In an incident-packed event, the Martin Pipe-trained Valiramix clipped the heels of future Galway Plate hero, Ansar, and had to be put down after breaking a leg.
The fact that Hors La Loi III won at odds of 10/1 was almost forgotten in the aftermath but it was a glorious day of redemption for jockey Dean Gallagher.
The Kildare native had travelled a long journey to reach this point. Having served his apprenticeship with Jim Bolger and shown a lot of promise when moving to England, his career was stalled by allegations of race-fixing and horse doping that were subsequently thrown out.
Arrested in January 1998 along with Leighton Aspell, Ray Cochrane, Jamie Osborne and Graham Bradley, he was suspended from riding until eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, 13 months later.
The pressure of fighting to prove his innocence while having his line of income completely cut off proved too much and he sought solace in drugs. A positive test for cocaine led to a six-month suspension but, on his return, Paul Green, a big-time owner in England and France, retained Gallagher’s services.
Green was repaid with a wonderfully cool ride that placed the horse and its connections on an elite list.
“I can remember everything about that particular day and will until the day I die,” says Gallagher. “It’s a jockey’s dream to ride at Cheltenham. To ride a winner is not something every jockey gets to do. To win one of the big races is something very special; you’re always known as the jockey who rode the Champion Hurdle winner.
“We were disappointed that foot and mouth stopped the festival in 2001 as we had the horse in terrific form and thought he was in with a proper shout, having been second the year before.
“James Fanshawe took over training him from Francois Doumen after that and he’d a difficult winter. Hors La Loi was difficult to train and it took James time to get to know him. He was a horse that carried condition and never impressed in the mornings. He was laidback unless he saw hurdles. But a selling plater would beat him on the gallops. So it was hard to gauge how he was going. James was pulling his hair out.
“He ran two or three times and was disappointing. I was coming back and telling James that he was blowing up, he wasn’t fit enough and he’d really have to get into him.
“The final run before Cheltenham was the Kingwell Hurdle in Wincanton in the middle of February, which he’d won two years previously. He won again and everything seemed to start to slot into place. From being downhearted at Christmas and thinking we’d no chance of even getting to the Champion Hurdle, we started to think that we might win it.”
Fanshawe trained predominantly on the flat but was assistant to Michael Stoute when Kribensis won the Champion Hurdle in 1990, and he trained Royal Gait to win the race two years later.
“He knows how to get a horse ready for the big day. There were no setbacks and we were full of hope. Then we started hearing that Istabraq might not be 100% and that filled me with more hope.
“The night before, you always run the race through your head of how you’d like it to go and eight out of 10 times it doesn’t work out but everything fell into place. It couldn’t have worked out any better for me.
“We got a good start and I gave him a bit of light over the first two or three hurdles. I sat handy in fourth or fifth on him. I knew he would stay so I wasn’t afraid to give him a kick in the belly coming down the hill. We were in front turning into the straight and I felt nothing would catch me because he was full of running.”
“It was a great feeling. For the general public, it was a little overshadowed by what happened to Istabraq and Valiramix. For me and the horse it was a great day though. You just can’t hear yourself coming into the winners’ enclosure.”
The photograph of Gallagher looking skyward with his arms out — long before Johnny Murtagh was at it — is still one of the iconic images from the festival, with the emotion on his face almost painfully visible.
“I just thanked God for giving me the opportunity,” he says.
And thanked Green, who had remained faithful to his man.
“He’s like my second father. He was loyal, supportive and he looked out for me. He stood by me in the bad times and this was payback.”
Gallagher, who retired in June 2009 having had a very successful sojourn in France with Doumen and Francois Cottin, had other good days at Cheltenham. He won the County Hurdle on Star Rage in 1996 and was second in the Gold Cup on Dubacilla the previous year. His thoughts on the Mecca of National Hunt are very insightful. “It’s a quirky track. It’s very hard to come from behind at Cheltenham, but at the same time, it’s hard to win from the front. So you’re in a Catch 22 situation. As a result, you have to be good at judging pace. Sometimes they go very fast. If you use your horse too much, you won’t get home. If you drop off too far you can get caught when they kick on going down the hill.
“You have to be there or thereabouts when going down the top of the hill into the third last; in the first half dozen or first 10 anyway. It’s also hard to ride on the inside there. You’re turning quite a bit so you get a lot of traffic there. A lot of the good jockeys try to be around the middle-to-inner because if you go wide, you’re losing too much ground.
“You need a horse with plenty of pace. But you have to be able to stay. To win a Champion Hurdle, you need one guaranteed to stay two and a half miles because they go flat out in that race. So you need speed and stamina and a horse that can jump. If they don’t jump, they don’t win.
“The hill is a big factor. You run down into the straight where you can get a bit of a blow into them. Then you start climbing, jump the last and there’s another climb. Apart from that, it’s the only place in the world, bar Liverpool, that you can’t hear yourself. There are crowds roaring on each side of you. It gets very claustrophobic. Horses can pull up underneath you because they are wondering what they are going into. It’s very demanding.”
For Gallagher, the three best jockeys around Prestbury Park are Robert Thornton, Ruby Walsh and Timmy Murphy, as all three are such brilliant judges of pace.
After his retirement from the saddle, Gallagher had a stint with Curragh trainer Eddie Harty. He rode a lot of work on Captain Cee Bee and rates the Champion Chase candidate highly, but concerns remain about his ability to travel, having had his problems at Aintree and Cheltenham. However, he has won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle so, if he has a trouble-free run, he certainly possesses the class.
Gallagher has been working in the flat world with Aidan O’Brien at Coolmore for the past 12 months and admits that he’s fitter than he has been for a long while as a result.
“I’m learning the ropes and in time I would like to train in France because that is where all my contacts are. Nobody in Ireland really knows me because I left Jim Bolger’s when I was a kid. I still do a bit of bloodstock work in France just to keep those contacts going but, right now, it’s great to be riding the best blue bloods in the world.”
Back to the Champion Hurdle, he has a big fancy for Peddlers Cross.
“People weren’t too impressed with him at Kelso but he could do no more than win and sometimes very good horses, when they’re running in below average races, can’t get the speed they need throughout a race.
“I think his stamina will be an asset. Having won there last year will help because you know he can jump downhill and uphill.
“That’s one of the question marks about Hurricane Fly, who has been winning on flat tracks. I rode against him in France and beat him and was beaten by him. I’m not saying he can’t handle Cheltenham but we don’t know. The races in Ireland aren’t run as fast as in Cheltenham either. At home they run on heavy ground and it’s a slow build up. In the Champion Hurdle, especially, once the tapes go up they’re going as fast as they can go.”
Whatever happens, Dean Gallagher will be watching with a smile on his face. He’s been there, and done that.