Dawn Run on her way to that famous Gold Cup win 30 years ago
IT felt for all the world like Cheltenham had relocated to California at the very moment the San Andreas Fault went into violent spasm.
Thirty years ago this week, the land below the Cotswold hills trembled, convulsed by a freakish earthquake of emotion.
March 1986, Gold Cup Day, and a fearless, tenacious, heroic four-legged beast shifted forever National Hunt’s tectonic plates.
Dawn Run, trained by Paddy Mullins, sire of the incomparable Willie, galloped up the most sacred stretch of rising ground and into history’s embrace.
If you want to know what untrammeled, undiluted wonder sounds like, if you wish to taste the purest, most potent shot of delirium, then go to YouTube and click on the link to this racing rhapsody.
First, though, understand what was at stake. No horse had ever won both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup.
Dawn Run, having triumphed over the smaller obstacles in 1984, but with just three completed races over fences, was accompanied to Gloucestershire by a huge, yearning emerald cavalcade.
The tumult as she sought to bravely go where none before her had ventured was otherworldly.
Look at the pictures. Cheltenham is bursting at the seams, a dense and manic street of humanity, the Irish invasion vast, endless, crazed.
But now a couple of furlongs from home, after a furious gallop (the race would be run in record time), a cloud hung over the heroine.
As they hit the hill the eight-year-old is visibly weakening, Jonjo O’Neill hard at work in what seemed a losing battle. History was turning its back on the mare.
Dawn Run was leaking oil. Up top, O’Neill, the veteran former champion jockey from Castletownroche, County Cork, was a picture of flailing limbs.
Here we hand over to RTE’s increasingly animated radio commentator Des Scahill.
“Over the last, it’s Wayward Lad from Forgive and Forget, Dawn Run is battling back into it. But it’s Wayward Lad, holding Dawn Run and Forgive and Forget.”
As O’Neill switches the mare to the outside and impossibly she rallies, straining her neck toward the line, the shriek from the crowd is deafening as Scahill magnificently and eloquently loses himself in the delirium.
“They’re racing up toward the finish, DAWN RUN IS COMING WITH EVERY STRIDE, DAWN RUN IS GOING TO WIN THE GOLD CUP. DAWN RUN HAS WON IT IN THE LAST STRIDE.”
Now there is a quiver in Scahill’s voice, a facsimile of the unfolding elation below.
“And the crowd go wild as this most courageous mare, Dawn Run, has battled back from sure defeat…Jonjo O’Neill punches the air with absolute delight…
“A delirious crowd greets Jonjo O’Neill, John Joe now in the twilight of his career coming back to what must be his greatest ever triumph.
“All the way down in front of us the clenched left fist punches the air.”
The pictures are extraordinary, a moving portrait of magnificent bedlam, illustrative of the magical sense of occasion, the understanding that here, truly, was a moment for the ages.
Man and beast battle through the ecstatic throngs like a conquering Caesar returning to Rome in triumph. Jonjo’s joy, his sheer bliss, echoes effortlessly down the years.
All about him volcanoes of sound and beautiful fury erupt.
With a performance of bottomless courage, her refusal to bow, with a comeback that sent shivers cascading down the spine of anybody blessed to be in attendance, Dawn Run seized the title deeds of so many hearts.
From the very bowels of Prestbury Park came a cannonade, a boom of sound as a thunderstruck audience acclaimed its champion.
The going might have been officially modified to soft-to-marshy as horse and jockey returned to an ecstatically tearful serenade.
Nine months before Barry McGuigan had pulverised Eusebio Pedroza at a seething Loftus Road to claim the WBA featherweight belt. Weeks before that at The Crucible, a TV audience of 20m had watched Dennis Taylor break Steve Davis in the wee small hours.
Now this: A microphone is thrust in front of O’Neill. His smile is blinding, mid-summer sunlight.
“It speaks for itself really, the best moment of my racing life. She’s as game as a pebble,” he says, and as a replay of the race unfolds in front of him, he cannot contain his rapture.
“Go on you little beauty,” he giggles, as all about him the river of hysteria bursts its banks.
Approaching the last, with the horse apparently beaten, a young Willie Mullins had given up.
Mullins, who will celebrate the 30th anniversary by saddling the market leaders for this year’s renewal in Djakadam and Don Poli, recalls the madness in vivid technicolor.
“I watched her jump the last and said ‘she’s beat’ and I turned away.
“Next minute the whole place erupted with an Irish roar, but I had come down off the stand and couldn’t see and I said to someone ‘did she win” and they said ‘yes’.
“I actually didn’t see her cross the line until I saw the re-run later that night.”
Weeks later, Dawn Run, lay dead on the French turf, her neck broken in a fall. Her death would make the next day’s front pages.
Ireland had lost its four legged princess, the beautiful and brave mare that had made the Cotswold earth shudder.