TOP owner JP McManus celebrated a “special day” after gaining his 40th Festival victory in the Stan James Champion Hurdle – but the race was marred by the death of the exciting Our Conor.
McManus, owner of Jonjo O’Neill’s stable in Temple Guiting, owned both the winner Jezki and runner-up My Tent Or Tours on a historic day for the sport as Quevega became the first horse to win the same race six years in a row.
However, there was also sadness after Our Conor, who won last year’s Triumph Hurdle in breathtaking fashion, was put down after falling early in the race.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ stable star The New One finished strongly under the Guiting Power trainer’s son Sam to take third place after being hampered by the fall of Our Conor, while Hurricane Fly was only fourth in his bid to win the race for a third time.
Jezki's victory for trainer Jessica Harrington and jockey Barry Geraghty meant that McManus is now the most successful owner in the history of the Champion Hurdle with five wins following three success for Istabraq (1998, 1999, 2000) and Binocular in 2010.
In his moment of joy, however, McManus’ thoughts turned to Harrington’s husband Johnny, who is ill, and the connections of Our Conor.
"Everyone who is at Cheltenham with us is thinking of Johnny, who will be at home watching this and we hope he'll be well enough to join us again here next year;" said McManus. "Our thoughts are also with the connections of Our Conor as well - it's very unfortunate.
"I am ecstatic about having the winner and the second. It means an awful lot to me. For me, the National Hunt season is centred around the Champion Hurdle because I didn't have many Gold Cup horses and I am unlikely to win the Grand National.
"It was all about the Champion Hurdle and it's just a very special day.”
Geraghty, who is now unbeaten in five races on Jezki after he won by a neck yesterday, was thrilled to ride another big Cheltenham winner following his long and successful association with her two-time Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Moscow Flyer.
He said that putting a hood on Jezki had helped him produce an improved performance following defeats by Hurricane Fly in top races in Ireland this season.
“He had good form and we didn't have an awful lot to find with the best of them,” he said. “I have been riding winners for Jessie since I was 17 or 18 and she has been great to me over the years.
“She has given me plenty of good horses like Moscow Flyer and it’s brilliant to be back here for her again. The Champion Hurdle is one of the races in the year that you want to win. I had a great run around. He ‘missed’ the third last, which was the only slight concern I had, but apart from that he was very good.
"He found plenty when I needed him to. The runner-up was getting to me and I needed the line!”
Harrington admitted that she didn’t see much of the closing stages of the race because she was jumping and down so much, hoping that Jezki would hold on.
She said the strong pace had suited him and, despite AP McCoy choosing to ride My Tent Or Yours, she had been hopeful that he would run well.
"He had little bits of excuses in defeat, but today it all came right and the fast pace definitely suited him,” shed. It's big to win any championship races here - I've won two Queen Mother Champion Chases, so now I want to put the Gold Cup on my CV, although it will be hard to do.
"Barry has ridden all bar two of my winners at the Festival so we have a good history together and he always seems to ride fantastically well for me.”
McCoy told My Tent Or Yours’ trainer Nicky Henderson that he had pulled too hard and he had done well to finish as close as he did.
Nigel Twiston-Davies said The New One had been “incredibly unlucky” to have been hampered, meaning he lost ground, and he planned to bring the six-year-old back for another crack at the Champion Hurdle next year.
"Sam is in bits but he has done nothing wrong,” he said. “For me the best thing he did was the phenomenal ride to put the horse back in the race without overreacting."
Willie Mullins said he was disappointed with the performance of Hurricane Fly, who faded in the closing stages under Ruby Walsh.
“I thought we were in good form coming into the race and the horses are running well so it's disappointing to be fourth,” he said.
"We'll go to Punchestown as normal, then review things. One disappointing run isn't the end of it."
In a statement, Cheltenham Racecourse officials said Our Conor had sustained a back injury and everything was done to save him.
However, after extensive treatment from vets the decision was taken to put him down.