• Nicky Henderson lands sixth winner of Festival
• Sir Des Champs posts impressive win for Mullins
Just as this Cheltenham Festival seemed at risk of being engulfed by negative coverage relating to equine deaths and allegations of official incompetence, Riverside Theatre and his owner, James Nesbitt, arrived to cheer everyone up. Day three passed without any serious injuries to the participants and, half an hour before Big Buck’s won the World Hurdle, the crowd was electrified by a Ryanair Chase of sustained drama.
Riverside Theatre set off as favourite but seemed in trouble from the first fence. He often jumped poorly yet he kept on dourly and somehow found the strength to fight his way past two rivals on the run-in.
Few Festival winners can have shown such bravery or achieved victory when so much had obviously gone against them. Nesbitt, who first came to Cheltenham 21 years ago, long before he found fame in Cold Feet, showed an enthusiast’s understanding of what he had witnessed.
“I rarely am lost for words but it was extraordinary,” he said, surrounded by dozens of well-wishers and reporters in the winner’s enclosure.
“He just wasn’t travelling that well and I was very nervous and then to find the courage he showed and how Barry [Geraghty, the winning jockey] got that out of him. It was a hell of a battle. I’d never in a million years dream of it.
“Forget the Oscar. That’s it, I’ve done it all now.”
Nesbitt said he was sure the horse was beaten until he saw the trainer, next to him in the grandstand, starting to cry. “Nicky crying is a good sign. We’re all getting a bit emotional and I would cry at Little House on the Prairie, but Nicky’s worse. It’s a fantastic sport, this. It’s far too hard on itself. You’ve got tens of thousands of people here today, from all walks of life, enjoying it and racing needs to embrace that rather than be so laden with worry.
“The courage the horse showed, the ride that Barry gave him and the training performance that Nicky has given. Even to have a wee bit of that, it’s pasted into the album of my memory, I’m telling you.”
Henderson was enjoying his sixth success of an incredible week. He said he had always been convinced that the Ryanair was the right race for the horse but now feels that Riverside Theatre needs a longer distance and will consider running him in the Gold Cup next year.
“He couldn’t get into a comfort zone,” the trainer said, “he couldn’t get his rhythm, he couldn’t get anything going. He was just having to fight his way round. It was uncomfortable to watch, I should think it was uncomfortable to ride.
“The pace was, all the way, too frenetic for us. I was watching with Jimmy and Brian [Stewart-Brown, co-owner] and nothing looked like happening, it looked like doom and gloom but you can’t say enough about what sort of a ride Barry’s given him.”
Sir Des Champs, who won the Jewson Novice Chase that opened the card, also has next year’s Gold Cup as his long-term target. Indeed, his trainer, Willie Mullins, revealed he had that race in mind for him even before this week.
Asked to compare him with Florida Pearl, who he trained to win the King George VI Chase in 2001, Mullins said: “He’s right up there with him, one of the best I’ve had. Make no mistake, this is a racehorse.”
Sir Des Champs was winning at the Festival for the second time, having landed the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle last year. He is a best price 10-1 for the 2013 Gold Cup, while Riverside Theatre is not yet quoted.
The long-term aim is not yet clear for Peddlers Cross, the beaten favourite in the Jewson, but it will probably not be over fences. “We’ve given it a try and we’ll be going back over hurdles; he’s a happier horse over hurdles,” said his trainer, Donald McCain.
“Jason [Maguire, the jockey] said he’s neat and he’s grand but he’s just not as effective. As much as he tries, he’s just not the same horse over fences as over hurdles.” McCain added that he would not race the horse again this season.
Sunnyhillboy has next month’s Grand National as his target after winning the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase that closed the card. A well-supported favourite, he came four and a half lengths clear on the run-in, finishing strongly.
“I think he’ll handle it,” said his trainer, Jonjo O’Neill, when asked how Sunnyhillboy would respond to Aintree. “I don’t see any reason why he won’t but you don’t know until they’ve jumped the first couple. If he has a safe first round, I think he’ll run a big race.”
A 25-1 shot for the National, Sunnyhillboy may well end up as the mount of Tony McCoy, though Synchronised is another possible ride for him in the Aintree race, after he runs in Friday’s Gold Cup. He is reported to be “in great form” by O’Neill.
Malcolm Jefferson was overcome with emotion when trying to express the importance of a Festival success after landing the Pertemps Final with Cape Tribulation. “You get up every morning for it,” he said, his voice trembling. “We don’t have a lot of money to spend, so, when you get a good horse, you just hope that one day you’ll go to one of the big meetings and you can crack it, but it’s the hardest thing to do in the world. Everything has to go right.”
This was Jefferson’s third Festival success, 17 years after the second. “Go Informal was second in the Sun Alliance Hurdle [in 1996] but since then I may as well have stayed in Malton,” he said.
“We should have a north/south handicap for horses from the north, really. They want dropped a stone when they come anywhere down here because you go up 8lb or 9lb and you come down here, you’re a stone too heavy. You never, ever get a look-in.”
From his Devon base, David Pipe has found major handicaps more accessible and he entered the winner’s enclosure after the Byrne Group Plate with Salut Flo, which he had named as his best chance of the meeting at several Festival preview evenings. “He’s had tendon trouble and we’ve had to be patient with him and it’s paid off,” he said. “We knew he was ready for his comeback when he ran here in December. He was running a massive race when he made one blunder, three out, which put him out of it.”