For Nicky Henderson, the master trainer of Cheltenham, the Merlin of the most challenging place in all of racing, and his brilliant enforcer Barry Geraghty, this was another extraordinary peak.
First they had the sublime triumph of Sprinter Sacre, the chaser who summoned a million dreams.
Now there was Bobs Worth, a Gold Cup champion of an utterly different nature – an understated winner of a race so true, so filled with the essential heart and technique without which you would no more come here with serious intent than you would try to climb the Matterhorn in carpet slippers.
On Wednesday, Sprinter Sacre covered two miles with such coruscating brilliance some observers are still shaking their heads. Yesterday there was another kind of emotion, but it was no less overwhelming in its intensity when Geraghty, who had sensed a shattering defeat six fences out, brought the lightly raced but perfectly prepared Bobs Worth home so sweetly that Henderson’s 50th Festival victory might have come straight from a meticulously prepared blueprint.
In one way it had, of course, but if there was ever racing to remind you that nothing, no sport, no wager, no hope that you might retire safely to your bed when it was over can be guaranteed on this perilous terrain, we have seen it these last few days.
Henderson’s performance, along with Geraghty’s, has been phenomenal here, but even as Henderson sipped champagne, and Geraghty swigged a Coke before returning to his workplace, there could hardly have been a more powerful sense of the fine margins between success and failure.
It is not, after all, an occupation which offers too much scope for growing old quite seamlessly.
Geraghty reminded us, as so many as his fellow inhabitants of the jockey room had done through the last day of the battling, that no victory was so precious that it intruded for more than, as he put, “some brief cut and thrust,” on the plight of the popular amateur jockey J T McNamara, who was facing critical surgery 40 miles away in Bristol.
“I wish it was a happier day,” said Geraghty. He said it quickly in his assumption that everyone who knew about racing also knew well enough about the risks that would always be involved. So what did you do? You followed your instincts, lived the life that cried out to you most powerfully. That was what his friend John Thomas McNamara did, what he did, and certainly it was the watchword of the man who had prepared Bobs Worth so brilliantly.
The 62-year-old Henderson’s extraordinary record-breaking run at Cheltenham, and his now almost certain triumph over the long dominating Paul Nicholls in this season’s trainers’ championship, would not have happened but for his youthful defiance of his wealthy father’s most fervent wishes. Fifty years ago Johnny Henderson led the fight to save the Cheltenham course from the bulldozers of property developers, but around about the same time he was losing his fight to keep his son away from the professional uncertainties of racing.
“He wanted me to work in the City,” said Henderson yesterday. “My father thought going into racing was one of way of getting rid of the family dosh. But what was I supposed to do in the City? I wasn’t going to be a trader. They wouldn’t even let me make a cup of tea.”
So he insisted that he had to go racing. He went to the yard of great Fred Winter and he learnt the business. He went into the academy of the man whose achievements he passed several years ago.
Now, so long after his successful rebellion – and four failures to learn a word of French in attempts at the general certificate of education – and 26 years since his last trainers’ title, Henderson is so much more than a notably successful survivor. He has never been less than candid about the joys and the terrors of his business these last few tumultuous days.
He spoke eloquently of the maelstrom of emotion he experienced on the day Sprinter Sacre announced himself as a horse to speak of in the same breath as the most recent equine phenomenon Frankel. He didn’t quite know how he got through such a day and yesterday he felt a rush of the same doubt about Bobs Worth when his other contender, the former champion Long Run, appeared to be fighting it out with the formidable Irish challenger Sir Des Champs.
The amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen, triumphant on Long Run two years ago, had told Henderson and the rest of the yard that he would probably attempt to make all the running. It was a brave resolve but going into the last fences there was for Henderson the terrible suspicion that it might just have delivered the winning opportunity to the controversially appointed A P McCoy.
“I could hardly look,” Henderson reported, “but Bobs Worth is such an honest horse and a thorough professional that loves what he does. He loves coming up that hill. It looked like he was in a bit of trouble coming down it but, in fairness, he always gallops up it. Barry just let him creep into it.”
It was another example of exquisite stealth and there was much irony in the fact that when he delivered it with unanswerable impact another of the great practitioners of the art, Ruby Walsh, had already tumbled out of the race. For the embattled Nicholls, desperate for a major prize after three days of futility, it was a devastating blow. Walsh had Silviniaco Conti moving perhaps most menacingly of all when the fall came three out.
Long Run was beaten but then so was McCoy on the horse he had been given as a late gift in his own Cheltenham despair. Geraghty had recreated the slugging momentum of Bobs Worth. “Coming to work him from time, is like visiting a child. Each time you see he has grown a little more. He is not like Sprinter Sacre, of course. He goes about his work quietly but he always knows what he is doing. Today he just struggled on the soft going for most of the way. After a mile I knew he wasn’t happy so I started trying to conserve his energy and save a bit here, save a bit there.
“From there I took my time and just chased him along quietly. I thought I was beaten but he ran down the hill and jumped the third last well and from there I just held him together. Ideally, he wants better ground but he sold them all a dummy today. He didn’t travel well but I always knew there was maybe a bit in reserve if I needed it.”
He did and there was and when Geraghty brought him home his face was filled with the joy of a brilliant victory. It was fashioned from the most perilous circumstances and made an essentially modest man feel for a few seconds that he had just conquered the world. Then he thought of his friend J T McNamara and he remembered that life can be somewhat more complicated.
But then he might have asked again: what do you do? You do what his old trainer did so many years ago. You do what is most rewarding and if you are very lucky, and very good, you win the kind of great horse race we all saw yesterday.