Waley-Cohen and Long Run destroy field to seal golden glory

Six-year-old rises to challenge to deliver first victory for amateur rider since 1981. Paul Nicholls-trained pair Kauto Star and Denman outlasted by young pretender

The most eloquent measure of the horse is that he must be counted every bit as exceptional as the man on his back. From the cauldron of one of the great Cheltenham races, however, the ladle first poured a bittersweet human tale, of loss and resilience, waste and fulfilment. For the triumph of this patrician adventurer, Sam Waley-Cohen, transcended not just the privileges that had brought him Long Run, but also the essential triviality of all sport. It brought validity and dignity to the notion that people can answer life's most horrible challenges through something as inconsequential as a horse race.

Waley-Cohen's success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup was the first by an amateur rider since Jim Wilson rode Little Owl in 1981. Gratifying though it is, to find so dashing a hero outside the pages of 19th-century fiction, his quest had its deepest roots in the sort of tragedy that unites all walks of modern society. Seven years ago Waley-Cohen lost his brother, Thomas, to cancer. Ever since he has tried to live an extraordinary life, commensurate with two ordinary ones. His brother's initials are stitched into Waley-Cohen's saddle; his memory in every deed.

Waley-Cohen was wearing the chocolate and orange silks of his father, Robert, who is about to take over as chairman of this racecourse. He will wear them again at Aintree next month, when Oscar Time lines up as one of the favourites for the Grand National. He already has an outstanding record over the big fences there, but it is Long Run who has made him first among equals – even when testing himself against the epoch-making talents of Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy, in pursuit of the most coveted prize in all steeplechasing.

It is perfectly true, as Waley-Cohen himself often reiterates, that he could not hope to match such men, pound for pound, in a finish. But it is no less true that you will not hear a syllable of doubt among the professionals about his eligibility for a champion of this calibre. And his partnership with Long Run proved equal to a challenge that has hitherto eluded even a trainer as accomplished as Nicky Henderson, who was redressing one of the last omissions in his own CV.

Not even the punters quibble about him nowadays. At 28, he is so trusted that Long Run was sent off 7-2 favourite to depose three previous winners, despite meeting defeat in both his previous visits to this track. There was a growing possibility, after all, that both Kauto Star and Denman were over the brow of the hill, at the age of 11; while last year's winner, Imperial Commander, had managed only one appearance all season, back in November. Long Run, in contrast, will only have his sixth birthday next month. As such he was seeking to become the youngest Gold Cup-winner since 1963.

Having already intruded on Kauto Star's dominion at Kempton, denying him a fifth consecutive success in the King George VI Chase, Long Run and his intrepid partner now had to prove that they could achieve a similar rhythm over these unsettling undulations. There were times, during the race, that the man on top feared that they might not. "I didn't know whether I was coming or going at some of the fences," he admitted afterwards. "You go into them and throw everything at them, your heart, your soul, your guts. It was do-or-die at some of them – you'll be eating grass if you don't pick up. And it was a war out there. It might be a brotherly war, but there's no quarter given. And the horse fought so hard."

Sure enough, while his jumping was not without blemish, Long Run was comfortably holding a position just off the pace. It became a question of whether he had retained enough energy for the hill, and those asking that would be the ones who might regard him as a trespasser. If this was to be a changing of the guard, there would be nothing ceremonial about it: Kauto Star, always going much more sweetly than at Kempton, was sent into the lead by Walsh with a full circuit to go; and he would be joined, three out, by his old rival and companion, Denman. Imperial Commander had been on the premises at the previous fence, but he quickly dropped away after a mistake there and was subsequently found to have broken a blood vessel.

Waley-Cohen, dismayed to see both the Ditcheat veterans still tanking along, sent Long Run after them and they jumped the second last in a line. An exultant din began to swell from the grandstand. If Long Run was to apply for the position of champion, he would first have to get himself a couple of character witnesses.

Kauto Star was first to oblige, faltering as Long Run began to assert; and while Denman was hanging tough, his chance was extinguished when the leader flew the last. By the post, Long Run had opened up a margin of seven lengths, stopping the clock in a race record time. It was another four lengths back to Kauto Star, who just held What A Friend for third – the latter, excelling himself in blinkers, compounding the quite remarkable achievement of Paul Nicholls with Denman and Kauto Star.

Midnight Chase was next home, the early leader having run an honest race while soon outclassed; Tidal Bay was bearing down late, as usual, but too late, alongside Pandorama, who struggled in the absence of the forecast rain.

"Sam has given the horse a most wonderful ride," Henderson said. "It's not his day job, and nobody should under-estimate what an achievement that is. It wasn't a rough race, but it was tough. He had to be cool, and brave. He has worked very hard for this. Robert and his family have been with us for donkey's years, and I'm so pleased for them."

That was not the only reason for the tears in his eyes, however. Henderson has endured a very trying week, having been obliged to withdraw the reigning champion hurdler, Binocular, on the opening day after a steroid treatment – maddeningly, to treat an innocuous rash of spots on his neck – had failed to clear his system on schedule. He was vexed when the matter was brought up at the press conference, confining himself to asking whether or not he deserved congratulation for taking the precaution of an elective dope test.

His mood had not been helped by an exasperating series of near-misses over the first three days of the Festival, but he went home last night just one short of Fulke Walwyn's all-time record of 40 career winners here. Even so, Henderson will be the first to acknowledge that his role had been upstaged by that of what he called his "young bucks".

Like many French imports, Long Run has more miles on the clock than most indigenous horses of his age. But he retains every right to become no less of a standing dish round here than Kauto Star and Denman. Among his admirers was Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the proud owners of Long Run. "It's a hard thing to assess, on the day, because you get so caught up in the emotions of it all," the Manchester United manager said. "But I think they will look back on that as one of the greatest Gold Cups ever."

Here was a witness accustomed to dealing with young men who need to manage their privileges with humility as well as ambition, dignity as well as flair. In Waley-Cohen, he can offer them a most unlikely paradigm.

Gold Cup result

1. Long Run S Waley-Cohen  7-2f       

2. Denman S Thomas       8-1

3. Kauto Star R Walsh       5-1

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