Dawn Run had already confirmed her place in the pantheon of great race horses as the Cheltenham Festival neared in 1986. The only horse to have ever won the English, Irish and French Champion Hurdle treble (in 1984), owner Charmian Hill had long set her sights on Cheltenham Gold Cup glory, with the chance for the Paddy Mullins trained horse to create history, and become the first winner of both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup. But there would be many hurdles to clear before Dawn Run's date with destiny on March 13, 1986.
Switching to steeplechasing in November, 1984, Dawn Run did win her first race at Navan, the ten length victory leading bookmakers to shorten her odds for the 1985 Gold Cup to 5/1. But Mullins was adamant that the mare would continue to build up some experience in novice races during the winter, and the Sun Alliance Chase at Cheltenham in March would be the goal for 1985. Yet these plans had to be shelved when ligament damage ruled out Dawn Run until December 1985, and doubts remained as to whether the 1986 Gold Cup hopes of Hill and Mullins were realistic.
Any questions were emphatically answered at Punchestown, as jockey Tony Mullins eased Dawn Run to an eight lengths victory, with the Times describing the race as "a totally exhilarating performance", adding that the horse was "the most exciting mare to grace the jumping scene since the war." A flurry of bets in Ireland reduced Dawn Run's Gold Cup odds from 8/1 to 5/1, and with another impressive win at Leopardstown over Buck House, preparations for Cheltenham appeared to running smoothly. But within a month, the calm had turned into a storm.
The sliding doors moment for Tony Mullins would in fact take place at Cheltenham on January 25. Despite never having raced in excess of two and a half miles over fences, Dawn Run was the overwhelming 4/9 favourite for the Holsten Distributors Chase, but a mistake at the 16th fence, an open ditch, saw Mullins unseated, and although the jockey remounted and finished way back in fourth, speculation immediately circulated that Hill was looking into the possibility of replacing Mullins with Jonjo O'Neill.
"This criticism really upsets me," Mullins protested. "I am happy with my riding and have no intention of changing." Unfortunately, Hill was not so sure. Just eleven days after the race, Hill contacted trainer Mullins to state that she was going to replace his son on Dawn Run with Jonjo O'Neill, reuniting the Champion Hurdle winning partnership of 1984. "Obviously I'm delighted, although I'm sorry for Tony," O'Neill said. "But we're all professionals and this sort of thing happens to us all. I just hope I can do the business on Dawn Run as I did before."
With very little time to go until Cheltenham, Mullins and O'Neill were desperate to get some practice in before the big day. A difficult schooling session at Gowran Park left O'Neill unimpressed, and doubtful of Dawn Run's chances in the Gold Cup. Fortunately a much improved run at Punchestown saw O'Neill ride over two miles alongside Tony Mullins on Lantern Lodge, and Paddy Mullins was cautiously optimistic, but stressed: "The situation at Cheltenham will be very different from this morning's fairly sedate spin."
As all this was going on, the other runners and riders were taking shape for the Gold Cup. A superb performance from Jenny Pittman's Burrough Hill Lad at the Gainsborough Chase in January saw the horse installed as the new favourite for Cheltenham, but an injury would later rule him out; Wayward Lad won the George VI Chase at Kempton Park for a third time, and was undoubtedly a threat; defending champion Forgive 'N' Forget was second favourite, and was tipped by David Phillips (Daily Mirror) and Michael Phillips (Times) on the day of the race, with Charles Benson (Daily Express) plumping for Run And Skip.
The biggest stick used to beat Dawn Run's hopes with was her inexperience, with Benson pointing out that she had only had four races over fences, and the class of the field would be telling. The Times' Michael Phillips was equally sceptical: "There is a nagging feeling that Dawn Run is not as good a chaser as she was a hurdler. I cannot escape the feeling that her inexperience, not of racing, but of chasing at this level will prove her undoing if not her downfall. It is not easy to curb an impetuous lady, as Tony Mullins found to his cost here in January and no one knew the mare better than he, not even John O'Neill, his replacement today."
Writing in his Daily Mirror column, O'Neill seemed confident, however. "I've ridden her twice in racecourse schooling sessions and she pleased me a lot at Punchestown last week. If she doesn't make mistakes she should win. Obviously I'll be discussing everything with Paddy Mullins this morning, but you don't organise Dawn Run. She does it for you and she likes to be up with the pace." Identifying Forgive 'N' Forget and Wayward Lad as his main threats, O'Neill appeared to be relishing the pre-race expectations of the whole of Ireland resting on his shoulders.
