Tragic end for bright hope Darlan
Ben Linfoot reflects on a tragic conclusion to the 32Red Hurdle Race at Doncaster as Nicky Henderson's Darlan suffered a fatal fall.
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What a cruel, cruel world it can be.
Nicky Henderson, who started the day at Doncaster with two potentially above-average winners, lost the most promising of them all as his leading Champion Hurdle hope Darlan suffered a fatal fall in what was supposed to be his final race before the Cheltenham Festival.
But in a merciless twist of fate, it was tragically to be his final race.
As Tony McCoy cruised up to the quarters of Rock On Ruby approaching the final flight, Darlan looked to have the world at his hooves. If you freeze-frame that moment and analyse the picture you could say this: Darlan travelled through the race like much the best horse. He looks like he's going to sweep aside Rock On Ruby. He's going to be a huge player in the Champion Hurdle. If AP thought he had plenty to prove, he's just about to go some way to proving it. Etc... etc...
I didn't watch Rock On Ruby cross the winning line in first, I'm guessing not many did. Strained necks were peering over at the last flight to see if Darlan would get up. He never did. The screens went up and you feared the worst. It was soon confirmed.
Earlier in the day Henderson was positively beaming as Utopie des Bordes and Minella Forfitness gave him an early double. As the low February sun shone down on Town Moor, he said: "This is what happens when you wait for the better ground with these horses."
Yet just over an hour later a tearful Henderson didn't have any answers. Just questions. "It's some game isn't it? Why is it always the good ones?"
This was meant to be a colour piece following what was to be an informative Champion Hurdle trial after the BHA excelled themselves by getting this fixture and in particularly, this race, on.
But Tony Hart would do well to bring to life this particular canvas. The feeling around the track quickly turned to doom and gloom and the atmosphere went flat to say the least. Funnily enough, very few people seemed to care for the last three races.
So, the gags have been scrapped and instead I'll move on to Rock On Ruby, who won the 32Red Hurdle Race and goes to the Cheltenham Festival to defend his crown with a '1' next to his name.
He probably wouldn't be doing if Darlan had skipped over the last flight but this was still a pleasing effort from Harry Fry's star who wouldn't be suited by a four-runner race on a flat track.
A creditable second to Darlan would probably have pleased Fry just as much who said: "He's had a good race and that will bring him on again for the day. He's jumped well enough, not as sharp as he can be, but there is improvement there so it's something to work on. We can take him home and put the finishing touches on him."
It's all about Cheltenham for Rock On Ruby and in that respect this was a pleasing run. He'll benefit from a faster pace and a stiffer test and, if we get it, better ground, although it rode Good, Good to Soft in places at Doncaster today.
Countrywide Flame got a clap from his connections as he entered the parade ring following the race but his Champion Hurdle aspirations are surely slipping away after his front-running exploits produced what proved to be only a fortuitous second to Rock On Ruby.
It should have been a very proud moment for Fry, as this was Rock On Ruby's first victory officially under his name. But, as he led his stable star into the winners' enclosure, he too was anxiously looking over at the screens surrounding the stricken Darlan.
"In terms of the race, we didn't want a scenario like that and commiserations to all of Nicky's team and AP [McCoy] and JP [McManus]," said Fry, unaware at that stage of the finality of Darlan's fate.
It's all there is to say really. So I'll leave it at that.