Kennedy stars as reluctant hero Labaik turns over a new leaf
Gordon Elliott reckons it was the sound of a long whip that persuaded Labaik to start. An alternative explanation is the serial offender was roused by the famous roar that shook the Cheltenham grandstands. Whatever the cause, it worked. Labaik started beautifully. He finished even better.
This is a place where unlikely tales are told every year. This, at face value, was one of the most implausible.
The problem with Labaik is when a race begins he often does not. Having twice refused to race in December, the Gordon Elliott-trained six-year-old would have been banned from future competition had he not consented to compete at Naas last month. He did compete, albeit on a technicality, setting off long after his rivals and finishing 100 lengths behind the winner.
As festival preps go, that was not particularly auspicious. However, under 17-year-old sensation Jack Kennedy he behaved impeccably on his return to Britain – where he once planted himself at Lingfield, just as he had at Chantilly – and sprang a 25-1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle shock, beating long-time ante-post favourite Melon into second.
"I wanted to go to Naas on Sunday instead of here because of the embarrassment I would have felt if he hadn't jumped off. I'm glad the owners were keen to come, though. It's worked out brilliant. To win a Supreme he must have some engine."
Some engine and some talent. The latter comment would also apply to Kennedy, who made his festival debut 12 months ago, having in the past bunked off from school to watch on television.
"That was fairly good at the time but this is definitely a lot better," said Kennedy. "Words can't describe what it's like. It's a dream come true.
"The main worry was getting him to start, but everything went smoothly. He didn't even think about it. Once we got him going I knew we had a fair chance."
Yet had Keith Donoghue not announced on Monday he was halting his riding career because of weight issues, Kennedy would not have been in the saddle. Elliott, to his credit, was quick to make that point.
"Keith has done an awful lot of work with the horse and was supposed to ride him," said Elliott. "Big thanks have to go to him. Jack is going to have loads of days. This was meant to be Keith's day."
This has often been Willie Mullins' day, and this has often been his race, but he had to settle for second with Melon, who finished two and a quarter lengths behind Labaik but clear of third River Wylde and the fourth Ballyandy."He ran well and will probably go chasing next season," said Mullins, who trails Elliott in the Irish trainers' championship and trailed him here behind a horse Qatar Racing's Sheikh Fahad partnered to win a charity race at Leopardstown. The sheikh then tried to buy him from a syndicate led by Aidan O'Ryan. The owners wisely rejected the offer.
"It's unbelievable," said O'Ryan. "Even on his first run for us at Laytown he refused to race, although when we bought him from Shadwell we knew there was a health hazard. He's always had the ability if he jumped off – but that's a big if."
This time the Labaik camp were left with no 'what if' thoughts.
"You can use a long whip down at the start here, which you can't in Ireland," said Elliott. "I think when he heard it he just went.
"He hadn't jumped off in his previous three races. To jump off today makes up for them all. If he never jumps off again it doesn't matter."