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Heartbreak at Cheltenham Festival as horse dies a week after leading jockey’s funeral procession

The favourite horse of an amateur jockey who died last month has tragically become the first to lose its life at Cheltenham Festival this year.

Highland Hunter was once ridden daily by 25-year-old Keagan Kirkby, who was killed in a fall while riding at a point-to-point event in Kent on 4 February.

At his funeral in Somerset last Tuesday, the 11-year-old grey led the coffin procession to the church where his funeral took place.

But on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday, double tragedy struck as the horse died while racing in The Ultima Handicap Steeple Chase at 2.50pm.

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Highland Hunter was the favourite horse of amateur jockey Keagan Kirkby, and led his funeral procession just last week (PHIL MINGO/PPAUK/Shutterstock)
Highland Hunter was the favourite horse of amateur jockey Keagan Kirkby, and led his funeral procession just last week (PHIL MINGO/PPAUK/Shutterstock)

Mr Kirkby worked for 14-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls, who kept the horse at his Ditcheat Stables in Somerset before selling it in October last year.

Before the festival, Mr Nicholls said Mr Kirkby’s death had left a “big hole in the team”.

He added: “It’s been tough from the day Keagan died but everyone has knuckled down and worked hard. Everyone is thinking of Keagan.

“I know Keagan will be up there watching us. He loved Cheltenham and anything to do with horses.”

At Mr Kirkby’s funeral, Mr Nicholls was among those who walked behind his coffin from the team’s yard to Ditcheat’s St Mary Magdalene Church.

Keagan Kirkby and girlfriend Emily Burge (Facebook)
Keagan Kirkby and girlfriend Emily Burge (Facebook)

Highland Hunter was said to have behaved impeccably as people wearing white and blue - the colours of his football team, Bristol Rovers - lined the streets.

During the service, Flo Willis, a head groom at his yard, said: “He’d do anything to help anyone at any time and he was a good listener. His relationship with Highland Hunter was very special, and despite violations on the gallops when the horse ran off with him, he was so proud of the horse.

“Keagan has taken a piece of our hearts with him and we’ll always miss and above all remember him.”

After being sold, Fergal O’Brien was appointed the horse’s trainer.

A spokesperson for the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) said Highland Hunter died after suffering a cardiovascular collapse when he pulled up before the penultimate fence.

Following news of Tuesday’s death, Mr O’Brien wrote on X:Not sure we’ll be tweeting again today after this. Absolutely devastated. Thanks for the messages we’re already receiving and those to come.”

The horse was one of two that died on the opening day of the festival after Ose Partir was killed in the Juvenile Handicap at 4.50pm. Nine horses have now died since 2020. One died last year - Malinello - after four the previous year.

James Given, BHA director of equine regulation, safety and welfare, said: “Everyone in the sport is devastated about the sad news regarding Highland Hunter and Ose Partir. Our thoughts go to everyone connected to the horses, as well as the family and friends of Keagan Kirkby, who loved the horse so dearly.”

Charity Animal Aid wrote on X: “The racing authorities, the breeders, the owners, the jockeys and the government are all equally culpable for putting horses into high-risk situations where their welfare and their lives endangered.”

It adds a tragic point to the start of the festival, which despite a soggy morning came alive with around 65,000 people in attendance.

The weather and concerns over a fall in crowds failed to dampen the mood as visitors from across the country lapped up the racing, food and drink at the biggest race meeting in UK and Ireland.

The festival runs for four days culminating with Gold Cup day on Friday.

This article was amended on 13 March 2024. A photo caption originally referred to Highland Hunter having suffered a fall, which was inaccurate.