The 2012 Cheltenham Festival finished on a high, with more than 70,000 people filling Prestbury Park, many of them hoping for one last hurrah in the Gold Cup from the nation’s favourite steeplechaser, Kauto Star.
Having contested the lead with Midnight Chase in the early stages, the great horse showed signs of discomfort before halfway and was swiftly pulled up by Ruby Walsh to a spontaneous and emotional round of applause from the stands.
As Kauto Star made his lonely way back to be unsaddled, last year’s winner Long Run continued to stalk the leaders and jumped the last upsides The Giant Bolster, who had taken up the running after turning for home. Skewing his way over the final fence just behind them was Synchronised, who looked to have struggled to jump and travel for almost the entire race but was still staying on and found another gear at the death to propel him up that stiff hill for glory.
While it wasn’t the dream ending many had envisaged, the magic combination of AP McCoy in the saddle, Dawn Run’s former jockey Jonjo O’Neill as trainer, and those famous green-and-gold hooped silks of JP McManus, victory for the brave homebred son of Sadler’s Wells was suitable compensation and a result to savour.
Paying tribute to nine-year-old Synchronised, who can also boast victories in the Lexus Chase, Welsh National and Midlands National, McCoy said: “Like myself, he’s not a looker and you probably wouldn’t buy him in the sale ring but what he lacks in size and stature he makes up for in heart. He doesn’t look like a chaser but more than stature, class and physique, he is all heart and spirit that’s what you need more than anything. He’s a professional, has a great will to win and never knows when he’s beaten. He is always going to deliver for you.”
His victory was the second of the day for McCoy, who had come close to success the previous day when narrowly beaten on Albertas Run by Riverside Theatre in the Ryanair Chase, and one of three on the final day for JP McManus, who also saw Alderwood and Bellvano win on Friday, while Alfie Sherrin had got the meeting off to a great start for the owner when winning the JLT Specialty Handicap Chase on Tuesday.
Four winners at the Festival would delight most people but Nicky Henderson’s team did even better than that, gaining seven victories, with a record four in one day courtesy of Finian’s Rainbow (Queen Mother Champion Chase), Une Artiste (Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle), Simonsig (Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle) and Bobs Worth (RSA Chase). Their wins followed the opening day success of the outstanding Sprinter Sacre in the Racing Post Arkle Chase.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls may have felt short-changed with his two wins, but they were at least in championship races, with Rock On Ruby taking advantage of the below-par showing of Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle and sensational staying hurdler Big Buck’s setting Thursday alight with his record fourth victory in the World Hurdle.
Nicholls said: “This was the one race of the whole week that I wanted to win more than anything, for Big Buck’s, for Andy [Stewart] and for racing really. We’ve got to look after him now and hope he can keep on going.
“This was the target of the whole season, to win today, forget Aintree later on. He’s nine and Kauto’s 12. If he can keep going as long as him it would be fantastic. If we can keep him injury-free then there’s no reason why he can’t keep coming back.”
Another Cheltenham favourite who keeps coming back just in time for her moment in the Gloucestershire spotlight is Quevega. Her fourth consecutive win in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle lit up an otherwise disappointing Tuesday for Willie Mullins, who saw Hurricane Fly overturned in the Champion Hurdle and suffered the sadness of losing stable stalwart Scotsirish in the Cross-Coutry Chase, in which the former dual winner of the race, Garde Champetre, also sustained a fatal injury.
Various members of the Mullins dynasty were rarely far from the Cheltenham winner’s enclosure throughout the week, however, with Patrick Mullins winning the Champion Bumper for his father on Wednesday with Champagne Fever, Sir Des Champs also obliging for the trainer on Thursday, and Willie’s brother Thomas training his first Festival winner, Alderwood, on Friday.
Throughout the four days, the unique experience that is the Cheltenham Festival saw record numbers in attendance at Prestbury Park. Whatever problems racing is currently facing, a lack of popularity isn’t one of them.