For a few seconds after the runners had passed the post, Nicky Henderson stared blankly down at the muddy track, deaf to the excited conversations beginning all around him. Then he turned, looked expressively at Zaynar's stunned owners, and descended to the unsaddling enclosure.
Nobody had backed their horse, at 1-14, and every face seemed animated – either by an unexpected dividend, from an optimistic punt on Quwetwo, or simply by a sense of having witnessed something extraordinary. When they recognised Henderson, they respectfully assumed a countenance of due solemnity. But you could tell what they were thinking. Having brought their unbeaten champion to the banks of the Tweed, the English had been sent home, tae think again.
It had seemed a quaint project, beforehand, but hardly a menacing one. How pleasant, to watch the Smurfit Champion Hurdle favourite from the wrought-iron balcony of a Georgian grandstand, against a swaying backdrop of Border hill country. Only three other horses dared to take him on for the Morebattle Hurdle, and two were dismissed at 50-1 and 100-1. Victor Chandler, one of Zaynar's owners, had even sponsored the race.
But Henderson had watched the preceding races with some disquiet, noting the exhaustion infecting almost all the finishers. And then Quwetwo, harried by one of the outsiders, set off so fast that Barry Geraghty, having his first ride here, afterwards admitted Zaynar was struggling for air even in the back straight. Off the bridle on the turn, the favourite never looked like getting past his giant rival and there was still a length in it when they reached the end of what is, at the best of times, an exorbitantly long run-in.
Henderson found Graham Wylie, Quwetwo's owner, and shook his hand. Wylie apologised for his horse's unexpected success. "These things happen," Henderson replied. "But he's too big – it's not fair!"
Having been obliged to bring Binocular's season to a premature end the previous day, Henderson has had a vexing week with his top hurdlers. All things considered, he was bearing himself with commendable fortitude. "You'll probably be surprised to hear me say that I'm pleased I brought him here," he said. "If it had been off, I had decided he would go straight to Cheltenham and it turns out he needed that quite badly. He has a real good blow. They have set off to find him out, and they have. The winner's a great big horse who was ploughing a furrow.
"Ours is not the biggest, he's a slick mover, and he'd never experienced ground like that. It's obviously disappointing, we would have wanted to go to Cheltenham with his record intact, but this isn't March 16. We've just got to be grown-up about it. Kelso have done a great job getting this on, and I don't have any regrets about coming."
Henderson confirmed that Zaynar would be fitted with cheekpieces in the Champion, for the first time since he won the JCB Triumph Hurdle at last year's Festival. "That has always been the plan for when he went back to two miles," he said. "But they would have made absolutely no difference today."
The winner has no Festival entries but is going to make some chaser next season. Trained in Northumberland by Howard Johnson, he was the first winner of the day trained south of the border – but at least he had a local rider in Wilson Renwick.
The most remote racecourse in the land – a 670-mile round trip from Seven Barrows in Lambourn – is also among those closest to the hearts of its patrons, with a members' bar dignified by elaborate cornicing and an open fire. They were grateful for that facility yesterday, not least Micky Hammond, who has gamely persevered through the coldest winter in years with his knees exposed, as a charity challenge. The Middleham trainer was understandably alone in wearing shorts, but there were plenty of others drinking them. Henderson himself could probably have done with a malt or two, after the big race, but spends every February on the wagon. Thank goodness it's not a leap year.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Vintage (3.35 Lingfield) Has proved too keen over seven furlongs but drops back in trip on his return to a course where he has run consistently well off higher marks in the past.
Ginger Jack (4.10 Lingfield) Improved on his debut for Mark Johnston with a success at Kempton and two winners have already emerged from those in his wake that day.
One to watch
Full Of Joy (Jonjo O'Neill) was a decent bumper horse and has been given an indulgent education over hurdles, notably in qualifying for a handicap rating with a midfield finish behind Fahrisee at Hereford on Sunday.
Where the money's going
Solwhit is 7-2 favourite for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham next month with Ladbrokes, who pushed Zaynar out to 8-1 from 4-1 after his shock defeat at Kelso yesterday.Reuse content