After Hardy Eustace had galloped his rivals senseless to win the Champion Hurdle by five lengths, Prestbury Park experienced a type of raw emotion which was quite unprecedented.
It centred on the late Kieran Kelly. A year earlier his boyish smile had lit up the Cotswolds, after he had guided Hardy Eustace to success in the SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle.
Within a short few months, Kelly had lost his young life, following a fall at Kilbeggan. Hardy Eustace returned to Cheltenham, but, tragically, without his regular partner.
Dessie Hughes’ charge went their largely unheralded, on the back of a scrambling short head victory at Gowran Park previously.
He was a 33-1 shot, which essentially represented his prospects, and only a super optimist could have made a solid case for him.
But the truth, as is so often the case, proved stranger than fiction. Hardy Eustace bounced off in front for Conor O’Dwyer, enjoyed himself thoroughly and bounded away from hot favourite, Rooster Booster, from the last.
Of course it was a wonderfully joyous occasion, but the sense of sadness too was almost overwhelming. O’Dwyer cried openly, Hughes and his son, Richard, in particular, were visibly upset, as was Hardy Eustace’s owner, Lar Byrne.
Indeed, all round Cheltenham that afternoon the thoughts of thousands quickly turned to Kieran Kelly and what might have been. It was aching, gut-wrenching.
Hardy Eustace is back on the Champion Hurdle trail again. And if he wins again, this time it will be far more enjoyable for all concerned.
It’s not that Kelly has been forgotten, far from it. But time is a great healer and the emotional wounds are no longer gaping.
Yesterday morning, Dessie Hughes opened his yard to the press, as he begins to put the final touches to Hardy Eustace’s Cheltenham preparations.
Mind you there was little he could do with Hardy Eustace, with the Hughes Curragh base covered in snow.
Hughes had a tremendous record as a jockey at Cheltenham, taking the Gold Cup in ’77 on Davy Lad and the Champion Hurdle aboard Monksfield two years later.
In all he won eight races at the Festival, seven of them for Mick O’Toole, on the likes of Mac’s Chariot, Parkhill, Bit Of A Jig and Chinrullah.
The last named took the Queen Mother two mile Champion Chase in 1980, but lost the race on a technicality subsequently, thus depriving Hughes of success in the three biggest races at Cheltenham.
His record as a trainer is far less impressive. Two years after he started out, in 1982, he saddled Miller Hill (Tom Morgan) to land the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Then followed many barren years, until Hardy Eustace did the business in the SunAlliance in 2003.
“We went through the mill here for a long time”, admitted Hughes. “We didn’t have many runners at Cheltenham, we just didn’t have horses that were good enough.”
Mighty Hardy Eustace changed all that and Hughes is now eagerly seeking a repeat. “He’s a special horse, the best I have ever had”, smiled Hughes.
“He’s not over-big and is a very kind horse. He has heart, a lot of stamina and gives of his best.”
He fondly recalls how he came by Hardy Eustace. “I’d seen the horse at the stud where he was and liked him. I waited for the Landrover sale and bought him for 22,000 punts.”
Questioned about likely tactics in the Champion Hurdle, he doesn’t duck the issue. “All we want is reasonable ground and a good gallop. If they don’t go quick he will make it. He has to have a good gallop.
“I can’t be confident about winning again. What I can say is I am happy with him and that he is a better horse than last year. He is a natural athlete, so relaxed and blinkers are a big help, if he has to make the running”
He again nominated Rooster Booster as the main worry. “I don’t see the race as an Irish monopoly at all, Rooster Booster has done it before.
“Noel’s (Meade) horse (Harchibald) is a bit of an unknown. He’s swerved the trials, but has looked very good.
“It is a lot different for us this year. Last year winning was only a dream, now we have a hell of a chance. There’s far more pressure.”
He makes no secret that the entire campaign has been built round the possibility of one more glorious afternoon at Cheltenham.
“We’ve prepared him exclusively for this. To get a horse to Cheltenham 100% you can’t have him 100% in December.
“We know he will be vulnerable to something with a turn of foot, but you have to stay up that hill.”
There are no immediate plans to send Hardy Eustace over fences. “If he wins the Champion Hurdle again then he will definitely remain over hurdles,” said Hughes.
He believes there are real similarities between the great Monksfield and Hardy Eustace. “When I won on Monksfield, I had made my mind up to make it.
“There were no doubts about his stamina. Sea Pigeon joined me at the last, but I had a bit left. It was a good race. Hardy Eustace is the same type as him, basically they are two and a half mile horses.”
Can Dessie Hughes enter the number one berth for a third time after the Champion Hurdle? If he does then Kieran Kelly will surely have the broadest smile of all.