Far from being Hamlet without the Prince, the climax of what is now the biggest race meeting of the year was won on Friday by racing royalty.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup went to the 4-1 favourite Kicking King, trained by Irishman Tom Taaffe, whose father Pat rode the Gold Cup winner four times (three of them on the peerless Arkle) and trained one too.

By the time Barry Geraghty had ridden through the throng into the winner's enclosure, everyone had forgotten Best Mate, the horse who until he was injured last week was on course to surpass Arkle and win the race four years running. The sporting gods are not that easily mocked.

Geraghty waved the Irish tricolour, and was greeted by cries of "Olay, olay, olay, olay" that perhaps have not been heard this loud since Jack Charlton was managing the Republic's football team.

But racing is primarily about self-interest rather than patriotism, and not every Irish heart was joyous. Ireland's other main challenger, Beef or Salmon, was in trouble from the start and was eventually pulled up in evident distress.

Celestial Gold, the hope of the formidable Martin Pipe stable, jumped badly throughout. And the fourth major fancy, Strong Flow, was beautifully positioned all race, just behind the leaders. Unfortunately, he was still there when the winner passed the post. This left little opposition, and Kicking King trounced what was left by five lengths.

All this suggests 2005 provided a less than vintage Gold Cup, which was what was gloomily predicted when Best Mate pulled out. But Kicking King is only a seven-year-old, which leaves scope for him to come back for the rest of the decade.

Earlier in the month, the horse was apparently under the weather after a work-out, and Taaffe said he would not run. Then the problem was declared less serious than previously thought and the horse was back in the race. Heaven knows how many people will be spending this morning at their council rubbish tips trying to find the fragments of betting slips they tore into tiny pieces a fortnight ago.

The result gave the Irish the meeting's big three races, following Hardy Eustace in the Champion Hurdle and Moscow Flyer in the two-mile Champion Chase, and their total of nine wins at the festival is a record. However, comparisons are now meaningless because this was the first four-day Cheltenham, which has dramatically changed all the rhythms of this extraordinary occasion.

There will clearly be no going back to the old three-day bonanza. Sporting authorities don't know the meaning of the phrase "too much of a good thing". Indeed, the speculation now is when the course will opt to play the joker and shift the Gold Cup to Saturday, like the Derby and Grand National.

Though these remain greater races than the Gold Cup, the meeting as a whole has become an end-of-winter ritual almost Scandinavian in its intensity. It was given added authenticity this year by the weather; there was snow on Cleeve Hill barely a week ago; yesterday there were women dressed as if for Ascot.

Those who treat Cheltenham as one long bender were definitely struggling on Friday. Kicking King defied experts who said he would fail to stay the final couple of furlongs. Some of those experts could not match him either constitutionally - judging by their drained expressions - or financially: the queues at the cash machines on Friday surpassed those for the ladies' toilets.

Though Friday's final day was technically a sell-out, the crowds on the earlier days were lower than usual and many regulars thought the atmosphere - especially on Wednesday, when the standard of racing dipped somewhat - was just a little bit subdued.

The touts were particularly aggrieved. Since the greatest objections to Cheltenham are the appalling crushes in the stands and the monstrous nature of the traffic jams, this was not wholly a bad thing.

And in racing, what matters is backing the winner, and there was nothing subdued about the roar at the end of the big race. For a moment, one had the unpleasant feeling that all the other 49,999 spectators present had got it right. And few people are likely to have been subdued in Taaffe country last night, as they toasted the memory of the late great Pat.

Tom announced after the race that everyone was invited to the piss-up. And there will have been a special place at the feast for his father's namesake and grandson, three-year-old Pat junior. Tom's wife Elaine gave birth to him the day Kicking King won his first race at Leopardstown in January 2002. His father said then: "We have found the new Pat Taaffe, we have just got to find the next Arkle."

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