Four minutes of agony. Then ecstasy

AT CHELTENHAM, an awful lot gets condensed into an impossibly short period.

This was clearly illustrated by the range of emotions trainer Colm Murphy experienced in the four minutes or so it took Brave Inca to win the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle yesterday.

There was barely a speck of colour in his normally ruddy complexion as the 'Irish banker' made his way to the start.

Not ten minutes later he was being carried shoulder high into the winners' enclosure, a figure of adoration only a big race Irish winner can inspire in this most British of bastions.

His horse had to overcome the sustained and pressurised challenges of Mac's Joy and twice winner Hardy Eustace to secure this victory and Murphy can now reflect on a training feat of considerable proportions, having already guided him to an AIG Irish Champion Hurdle this season.

Flushed to the top of what is a prematurely bald pate for a 30-year-old, he radiated all those feelings which consumed him in the build-up to this, one of the peaks of the National Hunt year: joy, relief, exultation and an unbelievable sense of achievement.

The horse trained outside Ballycanew in Co. Wexford and owned by the by-now inappropriately named Novices' Syndicate came home the 7/4 favourite under a joyous Tony McCoy, whose uncharacteristic and sustained celebrations probably displayed as much, if not more relief than that of the trainer.

After 33 successive losing rides at the festival - and having also been unexpectedly caught on the line aboard Straw Bear by Ruby Walsh on Noland in the opener - this was one McCoy was never going to give up on.

"He's a bit lazy," he said, "but there's a big difference between being lazy and slow. He was dying to hang in behind them and I kept squeezing him alongside Conor. I got in a bit deep at the second last, but he pricked his ears going to it and I thought, 'you've loads left'. I love him."

And with good reason. Champion Hurdle victories don't come around often (McCoy's last was on Make A Stand in 1997) and there are those who will point to the jockey's influence as being the central factor in victory - not least of whom will be the trainer himself.

McCoy was brought in to ride Brave Inca after Barry Cash finished third on the horse in this race last year and immediately established a rapport with Brave Inca, winning the Emo Oil Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.

His efforts were noted by Murphy, who said after the race that "Tony was very strong on him - I'm sure the horse will lay down tonight."

However, Murphy was more than gracious in his praise of the unfortunate Cash, adding: "Replacing Barry with Tony McCoy wasn't a decision you'd want to make. Barry made this horse, he did all the schooling and we wouldn't be here today without him."

But his main praise was doled out in equal measure on both McCoy and Brave Inca. "Tony McCoy is as tough as old nails, just like this horse. As Ted Walsh said, the horse would have to be dead two days before he stopped battling and McCoy himself wouldn't stop riding even if he'd no arms or legs."

He also revealed that despite some pressure to take the horse over fences this year, he was never inclined to do so. "When I saw how he developed after a summer at grass, there was never any chance that he would be going chasing. I thought in my heart there was a Champion Hurdle in him. I think he's too good to go over fences now. Everything went to plan this year and when rivals like Harchibald and our own Feathard Lady dropped out, it all helped. Feathard lady is back in light work now, but there will be a lot of water under the bridge before next year's race so, please God, we will have both of them here then. He's a superstar and she's not so far behind."

Not far behind yesterday was Jessica Harrington's Macs Joy and the ever-gallant Hardy Eustace, whose attempt to join hurdling greats like Istabraq and See You Then by winning the race for the third time came up just short.

Macs Joy has finished behind Brave Inca so often that, as one observer remarked "it must be like going to school every day and have the same fella beat the crap out of you," but Harrington was delighted with her horse's performance.

"Barry (Geraghty) produced him superbly and did well to sit and wait for so long. I thought at the last that we might be able to win, but Brave Inca was always going to be difficult to pass," she said.

Equally magnanimous was Hardy Eustace's trainer Dessie Hughes, who admitted that his charge's stalled preparations this season may have contributed to his defeat.

"You'd have to say that he might have finished closer with better preparation, but I don't want to take anything away from the winner who was brilliant."

And so, Colm Murphy's three minutes and fifty one seconds of emotional moments eventually bore fruit and, even if the Irish had taken an initial battering in the ring courtesy of Sweet Wake's failure in the opener, redemption was at hand thanks to a very brave Brave Inca, an incorrigible Tony McCoy and a quietly spoken Wexford man.

A winning favourite for the Irish in a Festival showpiece then and reasonable hopes for the coming three days. Not a bad start at all.

My bet of the day

UNDENIABLE, an each-way bet in the Kim Muir at anywhere between 25-1 and 33-1.

He's ultra-consistent, always been placed and he's running off a light weight. Sue and Harvey Smith are excellent trainers and they have been eyeing up this race for a long time and have set him up for this race.

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