Things We Learned » Five things we learned from Cheltenham

Five things we learned from Cheltenham

Irish week

Fourteen winners was an unbelievable tally for Irish trainers. It was back to the heady days of 2011 after last year’s dip to five, and a long way from the zeros and ones and twos of the late 80s and early 90s.

It was a truly extraordinary feat by Irish trainers collectively, spearheaded, of course, by Willie Mullins. As well as his five winners, the champion trainer also had three seconds and three thirds, and it is difficult to know whether Hurricane Fly’s win or Quevega’s win or Fiveforthree’s third represented the training performance of the week. And it could have been even better. On another year, with a different bounce of a different ball, any or all of Boston Bob, Ballycasey, Pont Alexandre or Clondaw Court could have been Cheltenham winners.

But unlike last year, when the Mullins Triumvirate represented 60% if the Irish total, the spread of winners last week was unprecedented. Nine Irish trainers led horses into the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham, and if the ball had hopped just a little better for Mouse Morris (three runners, three runners-up), it would have been into double figures.

The collective achievement was accentuated by the fact that Cheltenham was – as it always is – an away game for Ireland. Horses have to travel, they have to settle in new environs, and that isn’t always easy for creatures who thrive on routine. In football, it is estimated that the home team statistically kicks off with an advantage of about half a goal.

Thirteen-all going into the final few minutes, with just one representative in the finale, and if you were thinking that it was going to be a defensive game, or that Ireland were going to try to sneak through on the away goals rule, you couldn’t have been more wrong. Alderwood was well primed by Tom Mullins. Back of the net.

Chasers dominant

Specifically, the Irish novice chasers were dominant. Three of the four non-handicap races restricted to novice chasers were won by Irish-trained horses. Not only that, but Irish horses filled the first two places from just three runners in the National Hunt Chase, the pair of them clear, and they would have filled the first three places in the RSA Chase – the three of them clear – but for Boston Bob’s mis-hap.

In the Arkle, the one graded novice chase that the Irish didn’t win, Baily Green got to within two and a half lengths of the invincible Simonsig, with the hitherto unbeaten-over-fences Overturn well back in fourth place. And if that wasn’t enough, the novice chaser Alderwood won the Grand Annual, one of the most competitive two-mile handicap chases on the calendar.

Rides of the week

As with the training performance of the week, there were many contenders for ride of the week, with AP McCoy, Sam Twiston-Davies, Paul Carberry, Joe Tizzard, Barry Geraghty, Wayne Hutchinson and Davy Russell all making the shortlist.

And Jane Mangan deserves mention. She did everything right on Oscar Delta, she had ridden her horse to win his race, she had even switched her whip from her right hand to her left hand on landing over the last in order to minimise the chance that her horse would edge to his left at the junction of the courses, as Cue Card and Benefficient had done the previous day. However, you just cannot legislate for every eventuality. It was heart-breaking for the young rider, a first Cheltenham win within touching distance, but she is a top class amateur and she will bounce back.

Tied at the top for me, however, were Bryan Cooper for his ride on Benefficient and Ruby Walsh for his on Champagne Fever.

Both front-running rides, the two rides were very different in the detail. Cooper set out to make every yard on Benefficient, and Benefficient didn’t miss a beat. Every time his young rider asked him to jump, Tony Martin’s horse complied.

But it wasn’t just the fluency with which man and beast flowed that made this a top class ride. It was also the calmness with which the 20-year-old rider allowed Tom Scudamore and Barry Geraghty past on the run down the hill, anxious to keep his horse within his comfort zone, happy that he still had some energy left and hopeful that he could have another go at them on the run back up it.

There was also the temerity with which the young Kerryman charted the ground-saving route inside Scudamore and Dynaste, and the bravery and confidence with which he fired his horse at the last two obstacles. The ride was all the more impressive because of the fact that, until that point, the youngster was a Cheltenham Festival virgin.

Ruby’s judgement of pace from the front on Champagne Fever – who was potentially competing over a trip that was short of his optimum – was exemplary. Fast in the early stages to establish a lead and make it a true test; slow at the top of the hill to stack the field up and fill his lungs; fast from the third last flight home to try to run the finishes out of the speedsters My Tent Or Yours and Jezki.

In terms of measuring the quick-slow-quick pace that Ruby set, the sectional times for the race, when compared to the sectional times for the Champion Hurdle, run over the same course and distance less that two hours later, are revealing. Common consensus was that they went very fast through the early stages of the Champion, yet Champagne Fever got from the first flight to the second flight in a time that was a full second faster than the time that it took Rock On Ruby to cover the same ground in the Champion.

Rock On Ruby was faster than Champagne Fever to the third, the fourth and the fifth flights, as the grey horse took a breather. The front-runners clocked an identical time between the fifth and sixth flights, but it was from that point, the third last obstacle, that Champagne Fever’s breather paid dividends.

Willie Mullins’ horse was marginally faster than Rock On Ruby on the short run from the third last to the second last but, from the second last to the last, he was fully two and a half seconds faster, and he was almost three seconds faster from the last to the winning line.

The net result was that, according to this stopwatch, the novice Champagne Fever covered the distance from the landing side of the first flight to the winning line in a time that was over three seconds faster than the time that it took reigning Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby to cover the same ground. That’s a top class performance from a top class horse, but it is also top class riding, pace-judgement at its very best, maximum efficiency, and playing to your horse’s strengths.

Novice aspirations

We learned last week that this year’s novice hurdlers are a classy bunch, and they look certain to make an impact as a group next season, all going well. Triumph Hurdle winner Our Conor obviously looks like a star in the making, and it is correct that he should be high in the 2014 Champion Hurdle betting, even allowing for the desperately poor record that five-year-olds have in the Champion.

Neptune Hurdle winner The New One showed a searing turn of foot from the final flight on Wednesday, and he is also a live Champion Hurdle aspirant, as are Supreme Novices’ Hurdle second and third My Tent Or Yours and Jezki. At Fishers Cross would be a worthy World Hurdle contender if he were to remain over the smaller obstacles, but he would also be a high-class staying novice chaser if he were to go down that route.

With or without the Rebecca Curtis-trained gelding, the novice chase class of 2013/14 looks hugely exciting already, with Champagne Fever, Pont Alexandre, Un Atout and Rule The World all promising even more over the larger obstacles than what they have achieved over hurdles to date.


Finally, we learned once again that horse racing is a preposterously dangerous sport, and that the danger that is inherent in racing horses at speed over obstacles is that which unites its heroes.

Barry Cash said that he would give 10 Cross-Country victories back if it would mean that JT would be up and walking about. Men like AP McCoy and Barry Geraghty and JP McManus were unable to finish sentences in what should have been self-congratulatory victory speeches. such was the depth of their feeling for one of their own.

JP, his entire modus operandi in National Hunt racing focused like a laser beam on the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham, said he was embarrassed to be there after At Fisher’s Cross had won the Albert Bartlett Hurdle.

John Thomas McNamara’s injury is the dark shadow that covered everything that happened last week. All we can do is keep him and his family in our prayers.

© The Irish Field, 23rd March 2013