Two jockeys, both nearer the end of their career than the start, served up a classic and it was Noel Fehily on Unowhatimeanharry who just got the better of Ruby Walsh on Nichols Canyon.
It was the sixth time this week that Walsh had finished second, a run of ill-fortune that would test the patience of a saint even if he did finally get a first winner of the week via Asthuria in yesterday’s penultimate race.
For Fehily, it was the latest highlight in a season that had produced a host of unforgettable memories. The Cheltenham Festival was a delight. On day one, Fehily won the Champion Hurdle on Buveur D’Air.
On day two, he won the Champion Chase on Special Tiara. The one fly in the ointment was Unowhatimeanharry, a disappointing third to Nichols Canyon when sent off the 10/11 favourite in the Stayers’ Hurdle on day three. They made amends yesterday. Not that it was straight-forward.
“I thought we went very, very slow,” Fehily, originally from Dunmanway in west Cork, said. “Everything – plan A, plan B, and plan C – went out the window because the last thing I wanted was to be in front two out.”
But in front was exactly where he did find himself. To make matters worse, the horse in his slipstream was Nichols Canyon. A battle royal ensued. Unowhatimeanharry shaded it.
“When you have Ruby Walsh wearing you down you know you’re in trouble but I had a real tough horse under me, he didn’t give up. He has the heart of a lion,” Fehily said.
“He’s a great horse, and fair play to Harry Fry and (his wife) Ciara, what a job they’ve done getting this fella back. He had a hard race at Cheltenham, it didn’t work out for him that day but he’s got his just reward today.”
Hailing his jockey’s efforts on Unowhatimeanharry, British trainer Fry added: “Noel was brilliant on him. He knew just when to press the button and kept enough up his sleeve to fight them off. We saw two absolutely top-class jockeys that were at their very best and two brilliant horses as well. It was a fantastic finish.”
It’s five years since Fehily steered Rock On Ruby, officially trained by Paul Nicholls, but the responsibility of his then assistant Fry to victory in the Champion Hurdle. A lot of water has travelled under the bridge in the interim but Fry and Fehily remain a partnership to be feared.
As if to emphasise the point, they combined 40 minutes later as Minella Awards weaved his way through to win the Shamrock Enterprises Handicap Hurdle.
Afterwards, Fry spoke candidly about what makes his 41-year-old jockey so good.
“He’s top-class. There’s very few better than him in the weigh-room, if any, and with the right ammunition he’s proven it. He’s a great judge of pace, it doesn’t matter where he’s coming from.
"He won’t like me for saying it but his younger days are behind him but that brings all the experience and he’s just been a huge part of what we’ve done to date. We wouldn’t have achieved any of it without his input. I’m delighted for him.”
While Fehily was the star of the show, the race to be Ireland’s champion trainer continues to fascinate. The neck that separated Unowhatimeanharry and Nichols Canyon in the feature race cost Willie Mullins €100,000 but he did pick up €75,000 courtesy of the runner-up and third-placed Footpad.
Gordon Elliott, who came into yesterday €276,780 clear of Mullins, picked up €17,500 via De Plotting Shed in fourth and Jury Duty in sixth.
For Mullins, it was a case of déjà vu after he was narrowly denied in the Punchestown Gold Cup with Djakadam on Wednesday. “We are just not getting the rub of the green, I suppose,” Mullins reflected.
Fortunately, his luck was soon to turn as the exciting Great Field made all to win Ryanair Novice Chase to provide jockey Jody McGarvey with a first Grade One success. With Listen Dear taking fourth, that race provided €74,750 to the Mullins pot.
Ball D’Arc finishing third earned Elliott €11,500 but this round was won decisively by his rival. “I’m not looking at the gap,” Mullins claimed in the aftermath. “I’m trying to just win races and have a good week, whatever the outcome of this thing is.”
Mullins maintained the momentum in the next, Asthuria leading home a Closutton 1-2-3. Another €23,125 for the pot.
“We’ve been hitting the crossbar, but one or two are starting to go in now so we’ll keep our fingers crossed,” Mullins said.
The day ended with Mullins €126,830 behind Elliott, €149,950 closer than he was at the start of day three. A significant slice in the deficit but Mullins fears that Apple’s Jade, a horse he lost to Elliott when he split with Gigginstown, might return to haunt him in tomorrow’s Mares Champion Hurdle.
“I’d say Apple’s Jade might put paid to that (his Championship aspirations), but we’ll keep going until it’s over.”