Cheltenham: Dodging Bullets Strikes Target

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Sprinter Sacre turned right, veins bulging, blowing, beaten. Sire De Grugy walked straight, tired but typical, then he turned left. Dodging Bullets walked straight. Then stopped. 

At Cheltenham, you want to walk straight, like an arrow into the center, into the winner’s enclosure.

The crowd roared, nothing like they would have if Sprinter Sacre or Sire De Grugy had pulled off their reclamations, but they saluted the new champion.

The public changing of the guard occurred yet again at Cheltenham Wednesday as former champions Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy failed in the Queen Mother. Interrupted seasons, injuries, age, simple health issues, perhaps ground conditions played their parts in the derailment. The fragilities of the horse in full specter as Sprinter Sacre, invincible two years ago when he floated through two of the most magical miles ever seen on a racecourse, faded tamely in this year’s Queen Mother, a few loyal backers yelled, “Come on Sprinter,” as he tried to muster a whisper but couldn’t. A shell of himself. Sire De Grugy, tough and talented last year, finished fourth, nothing like the horse we saw last season, as jockey Jamie Moore implored early but found little. He was gallant, as always. The former is probably finished, the latter will return, and could rise again.

The winner, Dodging Bullets, deserved it. Tough horse. Trained to perfection. Looking back on it, he was the logical winner as the two former champions struggled in their built up to the big show. They were sent off as first and second choices, but that was based on heart rather than head.

The runner-up, Somersby, deserved it like a new mother deserves a nap. Making his seventh start at the Cheltenham Festival and fourth entry into the winner’s enclosure, he ran hard, staying on up the hill but unable to nab Dodging Bullets. Since 2009, Somersby has run in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the Arkle, the Ryanair and four Queen Mother Champion Chases. His connections, Mick Channon and Henrietta Knight greeted their loyal servant in the winner’s enclosure like parents greet a child, so close yet so far.

From the owners/trainers stand, there was an eruption as Dodging Bullets crossed the wire, a mass of people jumping, screaming, falling, yelling. No, it wasn’t his trainer Paul Nicholls. If you strained, you could see one smiling Italian in the middle. Frankie Dettori, the flat jockey bred a jump champion. Great game.

In a new move, brilliantly choreographed, the winner of the feature made one turn around the parade ring after they called, “horses away,” the crowd applauded, rising in sections, a racing fan’s accordion, as the big bay gelding strode past. Sprinter Sacre and Sire Du Grugy had gone home, Dodging Bullets was crowned the new champ.

In a dramatic ending to the cross-country race, two horses crashed through the inside wing, hitting Racing Post photographer Patrick McCann in the melee. McCann broke his leg. 

Tony McCoy blanked again, the pain of losing and time slipping away etched in every crevice of his sunken face. Two days to go, there is still time.