For almost three miles, Kauto Star and Denman made Father Time kick his heels as they took the fight to the rest of the field in general and Long Run — a horse almost half their age — in particular.
It was stirring stuff but, in the end, the guard did change.
“I knew that beforehand,” said Paul Nicholls, the trainer of the two 11-year-old stablemates who, between them, have claimed three Gold Cups and generated a partisanship rarely seen before in racing circles.
“It was bound to be. Long Run had won the King George, he is six, he is the younger of the horses. It is a changing of the guard. We never doubted that but the two of them have acquitted themselves well.
“That was an awesome performance by Kauto, and by Denman to finish second to the new champion. They are 11 and Long Run was the best young horse in the race. He has years on them but they were awesome in defeat.”
Both gave performances that would serve as fitting exclamation points at the end of such exceptional careers but Nicholls was sufficiently invigorated by it all to suggest that they may run again at the festival next year.
Ruby Walsh, Kauto’s partner yesterday and so many times before, expressed the hope that his old friend — the only horse to win, lose and win the Gold Cup again — would make another appearance at Punchestown.
“He ran a cracker, jumped super and I was able to dictate my own pace,” said Walsh, “but when I went for overdrive off the bend, it just wasn’t there any more. He’s a wonderful horse, a horse I’ll never forget and he’s not finished yet.”
There was a similar tribute from Sam Thomas, who piloted Denman to second spot and who, for a while there, felt his mount could emulate his stablemate by regaining this most coveted of crowns.
“I knew I had Ruby beat coming down the hill. I thought Long Run was out of it. I knew he had missed the fence at the top of the hill but obviously I didn’t know where he was after that. I got him where I wanted to.
“I felt he picked up nicely. Like I said, I had Kauto beat but Long Run had a lot more in the tank than we did.
“It is unbelievable. I am privileged to have ridden and be associated with the horse. Every jockey deserves to have a horse like that in their career and it is a dream come true. It is something to look forward to riding on the big days.”
A win for either veteran would have been a fairytale but, perhaps, one no bigger than that which came to pass, with Sam Waley-Cohen riding a Gold Cup winner owned by his very own dad, Robert.
A dentist by trade, Waley-Cohen is the first amateur to claim the Gold Cup since Jim Wilson brought Little Owl home in 1981, while Long Run was the first six-year-old to triumph in almost 50 years.
A standout achievement whichever angle it is viewed from, then, and one made all the more dramatic given the stature of horse and jockey in whose company he found himself coming up the hill.