If, indeed, Thursday was the last time AP McCoy rode a winner at Cheltenham, his faithful certainly sent him off with their appreciation. The 20-time champion turned Uxizandre on high in the Ryanair, pumping at long ones and putting the rest of the field on their back foot from the beginning. A typical kettle-on-high ride for McCoy, who won his 31st race at the Festival. Ruby employs artistry in the saddle, McCoy simply employs.
Returning to the winners’ enclosure, McCoy smiled, tipped his hand to the crowd, pumped his fist, not emotionally but more deliberately. Perhaps, it’s too much to say that you could see the relief, the appreciation, the final goodbye in his eyes. Perhaps, not.
The crowd erupted, McCoy didn’t stand in his stirrups, didn’t wave his whip, he simply acknowledged the ones who have fanned his flame over two decades of dizzying heights and stratospheric accomplishments.
Records are made to be broken…not these. Bob Beamon jumped 29 feet. McCoy jumped out of the stadium.
“Three cheers for the champ…”
Afterward, McCoy was as humble as ever.
“He ran away with me the whole time. He literally ran away with me for a mile and a half,” McCoy said. “Joy, obviously really happy. I’m not going to miss riding until the end of the season when I pack up. For now, I’ve got another race and the chance of another go, so I’m not for a minute thinking about the future. Cheltenham is all about winning and you’ve got to keep your head down. I’m just enjoying my job, or what’s left of it.”
If they could have given him a fourth cheer (a fifth, a sixth…), they would have.
As one icon exits, others emerge. It’s sport. It’s life.
Warren Greatrex and Gavin Sheehan earned their first victories on National Hunt racing’s ultimate pantheon, winning the Ladbrokes World Hurdle with Cole Harden.
Greatrex had told anybody who wanted to listen that the frontrunner had a chance in the 3-mile stakes. Sheehan made sure of it, bowling along on the front end, jumping slickly and staying up on the hill.
Leading owner and ultimate punter, J.P. McManus congratulated Greatrex moments after the race, “Well, you didn’t keep it a secret. You told everybody.”
It was the first Cheltenham win for Greatrex and Sheehan.
“We always believed in this horse, he’s a proper one,” Greatrex said. “We’ve suddenly said, ‘We’re here.’ “
“That was amazing, what dreams are made of,” Sheehan said. “It’s definitely my dream.”
Greatrex’s wife, Tessa, weaved her way through the photographers in front of the trophy presentation and clicked off pictures with her phone.
“I’ve got to get a picture,” she said.
There will be plenty.
Her husband gave her a thumb’s up from the stage.
The Willie Mullins show continued Thursday when Vautour waltzed through the opening JLT Novices’ Chase. Mullins directs an arsenal of horses these days, the hardest part is keeping them away from each other, picking what sphere to play. They picked right again with Vautour, who pulled Walsh through the race and into the winner’s enclosure. Returning, the French-bred 6-year-old held his head high, a hand on either side of the bit and Walsh’s in between, he looked like he was going out to race, not coming back from the race.
Big plans? The biggest.
“Yeah, he’s that good,” Mullins said, when asked about the Cheltenham Gold Cup. “Definitely, we’re going down the Gold Cup route.”
Beyond the big guns of Mullins and McCoy and the new guns of Greatrex and Sheehan, Thursday belonged to jockey Andrew Tinkler and trainer Kim Bailey.
Tinkler puts his head down and goes to work at Nicky Henderson’s every day, he gave Call The Cops a flawless ride, finding the sweet spot in a muddled field, to land the Pertemps Final. Tinkler hadn’t won at Cheltenham since 2006.
“My first Festival winner was a long time ago,” Tinkler said. “You wait a long time between them but you don’t forget what it’s like, but it’s bugging you. Then you do and it all comes back to you.”
Longer away from the chalice, Bailey returned on the 20th anniversary of Master Oats winning the Gold Cup, winning the Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Plate with Darna. It was the first Cheltenham win since 1999 for Bailey, who has turned his career around in recent years.
“There’s no point in giving up on life,” Bailey said of the lean years. “You’re only here once and you’ve got to enjoy it.
One more day of Cheltenham to enjoy.