Noel Fehily gave the winner a grateful pat down the shoulder, but his sombre expression already disclosed some sense of the disaster that would gouge all joy from their success. Moments earlier, he had sent Rock On Ruby over the last flight with Tony McCoy and Darlan breathing down their necks. Now one of the sport's rising stars lay dead on the turf, his dignity being hastily preserved from horrified spectators by the erection of screens. McCoy was unharmed in the fall, but even this iron man was too upset to ride again yesterday. A race that had introduced incongruous lustre to a Monday at Doncaster instead renewed the bleakest challenge faced by those who tend and cherish any horse bred and raised for competition.
The margin between fulfilment and despair had been appallingly abrupt. Anxious to preserve Darlan from a buffeting headwind, McCoy had kept his mount in Rock On Ruby's slipstream until the final obstacle in the 32Red Hurdle. Though quietly squeezed along, Darlan still looked full of energy and seemed on the brink of announcing himself unequivocally as the leading British rival to Hurricane Fly in the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, five weeks today. After all, he was about to run down the defending champion. In a race laid on only because other Cheltenham trials had been lost to the weather, connections must have felt everything was working out perfectly.
And then Darlan took one of those falls that would not permit them even a split second of hope. He stepped at the hurdle and crashed on to his neck. The anguish of Nicky Henderson, his trainer, was transparent. "Some game, isn't it?" he said. "Why is it always the good ones?"
Even in such a powerful stable, Darlan will leave a bitter void for those who cared for him in all weathers; who had hoped that the fall he took a year ago, when again on the point of a breakthrough success at Newbury, would prove the limit of the distress he might ever cause them.
But some sympathy should also be reserved for Harry Fry, forced to place one of the most rewarding moments of his young career into harrowing perspective. Having supervised Rock On Ruby as an anonymous lieutenant to Paul Nicholls last year, this time round he is skilfully building the horse back to peak form in his own name.
But he made a suitable priority of commiserating with the connections of Darlan before acknowledging satisfaction with the way Rock On Ruby had progressed from his comeback run – not least because Fehily had felt his mount to be idling in front. "He'll come on again for today," Fry said. "We can take him home and put the finishing touches on him. He's a really tough horse. He joined Countrywide Flame turning in, and it's a long way home, but he'll keep galloping and keep finding all day. The whole season has been built around Cheltenham and we can go there full of confidence."
Countrywide Flame, also a Festival winner last year, set a good pace and rallied well to go down by three lengths. John Quinn, his trainer, feels he can return to spring ground at Cheltenham with "a sporting each-way chance".
Those who can already find it in their hearts to review the revised odds will find that Hurricane Fly is now as short as 13-8 with Stan James, followed by Grandouet 5-1, Zarkandar 6-1 and Rock On Ruby 7-1.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Riskier (4.20 Sedgefield)
Energetic type will relish this shorter trip after shaping well on his return.
Next best: Beckhani (3.00 Market Rasen)
Where the Money's Going: Arabella Boy is 6-1 from 8-1 with Hills for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham.
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