Cheltenham wins overshadowed by death of Our Conor

After two winners on opening day Mullins now favourite for trainers’ title

Jockey Barry Geraghty kisses the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy after winning on Jezki. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

A Champion Hurdle win and a record-breaking sixth successive victory by the Queen of Cheltenham Quevega should have been enough to send Irish fans home with the broadest smiles.

But the joy on yesterday’s opening day of the festival was tinged with sadness as rising star Our Conor was put down after a horrific fall.

Owner Barry Connell was philosophical. "The vets were very good I'd have to say. They were there for 20-25 minutes and they gave him every chance, and, at the end of the day, there was nothing could be done with him. Fortunately Danny [Mullins, the jockey] is 100 per cent and that's the main thing."

Noreen McManus, JP McManus and Dermot Desmond arrive at the track. Photograph: Dan Sheridan
Punters in the packed stand at Cheltenham yesterday. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Having paid a reputed €1 million for the horse after its sensational win at the festival last year, he made the gesture of pledging any prize-money this season to the Jockeys Emergency Fund, whose beneficiaries include JT McNamara – paralysed in a fall at this event last year. But there's no justice in racing, as the 52-year-old stockbroker discovered many times riding as an amateur.


Goes with territory
"Unfortunately this goes with the territory with racing. One minute you have a winner and another minute you can have one that's unfortunately died. We have another four or five runners this week, so hopefully we can get a winner and cheer everyone up."

The south Co Dublin resident also drew a blank with his festival "banker", Foxrock. His other chief hope, The Tullow Tank, was withdrawn ahead of the festival after trainer Philip Fenton was charged over possession of unlicensed medicines.

The horse's namesake – Leinster rugby player Sean O'Brien – was in the parade ring, lamenting his absence but understanding of Connell's principled stance.

A lesser regret of the day was Hurricane Fly's defeat in the Champion Hurdle; the 19 times Grade One winner couldn't crown his career in glory. Instead it was Jezki who took the spoils for Jessica Harrington and owner JP McManus.

The Limerick man, enjoying his 40th festival winner, also had perspective in mind. "I'm thinking of Johnny Harrington, " he said, referring to the trainer's husband. "He is recovering from illness and hopefully we'll have him here next year when we are defending. Our thoughts are also with the connections of Our Conor; it's very unfortunate."

Sympathy for McCoy
He had sympathy too for Tony McCoy, who rode runner-up My Tent or Yours in what could be his last season of big race riding. "I feel a bit sorry for AP. He had been riding Jezki all season, and he showed us how to ride him."

The man they call “The Sundance Kid” was said to have moved the market by a big wager on the runner-up, which also raced in his colours. McManus denied this. “I backed them both – each way.”

Among those congratulating McManus in the winner's enclosure were financier Dermot Desmond and former Fine Gael TD Michael Lowry.

The racing story of the day, however, was Quevega's sixth successive win in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle. Critics will say it's a Mickey Mouse race and can't be compared to Golden Miller's five Gold Cups. But Willie Mullins was having none of it.

“She’s got stamina, speed and everything. She’s just class,” oozed the champion trainer. “I’m so pleased for her and she has her own place in history now.”

Mullins said “veterinary advice was telling us to put her to stud” but he sought a second opinion and figured a way of racing her lightly so that she’d peak each March. And there was no talk of a happy retirement. “We might be greedy to try number seven next year; we’ll go home and have a drink and a think.”

With two winners on the opening day and a close second, Mullins is already a firm favourite for the festival trainers’ title . But, after the drama, he is taking nothing for granted. “I am happy now for the week,” he said after Quevega’s win. “I was disappointed with Hurricane Fly, but everything else from here on this week is a bonus.”

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column