Setting off as the 15/8 favourite, O'Neill may have hoped that he could get Dawn Run round error free, but a mistake at the water jump and several other blemishes along the way meant that this was wishful thinking on the jockey's behalf. After a cracking duel on the first circuit with Run And Skip, a final error on the fourth from home looked to have rocked the hopes of the mare, with Wayward Lad and Forgive 'N' Forget looking strong.
O'Neill managed to push back into the lead just two from home, but a fine leap at the last from Wayward Lad left Dawn Run's Gold Cup chances in the balance. "At that stage I thought Dawn Run would be lucky to be placed," Hill later revealed, with O'Neill also admitting that he thought the race was up at this point.
With just 50 yards to go, Dawn Run was two lengths down on Wayward Lad, but the front runner started to tire. "She just would not be beaten," O'Neill declared, as gradually Dawn Run started to reel the leader in. "She's just too competitive for that, and when I got down to work on her, she knew it was all or nothing, and fought back."
"And the mare's beginning to get up," noted the incomparable Peter O'Sullevan, the noise levels increasing with each stride. With the finishing line nearing, Dawn Run edged in front, as an ecstatic O'Neill celebrated the history making moment on sealing the win. "The feeling as I passed the winning post on Dawn Run is indescribable. I just couldn't believe what had happened and my victory salute tells it all." Inexperienced Dawn Run may have been, but her stamina on that final climb to the line gave her the edge over Wayward Lad and Forgive 'N' Forget, in a record winning time.
Bedlam ensued as horse and jockey made their way to the winner's enclosure, with many of the post-war record Gold Cup crowd of 41,732 eager to pass on their congratulations. "Dawn Run was pressed up against the rail by the crush of people and I was sure that either her or a race goer would get hurt," O'Neill later stated. With the tempestuous nature of the mare, it was probably lucky that no one was injured. O'Neill somehow managed to get to the weighing room without losing all his possessions to souvenir hunters, and even the Queen Mother was in danger of being swept away in all the drama.
As the dust settled, O'Neill showed his class by lifting Tony Mullins on his shoulders, stating that his predecessor deserved to be involved in the celebrations on the day. For Paddy Mullins, it must have been a day of varying emotions; happiness at training a Gold Cup winner, but a slight tinge of regret that his son had not been on board Dawn Run.
In the immediate aftermath, Hill was understandably excited at the prospects of her star turn. "Dawn Run's chasing career is only just beginning. She must have at least two years ahead of her." Sadly things did not play out as Hill had hoped. A fall at the first fence at Aintree in the Whitbread Gold Label Cup was bad enough, but events in the summer of 1986 in France were truly tragic.
With Mullins back in the saddle, Dawn Run beat Buck House in an arranged race at Punchestown, before Hill turned her attentions to winning the French Champion Hurdle again, a move that many thought risky due to Dawn Run's long season. A defeat in the Prix la Barka to Le Rheusois saw Mullins approach his father to state that there was no chance of Dawn Run winning the forthcoming Champion Hurdle, but Hill would not be moved on the matter. Viewing Tony Mullins' outlook as too negative, Hill replaced him again, this time with French jockey Michel Chirol.
A missed stride on the fifth last fence of the French Champion Hurdle proved fatal on June 27, 1986. Dawn Run broke her neck on landing, and the news of her death shocked the horse racing world. The Mullins family were distraught, Tony in particular angry at what had happened. The Irish Times reported the news on their front page, such was the enormity of the tragedy. It was such a sad ending to what had been a triumphant year.
O'Neill himself would soon have his own battle to fight. Announcing his retirement in May 1986 and a move into training, a few months later O'Neill received the devastating news that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the lymph glands, and he immediately suspended his training activities to receive treatment. A man who had once fought back from breaking his leg in four places, O'Neill would eventually overcome cancer, and developed into a successful trainer, winning the Grand National and Gold Cup.
A statue of Dawn Run and Jonjo O'Neill fittingly resides at Cheltenham, and the man himself remains indebted with regards to the partnership. "She gave me my greatest day ever as a jockey. She was a funny old thing, but it was a great honour to be associated with her." It's little wonder that her achievements were celebrated so much at the time, and that her place in horse racing history is guaranteed. "Dawn Run is the only horse to have won the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup," O'Neill said after their triumph together. "You can't beat that."