For JP McManus, it was so nearly the perfect day at the Festival. The man who has seen his colours carried to victory here more often than any owner in the game added four more winners to his lifetime total on Wednesday and yet may still have left the track mulling over the one that got away. McManus has now won 64 races at the Festival but after the odds-on defeat of Defi Du Seuil in the feature event, the Queen Mother Champion Chase is still not among them.
But maybe that just adds to the story. McManus has been a constant thread in the Festival narrative for decades, most famously in his early days thanks to some legendary tilts at the betting ring. Huge gambles were landed, often at the expense of the late bookie Freddie Williams, one of the few layers in the ring willing to take McManus on, while the owner also owned a series of Grade One-winning champions, including Istabraq, who took three Champion Hurdles, and Baracouda, twice successful in the Stayers’ Hurdle. There were three winners for the green-and-gold in one afternoon in 2012, including Synchronised, his only winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Never before, though, has McManus had a day like Wednesday, which kicked off with the most dramatic success in his colours since Tony McCoy somehow dragged Wichita Lineman past the post on the opening day in 2009. Champ, a 4-1 chance for the RSA Chase, looked a lost cause between the last two fences and briefly hit 700-1 in-running before arriving with a storming run up the hill to win going away.
“It looked all over with Champ but Barry [Geraghty] gave him a great ride,” McManus said. “He kept him a bit wide. I think after falling here the previous day, he maybe thought to get a bit of light and let him do his own thing. It came good in the end and it was very exciting.” McManus makes fewer excursions to the betting ring these days. With a rumoured wealth of €2bn from currency trading, it might not have quite the same buzz. But Dame De Compagnie, the winner of the Coral Handicap Hurdle, was noticeably strong in the market in a race where the owner had five starters, and finished as if she could sense it to win by two-and-a-quarter lengths.
“I would just like to mention a friend of mine, Joe McKenna,” McManus said as he celebrated his 62nd Festival winner. “He’s not here today, he’s been here with me for the last 30-odd years but he is at home at the minute. Just to say, we are thinking of you, Joe, and we will have you back here next year.” Three races later, McManus’s lifetime total had reached 64, as Easysland saw off Tiger Roll, the dual Grand National winner, in the Cross Country Chase before Aramax squeezed home by a length in the Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
The odds on the McManus four-timer worked out at 1,019-1, even without the one that got away. The script for this year’s Champion Chase seemed to be pre-written as just five runners went to post, with Defi Du Seuil priced at 4-11 after Chacun Pour Soi, his main market rival, joined Altior on the sidelines earlier in the day. A first win for the owner in the one feature race to elude him thus far seemed all but guaranteed.
But there are no guarantees at the Festival and Defi Du Seuil was beaten a long way from home, after a lifeless display which Philip Hobbs, his trainer, was at a loss to explain. The only consolation, perhaps, is that after a grand total of 64 winners in green and gold at the biggest meeting of the year, it is good that McManus still has something to aim for.