FOR so long it seemed the fairytale was on but in the last 100 yards Delta Work emerged as villain of the piece as he denied stablemate Tiger Roll the perfect swansong to a career that has provided so much joy and brilliance to so many people.
With the ground turning ever more testing throughout the day, the possibility of Tiger Roll bagging a sixth Cheltenham Festival success seemed remote. However, it was as if the diminutive 12-year-old sensed something was at hand as on ground he has a distinct dislike for, he gave his all and left everything out on the track one last time before being accorded the sort of reception that befits one of the most iconic National Hunt performers of recent times.
A 46-race career that concludes with two Grand National wins and five Festival triumphs to go with eight appearances in total at this meeting, ended in defeat but it was a defeat in name only. On his final visit to Cheltenham in March Tiger Roll had looked as though he would take all the beating given the conditions that prevailed on Tuesday.
What a difference a day makes though and he was actually supplanted as favourite by the Jack Kennedy-ridden Delta Work (5/2) over the course of the day. Throughout the race the Gigginstown House Stud-owned pair raced side by side, but there was a point on the final circuit where it looked as though Tiger Roll and Davy Russell had taken control at the head of the field.
One by one their rivals cracked but Delta Work, a multiple Grade 1 winner, could not be shaken off. He came to the last a couple of lengths down and on the run in he steadily reeled in Tiger Roll before edging past him in the past 100 yards to the very clear dismay of the crowd.
So the ending everybody craved wasn’t to be but Tiger Roll went out on a high and seldom will the scenes that followed this race be repeated as he entered the winner’s enclosure upsides Delta Work to receive the acclaim befitting this most charismatic of racehorses.
“Of course, I wanted the Tiger to win but once I’d won the race I didn’t mind as it was for Gigginstown who are massive supporters of us and the reception Tiger got when he came into the ring is what it’s all about,” said Elliott.
“He’s been the horse of a lifetime and I’m very lucky to have had him, he goes back to Michael O’Leary’s now. He’s been with us for nine years and to be honest I had a tear in my eye there. If he’d have won it would have been special but he ran his heart out and we’re absolutely delighted.
“The reaction from the crowd didn’t really surprise me to be honest and if he’d have won the cheer would have been unbelievable. He got the reaction he deserved and we’re very proud of him. He will be a big loss for the yard but he’ll only be at Gigginstown which is down the road, so they can go and see him whenever they want.
“The ground really suited Delta Work and it was a great performance from him, he’ll be back for this race for a few years. I’d say he’ll head for the Grand National now.”
Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3)
AFTER a series of near misses through the first day and a half Gordon Elliott got amongst the winners as Commander Of Fleet emerged from left field to spring a 50/1 shocker and provide promising claimer Shane Fitzgerald with the crowning moment of a memorable season.
There was a time when Commander Of Fleet looked destined for the top and he found only Minella Indo too good in the 2019 Albert Bartlett. Injury then struck and since then there have been flashes of his old class from the Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding, notably when he won a €100,000 handicap hurdle under Fitzgerald at Navan in December.
A rather mixed string of efforts followed from the eight-year-old but in a bizarrely exacting edition of this race Commander Of Fleet was well equipped for the task at hand and he tanked along towards the head of the field. The conditions meant that nothing was getting into the race from behind and, incredibly for a Coral Cup, there were only four possible winners from the second last.
At this stage the front-running Ashdale Bob was still in charge but Fastorslow and Commander Of Fleet closed in off the last bend. The winner missed the last but to his credit he gathered himself for another effort and somehow edged out Fastorslow in the bobbing finish with Ashdale Bob an honourable third. This victory was the latest in a string of big handicap triumphs for Fitzgerald who was adding this to wins in the Kerry National and a valuable handicap chase at the Dublin Racing Festival.
“The conditions suited him well on the day. The ground went against all of our other runners in the race but they suited Commander Of Fleet and he has always been a very good horse and Shane gets very good tune out of him,” remarked Elliott.
