Cheltenham Festival: Drama at the last on Henderson’s day of glory

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Finian’s Rainbow made Nicky Henderson’s afternoon perfectly complete following a Queen Mother Champion Chase in which it was almost impossible to encapsulate the drama.

A terrible fall by Wishfull Thinking at the final fence on the first circuit required the jump to be bypassed as jockey Richard Johnson and a photographer caught up in the melee were attended to by doctors.

While a flag was waved by an official to warn the jockeys, Barry Geraghty and Finian’s Rainbow (4-1) had to continue their battle with last year’s winner Sizing Europe (Andrew Lynch) while swerving around the obstacle.

And only in the final 50 yards did Henderson’s runner pass the 4-5 favourite to win by a length and a quarter.

It was both remarkable and relieving there were no serious injuries when Wishfull Thinking crashed through the fence and into rails on the other side, scattering cameramen and consequently spectators. Johnson was stood down for the rest of the day with a thigh injury but hopes to return today, while photographer Jean-Charles Briens was taken to hospital for stitches in a badly-cut lip.

Sizing Europe had found himself in front rather sooner than Lynch might have preferred and the two-mile championship quickly developed into a straight match between the two market leaders. Geraghty settled just off Sizing Europe throughout but began to edge closer at the penultimate fence, and the pair were involved in a barging match to avoid the last with Geraghty having to take the long way round before producing one final finishing burst.

The win, one of four on the day for the combination, saw Henderson become the most successful ever trainer at the Cheltenham Festival, four clear of Fulke Walwyn.

He will have a dilemma next season when he will have not only the king in Finian’s Rainbow but the heir apparent, Tuesday’s devastatingly impressive Arkle winner Sprinter Sacre.

“He [Finian’s Rainbow] has beaten the reigning champion and he really was back on song today,” said Henderson. “It was a pity they didn’t jump the last fence but it was a tremendous race between two very good two-mile chasers.”

Geraghty said: “He has really turned the corner since he was beaten at Ascot but that’s what Nicky Henderson does so well. He knows exactly how to get them right for the day that matters. The leader stretched me a little bit coming down the hill but I was able to get breathers into him before the final turn.

“Being forced round the last fence made no difference – it was a cracking race between two top-class horses.”

Lynch was given a six-day ban (28 March-2 April) for using the whip in the wrong place while Sizing Europe’s trainer Henry de Bromhead tried to remain sporting.

“We were eventually beaten fair and square, but things didn’t fall as you would like them through the race,” he said. “Andrew tried to hug the rail all the way like last year and it would have helped if the fence had been there to jump. We haven’t really discussed it but he just said ‘the last cost me the race’. I’m obviously disappointed not to win, but it didn’t happen today and he ran a blinder, he always does.”

Kauto Stone’s fall at the first was quickly overshadowed, while 2010 winner Big Zeb kept on for third but some 15 lengths behind.

Many wanted an explanation over the dolling off of the last fence but head of stewarding William Nunneley said: “I know there was some confusion about where the chevrons were and the reason they were on the inside was to protect Richard Johnson.

“You can’t have a man with the flag on the track as you are putting him in danger. I’m sure there are lessons to be learnt from this if needs be, but of paramount safety in a very short space of time was Richard Johnson and the medics treating him.”

Henderson’s spectacular four-timer for the afternoon was completed when Une Artiste ran out a 40-1 winner of the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.

The master of Seven Barrows had already claimed Grade One prizes with Champion Chase hero Finian’s Rainbow, RSA scorer Bobs Worth and Neptune winner Simonsig, becoming the most winning trainer in Festival history along the way.

Une Artiste’s victory was at a lesser level, but Jeremiah McGrath got a great tune out of the filly in the straight as she flew up the hill to score by a length and three-quarters.

Willie Mullins got his seventh victory in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham as son Patrick guided 16-1 shot Champagne Fever home.

Rebecca Curtis, meanwhile, saddled her first Festival winner as 5-1 favourite Teaforthree and JT McNamara took top honours in the Diamond Jubilee National Hunt Chase.

Son Of Flicka gave Donald McCain and Jason Maguire their second winner of the week with a fine performance in the Coral Cup. The pair struck with Cinders And Ashes in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Tuesday and this 16-1 chance had previous Festival form having finished a narrow second in last year’s Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle.