Amidst a Cheltenham Festival where Sizing John sparkled and Buveur D’Air displayed his brilliance, it was a relatively unassuming bay mare who took home the award for the most spectacular winner of the week. For a horse who had run her opposition into the ground from the front in a pair of bumper successes before appearing the big stage, one could be forgiven for thinking that all was lost as Fayonagh half planted herself at the start, giving a start to the entire field.
Jamie Codd has long been one of the finest amateurs in the saddle, where others could have panicked, he sat still allowing her to get into a rhythm at the back of the field. In traditional bumper fashion, the early speed wasn’t frantic but that is a double edged sword. While it allowed Codd to get his mount tagged onto the other runners without having to use up too much energy, a more prominent position is always preferable in a contest that shapes to turn into a sprint.
As they turned down the hill into the final half mile, she had managed to pass one rival, but from that most famous of camera shots on the home turn, her nosebanded head poked up the inside for the first time to the far right. As with so many big fields, things were far from straightforward even from there, the gap closed, Codd having to switch round the entire field to get clear air. Once he did, the response from his mount was electric. After many years in racing, it’s easy to become apathetic towards the daily mundane, but this was special, this was the Cheltenham Festival at its very best.
Generations of fans brought to the sport by Arkle, Desert Orchid, Kauto Star. We dream of extra terrestrial beings, carrying all before them and while it’s always easy to wax lyrical posthumously, the sky was surely the limit for her. The way she kicked in an extra gear as they hit the rising ground could have been the precursor for new fans of the game. From last to first is the epitome of perfection for a nation who perennially cheers for the underdog. A look to the racegoers either side, to check that everyone saw the same thing, did this mare really come from that far back to win the most competitive bumper of the season? Superlatives rightfully rained down, quotes for a 2018 return dissected and absorbed with gusto, Fayonagh captured the imagination of the entire sport that afternoon.
Her reappearance on the track set pulses racing once more, her hurdling debut slick and simple, never looking in danger. Her fluidity over her obstacles more akin to those who have been competing at Grade 1 level for a long time. It’s rare to find a novice who jumps with such alacrity on their public debut in that arena, but then we were already suspected that despite it being just her sixth race, she was going to become the latest in the line of superstar Irish mares.
On Wednesday morning the terrible news emerged from Gordon Elliott’s yard, Fayonagh had broken a hind leg in a routine piece of work and had to be put down. While she had a long way to go to be held in the same public esteem that the likes of the more experienced Many Clouds, Vautour et al, what she had accomplished in such a short spell on the track was nothing short of incredible.
From the devastation of her rivals to that of her connections, the loss of Fayonagh will see the racing world in mourning for what could have been. We shall never know whether the promise would have been fulfilled, but those of us who count equine superstars as we fall into slumber rather than sheep, will have dreamt of her powering up the Cheltenham hill once more in 2018 and beyond. Thoughts are with all connected with the horse. RIP.