“Coming into the race you wouldn’t have thought he had much of a chance. He’d been pulled up in his previous race at Sandown, although he had won three races at Ascot earlier in the season.” Those races, like most he ran in, had small fields. But Cool Dawn did have Cheltenham form. Two years earlier he had finished second in the Foxhunter Chase at the Festival.
Then his owner, Dido Harding, was in the saddle. Robert Alner, the trainer of Cool Dawn had bought the horse for her as, she said, “a nice, safe ladies’ point-to-pointer that might one day win a hunter chase.” He proved to be far more than that.
Cool Dawn was a horse that loved to make the running. He was a 25/1 shot for the race, and Thornton thought he would be happy if the two could have a nice run round in the race. “We were up against some tough horses, and the likes of Strong Promise, Rough Quest and Doran’s Pride, their jockeys all probably thought they might get a soft lead from me. I knew that we needed a good start, because if Cool Dawn got headed he would lose interest.”
Those front running tactics had served the pairing well, as they won three small field handicaps at Ascot in the early part of the season. But things did not go to plan in Cool Dawn’s final race before the Gold Cup, the Agfa Diamond Chase at Sandown.
Thornton again set out to lead, but his horse had weakened into third place when Thornton pulled him up with half a mile to go.
A break of six weeks meant that at least Cool Dawn was fresh for Cheltenham. He did set off in front, with Adrian Maguire on Barton Bank keeping him company. The two pulled out a lead of half a dozen lengths or so, at which point Maguire called out, “I think we’re going quick enough.” Thornton took the view that his fellow jockey meant he couldn’t go any faster.
Robert Alner had not issued any riding instructions at all, so Thornton let the field come back to him at the end of the first circuit before kicking on down the hill towards the water jump. The plan was for Cool Dawn to fill his lungs going up the hill and push on going round the bend at the top of the hill. It worked a treat as he pinged the fourth last and then the third from home.
By then, Richard Dunwoody had brought Dorans Pride alongside to begin his challenge, but he got in deep at the fence, lost momentum and with it, three lengths on Cool Dawn. He would come again on the run in, and Thornton acknowledged that the Irish trained favourite would have had much more to say at the finish but for that mistake.
First though, Cool Dawn had Norman Williamson on board Strong Promise to deal with. Williamson had kept his horse in the pack until they were out on the second circuit. He crept closer from the top of the hill, and loomed up on Cool Dawn’s inside with two fences left to jump. The Gold Cup was only the second time Strong Promise had run over further than three miles, and whether he would stay the distance of the Gold Cup was open to question. Thornton was confident he wouldn’t, and although the two were level going over the final jump, Cool Dawn stayed on best up the hill to pull away and win by a length and three quarters from Strong Promise, with Dorans Pride a further head back in third.
A win at the Festival is always one to savour, and Thornton certainly recalls his Gold Cup success on Cool Dawn with pride. Not surprising really; in more than 20 years in the saddle has had ridden just three winners there. Cool Dawn was the last of them, all of 15 years ago.