Highland Hunter: Horse dies at Cheltenham week after leading funeral cortege for Keagan Kirkby

Highland Hunter ridden by jockey Paddy Brennan (left) and Eklat De Rire ridden by jockey Eklat De Rire in action during the Ultima Handicap Chase on day one of the 2024 Cheltenham Festival
Highland Hunter (left) and jockey Paddy Brennan jump a fence during the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday - PA/Mike Egerton

Highland Hunter, the horse who led the cortege at the funeral of stable lad Keagan Kirkby this month, died on Tuesday after running in the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

The 11-year-old had been the favourite horse of Kirkby, who was killed after a fall during a point-to-point in Charing, Kent, last month.

Highland Hunter, who had recently won a valuable prize at Newbury, had been bowling along at the head of affairs, putting in some extravagant leaps under Paddy Brennan.

However, he weakened quickly after jumping the third-last, suffering what the British Horseracing Authority described as a “cardiovascular collapse” and was unable to be saved, despite the swift attention of racecourse veterinary staff.

Fergal O’Brien, Highland Hunter’s trainer, said he was “absolutely devastated”. “Thanks for the messages we’re already receiving and those to come,” he posted online.

He later said: “It’s obviously a tremendously sad day for the yard, especially for Scott [Sainsbury] and Sophie [Kelly] who looked after Highland Hunter. I suppose the only comfort we can take is that he is with Keagan now.”

A hearse carrying jockey, Keagan Kirkby makes its way to St Mary's Church, Ditcheat with his horse, Highland Hunter leading the way
Highland Hunter leads the way during the funeral procession for jockey Keagan Kirkby - PPAUK/Phil Mingo

A second horse, Ose Partir, also died on the Festival’s opening day after getting involved in a pile-up at the back of the field during the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.

The owners of the four-year-old gelding, Sean and Bernardine Mulryan, also owned the winner of the race, Lark In The Mornin.

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.

“Highland Hunter suffered a cardiovascular collapse after having pulled up before the second-last fence.

“Incidences of this in racing are very rare – approximately 0.03 per cent of runners. As is always the case, steps will be taken to look into what caused the incident, including a post-mortem being arranged for the horse.

“Ose Partir was put down after suffering a fractured leg, having being brought down as a result of the fall of another horse.

“Vets attended within seconds and assessed the horse, with the decision being made that the injury was of such a nature that the horse should be humanely put down.”

Highland Hunter had led the funeral cortege in Ditcheat, Somerset, on March 5, as hundreds of people lined the streets in the village to honour Kirkby, 25.

Paul Nicholls, who employed Kirkby, had trained Highland Hunter until the horse was moved to O’Brien’s yard this season.

Nicholls told the Racing Post after the funeral: “It was a sad day, but a reflection on what an amazing man he [Kirby] was. I said when I opened my speech, when any team loses a star player it leaves a big hole in that team. He was the ultimate star player and he’ll never be forgotten.

“It’s terribly sad, but he died enjoying what he loved in life.”

Highland Hunter had won three times from eight starts over hurdles, and three times from 12 chases. His first victory came in a Kelso hurdle race in 2018 when trained by Lucinda Russell. He later moved to Nicholls’s yard, before transferring to that of O’Brien. His most recent run had brought a poignant success at Newbury on March 2 as it came only weeks after Kirkby’s death, and days before he was to lead the cortege at the stable lad’s funeral.

Ose Partir’s death meant Tuesday was the joint-deadliest single day at the Festival in six years since March 16, 2018, when five horses died.

The two deaths also mean that this year’s Festival has already eclipsed last year’s death toll, when just one horse died over the full four days.

After Highland Hunter’s death, Animal Aid said it was “disgusted that yet another life was lost”.

A crowd of 60,181 was recorded for day one of the Festival – a significant drop on the post-Covid bumper spectator numbers of two years ago, which saw 68,567 through the gates on Tuesday.

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