Sizing John wins Cheltenham Gold Cup: 'Beginner's luck' for Jessica Harrington
One woman made headlines before the race, but it was another who celebrated victory in the 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
"Beginner's luck," joked Jessica Harrington, a distinguished trainer whose first runner in the famous race - 7-1 chance Sizing John - triumphed in a dramatic renewal.
Lizzie Kelly, the first female jockey for 33 years to ride in jump racing's showpiece contest, was unseated at the second of 22 fences aboard Tea For Two.
As the 23-year-old punched the ground in frustration, it was Harrington - more than three times her age - who watched the race unfold in her favour.
Under an accomplished ride from Robbie Power, seven-year-old Sizing John held off runner-up Minella Rocco by two and three quarter lengths, with Native River third and Djakadam fourth.
Popular steeplechaser Cue Card again fell at the third-last fence, just as he did 12 months ago.
'Jewel in the crown' for shocked Harrington
Harrington, 70, was in shock after the decision to step the horse up in trip earlier in the year paid rich dividends and capped a record-breaking week for Irish-trained horses.
"I have never had a runner in the race so to train the winner, I don't know when I am going to come back to earth," said the County Kildare-based trainer, wearing a cast on her left arm after a skiing accident.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet. I can't believe it is true. I am sitting here, I am about to wake up and it hasn't happened. This is the jewel in the crown. It is amazing to win the Gold Cup - this is the one I have always wanted to win."
Harrington was enjoying her 10th Festival triumph, with previous successes including the Queen Mother Champion Chase twice with Moscow Flyer, and Jezki in the Champion Hurdle three years ago.
|Sizing John - What's in a name?|
|Owner Alan Potts names his horses after the mining term 'sizing', which means to extract minerals by crushing. He invented a machine to do this and made millions from it.|
|Sizing John had been a runner-up seven times over two miles to Douvan, and Power suggested running the horse over further. He won the three-mile Irish Gold Cup and now the Cheltenham prize over three and a quarter.|
"I have not had a horse I have considered for the Gold Cup before - they have either been two-milers, handicappers or not good enough," said Harrington, a former Olympic eventing rider.
She paid tribute to Henry de Bromhead, who trained Sizing John before owners Alan and Ann Potts decided to move their entire stock - including Fellow Festival winner Supasundae - elsewhere last year.
"I feel very sorry. Henry de Bromhead did all the hard work, on both this horse and on Supasundae, and I only inherited them in September," said Harrington.
De Bromhead handled the Potts decision gracefully and had been asked earlier in the week how he would view victory for Sizing John.
"You'd be disappointed if a Gold Cup winner left your yard but I'd be delighted for the horse and his connections - and my wife and I who bought him. At least we'd have a Gold Cup winner," he said.
Power surges to victory
Winning jockey Power, himself a former show jumper, was celebrating 10 years after his Grand National win at Aintree on Silver Birch, but perhaps savoured this one even more.
He was sidelined for a couple of weeks at the end of January with a ruptured disc in his back and wore protective goggles until recently for an eye injury he sustained last year.
"The nicest words I ever heard were 'Gold Cup-winning jockey' announced on the podium. That sounded sweet," said Power, who was having his first ride in the Gold Cup and saluted Harrington as "a genius".
"When I won the Grand National I was 25 and thought I was going to win everything - now I am 35 and realise I am not going to win everything so to win a Gold Cup is fantastic."
|Key stats from the Gold Cup|
|Sizing John is the first horse to complete the Irish Gold Cup-Cheltenham Gold Cup double since Imperial Call in 1996.|
|Harrington is the third female trainer to win the Gold Cup after Jenny Pitman (Burrough Hill Lad 1984, Garrison Savannah 1991) and Henrietta Knight (Best Mate 2002-2004).|
|She is the most successful female trainer at the Festival with 11 wins.|
|Willie Mullins, five times the leading Festival trainer, is still to win the Gold Cup, with favourite Djakadam finishing fourth.|
Landmark treble for female jockeys
Victory for Bryony Frost in the Foxhunter Chase, immediately after the Gold Cup, marked another notable achievement for women in racing.
It is the first time all three races for amateur riders run at the Festival have gone to female jockeys, after Lisa O'Neill won the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase on Tiger Roll and Gina Andrews took the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase aboard Domesday Book.
Riding Pacha Du Polder, on whom former Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Victoria Pendleton finished fifth in last year's race, Frost beat Wonderful Charm (Katie Walsh) by a neck at odds of 16-1.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," said Frost after triumphing aboard the Paul Nicholls-trained runner.
Irish eyes are smiling
The week was dominated by the Irish, who claimed a record 19 victories from 28 races, surpassing last year's best of 15.
Gordon Elliott and Mullins had six winners apiece, but Elliott took his maiden leading trainer honour thanks to more second-place finishes.
"It is great to do. We are absolutely thrilled and it's unbelievable," said Elliott.
Ruby Walsh's historic four-timer for Mullins on Thursday ensured the Festival's all-time top rider was top jockey for the 11th time.
From the beginning on Tuesday - with Elliott's Laiback - to the end on Friday, the Irish were in the ascendancy.
Harrington's only caveat in giving post-Gold Cup interviews was to be free to watch her runner in the final race.
It was little wonder as Rock The World won the Grand Annual Chase for Power and Harrington on a day the duo ruled the racing world.