“If you look at his form this season it does seem that these big field handicaps bring out the best in him and it’s great to see him come back and win a race here as he was a very good horse as a novice hurdler. Michael and Eddie (O’Leary) have been amazing supporters of mine and to train a winner for them here this year is very special.”
Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup (Grade 3)
AFTER a 50/1 winner of the Coral Cup punters had to contend with another improbable outcome as 28/1 chance Global Citizen ended a winless spell of over two years to account for the well-backed favourite Andy Dufresne.
After a spell over hurdles which yielded some encouraging results Global Citizen was returning to fences for the first time since December 2020 and he was produced in rare order by Ben Pauling. Just like the Coral Cup, this was another race in which the pace held up very well as one felt that Global Citizen and Editeur Du Gite were doing a bit too much up front.
Turning for home though they remained in front and it was clear that they would take some catching as a hard ridden Andy Dufresne struggled to reel them in. The market leader fought hard and moved into second on the run in but he could never bridge the gap to the Kielan Woods-ridden winner who held on to score by three lengths.
“It doesn’t get better than having a Festival winner. We always kept faith in the horse when a lot of people had written him off, and he’s come back to himself,” observed Pauling.
“I thought at the top of the hill that he was running on fumes but he filled himself up again and went for home. It was a great ride from Kielan and we are moving to a new yard the week after Aintree so it’s great to go out on a Festival winner.”
SO at long last Willie Mullins claimed both the last championship race and Grade 1 at Cheltenham that had never fallen his way as Energumene held sway by some distance in the Champion Chase.
The meeting’s leading trainer hadn’t previously enjoyed much luck in this race with near misses mixed in with disappointments. One wondered whether the previously unbeaten Shishkin might thwart Mullins for another year just as he did at Ascot a couple of months ago.
However, the uncertain nature of racing was yet again in evidence as Shishkin ran no race at all while Energumene coasted home in splendid isolation. When the pair met at Ascot they served up one of those epic but all too rare clashes. Events on Wednesday once again emphasised just how fortunate racing is when the stars align to serve up a perfect clash because so often such head-to-heads don’t quite deliver and heavy rain falling on watered ground scuppered this particular match up.
This is not to strike a downbeat note though as Energumene has looked a spectacular talent since he was sent chasing, and one of the great regrets of last season was that he didn’t get to test his mettle in the Arkle. On his first trip to Prestbury Park the eight-year-old was nothing short of flawless and one suspects that an extended period of domination in this division could follow for a horse who rewarded Paul Townend’s lengthy, and ultimately correct, deliberations to side with him.
This was to be the centrepiece of another tremendous treble for Mullins at Cheltenham and surely the sky is the limit for both Sir Gerhard and Facile Vega who were both brilliant in their respective assignments at either end of the card.
Away from the day’s feature, Tiger Roll was foremost in everyone’s thoughts as this most remarkable of horses bowed out with a tremendous second in the cross country chase. For so long it looked as though he might pull off an amazing sixth Festival success but in the dying yards he was mugged by stable mate Delta Work.
Happily though this defeat did nothing to steal the limelight from Tiger Roll who was accorded a reception worthy of a horse who has enjoyed an extraordinary career and scaled so many peaks over the eight years that followed his Triumph Hurdle success in 2014.
“I’m sorry I’m actually upset,” declared a visibly moved Michael O’Leary as he reflected on Tiger Roll’s final racecourse appearance. The dual Grand National winner is not the best or most talented racehorse that O’Leary has owned or that Gordon Elliott has trained, but he is unique. Will we ever see his like again? Doubtful, and that in itself is testament to the most extraordinary of careers.
For a rejuvenated Delta Work, Aintree now beckons and this Grade 1 winner could well take over the Tiger Roll mantle at Aintree. Meanwhile, Elliott was also amongst the winner courtesy of a phoenix-like Commander Of Fleet who sprang a massive shock in the Coral Cup to provide claimer Shane Fitzgerald with the crowning moment of a tremendous season.
Highlight of the day
Energumene won as he liked and an extended period of domination in this division could occur, but mention cannot pass without reference to Tiger Roll’s valiant effort to go out on a high.