The ears had it here yesterday. Where horses are concerned, those organs of hearing are an almost infallible guide to mental attitude and physical demeanour and so it proved up this demanding climb to the finish. At the end of the opening Triumph Hurdle, two greys attacked the final hurdle as one, zipping low over the obstacle with bold do-or-die leaps and both apparently under maximum pressure.
Then, half-way up the run-in, came the sight that backers of the favourite Walkon, his trainer Alan King and his rider Choc Thornton did not want. At that point his own ears were pinned flat back as he reached deep into his athletic well, but those of his rival, Zaynar, began to prick and flick, a sure sign that their owner had time to take in his surroundings and was by no means at fullest stretch.
And sure enough, when Barry Geraghty demanded that he apply himself fully to the fight in hand, he willingly found enough reserves to surge ahead and prevail by a narrow, but cosy enough, three-quarters of a length. "He hasn't had that much experience," said Geraghty, "but I could feel he had a lot in the tank. He was only ever doing enough in front but when I went for maximum effort as the other one came at me, he knuckled down really well."
It was Zaynar's third win from as many outings over hurdles and at Geraghty's suggestion he ran with sheepskin cheekpieces applied to his bridle to help focus his still callow powers of concentration through the race. "He's always been a good jumper," said his trainer, Nicky Henderson, "and he stays very well, but he's still very much a baby. Barry, who's a real thinking jockey, suggested we help him. We just didn't know what he'd do when it came to a battle, but now we do. He's tough."
Zaynar, who is owned by a syndicate which includes the bookmaker Victor Chandler, adds to an impressive hurdling powerbase at Seven Barrows which includes this year's Champion Hurdle first and third. Chandler has backed his son of Daylami at 12-1 for next year's title. "We'd better not tell Punjabi and Binocular," added Henderson with a grin.
In the afternoon's other top-level contest for beginners, the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, the finish was almost an action replay. Weapon's Amnesty rose at the last a fraction ahead of Pride Of Dulcote, and the pair, with Davy Russell and Ruby Walsh in their respective saddles, set to another stirring duel.
Weapon's Amnesty, strongly driven, seemed in control, even if only just. Then in the last half-dozen strides came that tell-tale flick of an ear. "He wasn't doing a stroke in front, he was looking up at the crowd, and I was hoping Ruby would keep coming at me and his horse would help mine to the line."
The chestnut held on by half a length to give his Limerick-based trainer, Charles Byrnes, his maiden Festival victory after twice hitting the bar in the same race, with Liskennett last year and Powerstation in 2006.
Weapon's Amnesty runs in the colours of Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud, and was compensation for the absence of War Of Attrition from the Gold Cup. The Ryanair boss, who did not build up a business empire by lack of attention to detail, had an explanation for the mis-punctuation of his latest star's name. "We had it right when we sent it to Weatherbys [the sport's secretariat] to register," he said. "The Irish got the English right, but the English managed to get it wrong. But I wouldn't dare change it back now."
After Medermit, Karabak and Voy Por Ustedes, Walkon was the fourth runner-up of the week for King, all in Grade One contests, but good things come to those who wait. It was left to one of the Wiltshire yard's lesser lights, Oh Crick, to salvage some pride, which he did at the last available opportunity, the closing Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup. The six-year-old led over the last and, chased all the way by Moon Over Miami, held on by three-quarters of a length with Wayne Hutchinson's desperate body language implying that he would have leapt from the saddle and lifted the beast over the line if necessary.
"If that had got beat a short-head," said King, "you might just have heard the sound of a shot from behind the stands. I can't complain, because they've been running well; if they'd been tailed off I would have really had something to worry about. But second isn't first."
Festival statistics: The week's winners
Ruby Walsh 7 wins
Barry Geraghty 3
Paul Nicholls 5 wins
Willie Mullins 3
Nick Henderson 3
Venetia Williams 2
Nigel Twiston-Davies 2
BRITAIN V IRELAND
Britain 17 wins Ireland 9