Whatever your views on the pursuit on horseback of bushy-tailed vermin across the countryside, there is no doubt that fox-hunting is part of jump racing's history and heritage. The Foxhunter Chase is normally regarded as the highlight of the week for amateur riders; yesterday's riders rather found their thunder in that department stolen. "This is usually our Gold Cup," said the winner, Derek O'Connor. "But this year I'm not sure we can say that."
If Sam Waley-Cohen was the least battle-hardened in his field, the reverse was true in the race that followed. O'Connor, from Co Galway, is Ireland's six-times point-to-point champion and put his nous to good use on Zemsky as he closed on last year's winner Baby Run, ridden by 16-year-old Willie Twiston-Davies. At the second-last obstacle the teenager, whose trailblazing tactics had the rest of the field cooked, sensed the danger and, under pressure, asked his mount for a flyer. Instead, Baby Run put down, hit the birch, and the partnership ended. Young Willie, son of the horse's trainer, Nigel, and brother of last year's winning rider, Sam, walked off the course in tears, inconsolable.
"I'm sorry for the boy," said O'Connor, who had won another amateurs' contest on Wednesday, "but that's racing; it can be hard, he'll learn from it."
Zemsky, who is owned by one of the day's sponsors, potato man Ronnie Bartlett, and spent part of his youth in Nicky Henderson's yard before his deficiencies at higher levels were revealed, is trained by Ian Ferguson at Cullybackey in Co Antrim, where the hunting country includes walls, ditches and wire. "These fences here were easy for him," grinned Ferguson.
For 28-year-old O'Connor, the week proved an epiphany. "I'd never really thought Cheltenham was the be-all and end-all," he said, "but now I've been here in the winner's circle, I realise that it is."