Glory is a wonderful thing in sport. In it’s purest form, an absolute rarity, but at Prestbury Park last Friday afternoon, it was freely available on tap for the 6m 29.5 secs it took Long Run to win the Cheltenham 2011 Gold Cup. And it was a privilege to be there.
Hollywood has dramatized the sport on occasion but who would have scripted Kauto Star turning for home, cruising at first, then going toe to toe with Denman his most remarkable friend and foe. These two eleven year olds quite literally rolled back the years, making a mockery of stats guides and for a moment, teased us into thinking the unthinkable. The ground was even against the giant Denman who had never been out of the first two on five previous Cheltenham visits.
Between the third and second final fences a guttural roar encompassed the stands as punters nervously and habitually glanced down towards their betting slips. But on this occasion, so few cared. Gambling is the hook for so many National Hunt enthusiasts but glory and honour had all of a sudden usurped everything else. This was all about two horses defying logic, both of whom had already reserved a place forever in our hearts.
Alas, within striking distance all the time was another superstar in the making, the precociously brilliant and heavily backed Long Run. No six year old had won the race since Mill House back in the sixties and Long Run’s only previous defeats had both been administered by this very same ruthless and undulating racecourse. But these are champion steeplechasers, simple hurdles are there to be knocked over.
As the upstart breathed down the necks of the two old warriors approaching the second last, time stood still. This was a split second when the picture froze, emotions all but suspended before the race catapulted forward in an explosive mesmeric fashion. The trio crashed over the fence in unison and somehow a delirious and largely inebriated Festival crowd managed to summon another herculean roar to drive the horses on yet again.
Though Kauto Star in particular would ultimately run out of steam up the testing finish, even at the last fence, everything was still up for grabs. The older horses had jumped perfectly throughout whereas Long Run had been patchy at two or three fences. One jump could decide all. It was fitting however that all three put in sensational final leaps before Long Run’s younger legs gradually yielded an advantage that would prove decisive.
The win, ultimately, was somewhat emphatic, but this hardly mattered, given the drama. A ding-dong three-way battle to the line may have added something even more potent to this heady occasion but there wasn’t a punter complaining within a mile of winning amateur jockey, Sam Waley Cohen. They had witnessed pure magic and they damn knew it. Kauto Star was weary, he has seen a few of these battles after all. And Denman, in the end, was probably defeated by the surface as much as the opponent.
The charge to the winners enclosure was a stampede of desire to bestow equine adulation by the stableload. The position of my front row seat didn’t allow me the luxury of seeing which of the trio was heading towards the ring but logic told me third placed Kauto Star loomed large. The cheers grew and perhaps for the last time, I thought to myself, this great champion would be able to lap up these famous Cheltenham cheers. I’d perhaps witnessed more raucous acknowledgement some years ago for the great Istabraq, but this reception was blended with an almighty respect for a performer as gutsy as he is classy. And remember, Kauto Star had only finished third. This magnificent animal headed straight for me, utterly unfazed by all around. It was an honour to witness the love and respect between connections and animal, the trainer Paul Nicholls in particular looked like he had won the lottery. In other sports, commentators talk about the difference between winning and losing but in this arena it mattered not.
Three cheers for Kauto Star. Hip, hip hooray.
We genuinely had three winners and Denman was the next to enter, dwarfing his rivals in stature but an absolute dead-heat with Kauto Star in terms of the noise and love for the horse. Each one afforded the same level of human respect. Denman bristled with life under a bucket of well-deserved water as he sensed that coming second doesn’t always have to be so bad after all. From Newbury to Cheltenham this horse has served up epic performances that warrant a place in the steeplechasing hall of fame alongside the likes of Arkle and Desert Orchid.
Three cheers for Denman. Hip, hip, hooray.
And then finally the champion. The new kid on the block, Long Run. It might have been appropriate had the cheers been yet louder than those before, but even Nicky Henderson, his trainer, would recognise Long Run still has some way to go to match their achievements. He will be back next year, barring injury of course, and by then will face another field of top young challengers, possibly including the likes of Diamond Harry, Weapons Amnesty, Burton Port and Time for Rupert. However, it will take something very special to prevent this French bred chaser from adding a second Gold Cup to his tally.
Three cheers for Long Run. Hip, hip, hooray.
But will Kauto Star and Denman come back to challenge and thrill one final time? I’d like to think not – this seemed a fitting way to go out on a high. It’s unlikely another year of aging will increase their likelihood of winning and this is how I’d prefer to remember them despite the obvious appeal of a repeat masterclass.
Whatever happens, I don’t think I ever want to miss another Cheltenham Gold Cup. Not this particular type of glory.