This close to the rich pickings of the Cheltenham Festival an incapacitating fall is every jockey's dread. It is, though, accepted as part of the territory. But what would seem an injustice would be to be hurt while remaining in the saddle, and here yesterday came a demonstration of just that in freakishly bizarre circumstances as Ruby Walsh was kicked four-square in the back by the flailing hind hooves of a tumbling rival at the second-last of the novices' chase.
The incident did not stop the Irishman, riding Oslot for his boss Paul Nicholls, winning the Grade Two race, nor the following valuable Grade Three handicap on the same all-conquering stable's Gungadu. But it was a reminder of how fine the injury line is that jockeys tread.
Walsh was in distress as he pulled Oslot up quickly after the line. "I've never been in so much pain riding a winner," he said. "The other horse [Pur de Sivola] caught me in the ribcage and winded me, but I had the chance to win so I couldn't stop."
It was a heart-stopping moment for Walsh, due to partner favourite Kauto Star in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 19 days, but it was quickly business as usual on Gungadu, who tested his rider's bruised ribcage in the Racing Post Chase. The eight-year-old produced a fine performance to score under topweight, but had to be roused to do so after some indifferent leaps in the back straight.
Walsh drove the gelding into the lead turning into the straight, where he was challenged by French raider Kelami. At the last Gungadu produced the more fluent jump as Kelami, in receipt of 13lb, lost momentum by getting in too close to the obstacle and landing short. Gungadu held on by three-quarters of a length, with his stablemate Le Volfoni third and Simon, last year's winner, fourth. Walsh was still aching, but said: "It would be hurting a lot more if I'd lost."
Neither Gungadu, who needs time between his races, nor Oslot, who has no entries there, will run at Cheltenham, but the two novice hurdle winners yesterday will.
The durable Pigeon Island, running for the 17th time this season, routed his rivals in the Dovecote Hurdle and now heads for the Festival's Supreme Novices' Hurdle. "He is amazing," said trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies of the grey five-year-old. "I had to run him today to keep him in trim. You simply can't get to the bottom of him."
Year-younger Binocular, the Triumph Hurdle second favourite from Nicky Henderson's yard, maintained his unbeaten record in the Adonis Hurdle despite some sketchy jumping, having to work hard to defeat Peirrot Lunaire. "That will have taught him a lot," said rider Mick Fitzgerald. "He had an easy win first time out but this was a different ball game."
The gelding holds entries in the Triumph, for which owner JP McManus also has the fav-ourite Franchoek, and Supreme. "The Triumph is on the stiffer of the two tracks," added Fitzgerald, "and he needed every yard of the two miles today."
Elsewhere it was fast-forward past Cheltenham to Aintree. At Newcastle, Comply Or Die gave another classy handicap performance under top weight in a handicap in winning the Eider Chase for the David Pipe team. Challenged by Elvis Returns at the second-last, the blinkered nine-year-old produced an effortless leap for Timmy Murphy to settle the issue as his opponent stumbled and is now 20-1 for the Grand National.
At Fairyhouse, Hedgehunter, former winner of the Aintree showpiece, upstaged his Willie Mullins stablemate Snowy Morning, the National favourite, when the pair ran second and third to Afistfulofdollars.