could almost sense the sport taking a communal sigh of relief. Everyone could now relax and enjoy the rest of the race.

Not least after the morning withdrawal of Quel Esprit, most imagined that Long Run would now exploit his adversary's defection – and they would not be discouraged in that assumption even by a couple of his usual blunders. Sam Waley-Cohen had the defending champion in the perfect position, tracking Midnight Chase on the inside and, though briefly cornered on the home turn, Long Run had all the opportunity he should need to cut down The Giant Bolster – a 50-1 shot, running the race of his life for the tiny local stable of David Bridgwater.

The Giant Bolster had led approaching two out, and his surge soon broke Burton Port and Time For Rupert. Waley-Cohen was still there with every chance at the last, but it gradually became clear that he was not going to get past Tom Scudamore. One of the great Gold Cup shocks seemed imminent. But what happened next brought things full circle. For the way Synchronised tore off his gloves on the hill was reminiscent of the iconic Dawn Run, ridden by O'Neill, in 1986. And as Synchronised reached the limit of his genetic resources, he summoned chromosomes inherited from Mayasta – McCoy's first ever ride in the green and gold hoops of McManus, and now the dam of a Gold Cup winner. Between what he found within, and the man on his back, Synchronised raged up the hill to win by just over two lengths, with The Giant Bolster deservedly holding second by three-quarters of a length. It was another five back to Burton Port, with Time For Rupert fifth.

McCoy has long protested that O'Neill has far more talent than the quality of his horses has tended to allow. Even before yesterday, his runners this week – from two artfully rejuvenated handicap winners to the remarkable Alberta's Run, just collared in his quest for a Ryanair Chase hat-trick – confirmed him one of the modern masters of a Festival preparation. Eleven years ago, McManus lured O'Neill from Cumbria to train a few miles from here, at Jackdaws Castle. With a gentle touch, complemented by the ferrous willpower that helped him beat cancer just months after Dawn Run's success, O'Neill has now joined the select group to have both ridden and trained a Gold Cup winner.

Perversely, for all his unprecedented achievement, McCoy has himself had to be reconciled with the reality that his great friend and rival, Ruby Walsh, will always have a better book of rides at the Festival. Now 37, he has had to wait 15 years to add a second Gold Cup to the one he won on Mr Mulligan.

But then consider the man who trained that horse, Noel Chance – all but forgotten, despite winning the race a second time with Looks Like Trouble in 2000. Then there is Bridgwater, who trains just a dozen horses and would normally drive the horse lorry to the races himself; or the Waley-Cohen family, who do not want for resources, but have long since discovered – the hardest way of all, in the loss to cancer of Sam's brother Tom – how to place this disappointment in due perspective.

For all its heartbreak, the sport holds these different people in the same thrall. And, as such, they will all recognise the example of Synchronised, and his rider.

"He doesn't look a chaser," McCoy noted of his partner. "But more than stature, class and physique, he is all heart and spirit – and that's what you need more than anything. He never knows when he is beaten."

Gold Cup Result

3.20: (3m 2f 110yds betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup chase )

1. Synchronised A P McCoy 8-1

2. The Giant Bolster T Scudamore 50-1

3 Long Run Mr S Waley-Cohen 7-4 fav

Also ran: 3-1 Kauto Star (pulled up); 8-1 Burton Port (4th); 8-1 Weird Al (pulled up); 12-1 Midnight Chase; 20-1 Diamond Harry (pulled up); 25-1 What A Friend (fell); 33-1 Time For Rupert (5th); 66-1 Knockara Beau (6th); 100-1 Carruthers; 100-1 China Rock; 100-1 The Midnight Club.

14 ran. 21/4, 3/4, 5, 11/2, 10. (Jonjo O'Neill, Cheltenham).

Tote: win £8.00; places £1.80, £14.00, £1.30. Exacta: £707.80. CSF: £327.95. Trifecta: £6,358.40. NR: Quel Esprit

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