The engine wasn’t what it was, they said. At ten years old the spark that had once made him a champion was flickering only intermittently at best. The fire in his belly had gone out. There had been five runs since his last victory and when Paisley Park, a horse who once nearly died of colic, whipped round at the start of Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hurdle last Saturday and gave his four top-class rivals a start of some 15 lengths it seemed all over. Ruby Walsh, the greatest Cheltenham jockey of them all, was watching for ITV. Asked if he would now persevere on Paisley Park he replied: ‘No, you don’t. You just give up and come back to the parade ring. He’s going round now in a race he can’t possibly win.’
Among others Paisley Park faced the odds-on favourite Champ, renowned for his finish up the Cheltenham hill. But by eight hurdles from the finish, Aidan Coleman had slowly, patiently attached his mount to the other runners. Six out he was among the pack. At the second-last obstacle he was still fifth of five, looking held. But at the final hurdle horse and rider found new reserves to take the lead and up the hill he sprinted away from Champ to achieve his third victory in the race by more than three lengths. Roared home by a crowd who knew they were witnessing racing history, Paisley Park had achieved the impossible. Aidan Coleman’s modest and heartfelt post-race interview was a classic too: ‘The longevity of this horse. It’s a testament to his ability and his character. I’m not saying I did anything. He takes all the plaudits. I literally threw the buckle at him as we went to the first and said: “If you want to get into it you do it. I’m not doing anything. You’ve already annoyed me. You got yourself into this mess — you sort it out.”’
With the possible exception of Moeen Ali sweet-timing sixes in one-day cricket, I really don’t know why I ever bother watching any other sport because Paisley Park’s astonishing comeback victory occurred precisely one week after another race that nobody who saw it will ever forget: the showdown between those two champion two-mile chasers Energumene, trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins, and Shishkin, trained in England by Nicky Henderson. The contest had been massively hyped with recollections invited of the Ascot showdown on the Flat between Grundy and Bustino or the rivalry between those great chasers Arkle and Mill House. Gloriously the battle lived up to the billing with the result in doubt until the final 50 yards. In the lead the slick-jumping Energumene, in the hands of Paul Townend, appeared to be stretching Shishkin all the way but could never shake him off despite the breakneck pace. He still led over the last, but as Nico de Boinville asked Shishkin for everything in the final 150 yards, his mount responded with his trademark finishing kick and they went past their rival in the dying yards to win by a length. ‘We’re both flat to the boards,’ Townend had said to his rival halfway round and after the finishing post the Irish rider sportingly shook his conqueror’s hand in tribute to the great race they both had ridden.
What a contrast to those football crowds who start by jeering their rivals, then turn on their own side when they lose. The Ascot crowd dashed to applaud not just the winner but the second too in the parade ring and a small group in the stands began singing, to the Glastonbury tune once used to lionise Jeremy Corbyn: ‘There’s only one Nico de Boinville.’ Nico himself, a man who tolerates rather than encourages post-race interviews, said: ‘Even if I’d come second I’d still be saying it was the best race I’ve ever ridden in,’ and ITV’s Matt Chapman made the ultimate sacrifice of not talking himself but turning round his microphone so viewers could hear the crowd’s enthusiasm instead.
Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson had lunched together beforehand. Said Willie: ‘It looked as though we had him beaten everywhere except the last 100 yards,’ while Nicky noted: ‘The only sad part of it is that there had to be a loser.’ Both agreed that the next episode in what we all hope will be ‘Shishkin v. Energumene: The Series’ will be the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival next month. If the Bad Fairy tells me that this year I am allowed to attend only one of the four days of the Festival, it won’t be Gold Cup Day or Champion Hurdle Day but the Champion Chase Day when these two two-mile titans next clash. Meanwhile perhaps I should remind Nico de Boinville and Paul Townend that when Arkle and Mill House first met amid similar hype, their respective jockeys Pat Taaffe and Willie Robinson agreed that whenever the two horses met in future the winner would buy the loser a consolation present: as a result Taaffe paid for the airline tickets for the Robinsons’ honeymoon.
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