Those who crab the concept of the Stayers' Hurdle becoming a Festival centrepiece when the meeting expands to four days in 2005 would be on thin ice if the three-miler regularly unfolded as compellingly as yesterday's 31st edition, both in the build-up and execution. The contest featured the chalk-and-cheese running styles of the two genuine giants of the marathon scene and a fairytale was in the air but in the end the capricious brilliance of last year's winner, Baracouda, from France, was too much for the out-and-out grit and honesty of Ireland's folk hero Limestone Lad.
The Lad, having his 61st start and going for his 36th win, set out with Paul Carberry on board, as usual, to break the hearts of the opposition. He succeeded in all but two cases. Baracouda, trained by François Doumen for J P McManus, is a horse of massive talent but one with an individual attitude. His rider Thierry, Doumen fils, is oft criticised on his forays to Britain for his lack of tactical vision – on this horse's two prep runs at Ascot he all but got him beat on the first occasion and did so on the second – but there is more to race-riding than jockeyship and, on Baracouda, horsemanship matters.
Doumen put the gelding in front going to the last and persuaded him to do enough to hold the spirited challenge of the novice Iris's Gift by three-quarters of a length, with Limestone Lad five lengths back. It made him the first to win consecutive runnings of the youngest of the four senior championships since Galmoy 15 years ago.
"He always needs niggling to stay interested but the pace was so fast for the two laps that I needed to be at him just to stay in contact," Doumen said. "On the last bend I finally said to him 'come on, give me some help' and he at last picked up."
The first two days of the meeting were notable for the fact that every horse returned safely but that, unhappily, was not the case yesterday. Old California died instantly when he fell in the Triumph Hurdle and Comex Flyer broke his back in the County Hurdle. But most poignant was the loss of the marvellous veteran Dorans Pride, who shattered a hock in the Foxhunter Chase won by unbeaten six-year-old Kingscliff.
Dorans Pride, who had won three point-to-points at the age of 14 this year after returning from retirement, had his finest moments here – he won the Stayers' Hurdle in 1995 and was placed in two Gold Cups – and although his death rounded off a bad day for Michael Hourigan after Beef Or Salmon's Gold Cup fall, the Irish trainer kept it in perspective with the reminder that the old horse's former rider Shane Broderick is paralysed from the neck down after a fall.
"Being in a field did not suit Dorans, he was at the gate the whole time asking to come in and do things," he said. "We say in Ireland that death is always outside the door and perhaps it was fitting that it should happen here, where he gave us such great times. I'm not a hard man but when it comes down to it he was an animal, not a man, and if it could have got Shane back on his feet I'd have given him away a long time ago."
Of Beef Or Salmon, Hourigan added equally philosophically: "His fall was unfortunate, but he is a young horse and we have him for next year and life goes on."
This meeting is becoming something of a bogey for Tony McCoy, who opened his day by being touched off by a head on Well Chief in the Triumph Hurdle by Barry Geraghty on 20-1 shot Spectroscope, ended it in Cheltenham General with a collarbone broken from a fall from Golden Alpha in the Grand Annual Cup, and just one winner. Geraghty pipped Richard Johnson to the jockeys' title with his fifth success of the meeting on Spirit Leader in the finale, the County Hurdle.
La Landiere, under Johnson, brought up her seven-timer in the Cathcart Chase and in the process became the 10th winning favourite of the three days, a record. But despite their protestations, the bookies should not be regarded as casualties; they still leave Prestbury Park in top-of-the-range Mercs.
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