Things We Learned » Some week

Some week

It was some Cheltenham Festival, wasn’t it?  Some week.

There are many ingredients that go in to making a Cheltenham Festival good, to making it memorable, but above all, like any sporting event, it’s the performers and the performances.  Maradona’s World Cup, Carl Lewis’ Olympic Games, Borg v McEnroe, Dublin v Kerry, Ali v Fazier, these are the memorable sporting events, defined by memorable performances and memorable performers.  You want to see the superstars go high in the big events, and the higher they go, the bigger the event.

There were superstars there last week all right, equine and human.  Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh had seven winners each, seven winners shared.  The next best jockey had three, the next best trainer had three.  Mullins also had seven seconds and five thirds, Walsh also had three seconds and two thirds.  So Walsh rode the winners of 25% of the races, 29% of the races in which professionals can ride, and he was first, second or third in 43% of them, 50% of the races in which he could ride.  That is quite astonishing.

Annie Power was brilliant.  Stepping back to two miles for the first time in over two years, and taking on the boys, she blitzed them, breaking the clock in the process, even if we measure it a little differently these days.

Sprinter Sacre was immense, back, if not quite to his best, then not that far off it and better than anything else that is around at the moment.  The first horse with a double-figure age to win the Champion Chase since Moscow Flyer.

Nicky Henderson may not have matched Willie Mullins’ numbers, but he worked wonders with Sprinter Sacre to get him back to the form that allowed him put up a performance like that, as he did with My Tent Or Yours, second to Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle, and with 2013 Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth, third in the World Hurdle at the age of 11.

My Tent Or Yours is desperately unlucky not to be a Champion Hurdle winner.  He has now finished second twice, once to Jezki in 2014 and once to Annie Power in 2016, in the two fastest Champion Hurdles ever run.

Davy Russell was brilliant again, patience personified.  The Cheltenham Festival usually rewards patience, especially on the New Course, especially on the hurdles track and, while you can overdo the waiting game, Russell rarely does.

Diamond King was probably the best horse on the day at the weights in the Coral Cup, but the best horse doesn’t always win, and Russell’s timing ensured that he did.  It was a similar story on Mall Dini in the Pertemps Final, and it was Russell’s patience that got Fagan as close as he got in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle.  Then the rider went to Gowran Park on Saturday and rode another winner, and he went to Downpatrick on Sunday and rode two more.

The Irish amateur riders excelled: Derek O’Connor on Minella Rocco in the National Hunt Chase, Jamie Codd on Cause Of Causes in the Kim Muir, Nina Carberry on On The Fringe in the Foxhunter.  All for different trainers, Jonjo O’Neill and Gordon Elliott and Enda Bolger respectively, but all clad in JP McManus’ silks.  Gordon Elliott said in the lead up to Cheltenham that, having a good Irish amateur on your side in those amateur races is like having a stone in hand.

Douvan was awesome (the European awesome), as Willie Mullins told us he would be, Vautour was magnificent again, despite a roller coaster preparation, and the novice hurdlers Altior and Yorkhill and Ivanovich Gorbatov were superb.  Thistlecrack was magnificent.  And then there was Don Cossack.

Don dominant

There were many things wrapped up in Don Cossack’s Gold Cup win.  There was the horse for starters, the horse that had been hailed as a future Gold Cup horse early in his career before he went a little quiet for about a season and a half.  The one who was beaten twice at Cheltenham, but whose performances at Aintree and Punchestown last spring made him the highest-rated chaser in training before Cue Card won the King George.

He was unlucky in the Ryanair Chase last March, and he was unlucky in the King George.  If he had jumped the second last fence at Kempton well instead of sprawling on landing, he probably would have beaten Cue Card, he probably would have won the King George.  But you make your own luck, they said.  On Friday, there was just normal luck, and his class shone through.

There was the owner Gigginstown House Stud, its owner Michael O’Leary, one of the most successful businesspeople that Ireland has produced, yet you could see how much Friday’s win meant to him and to his brother Eddie, navigator of the good ship Gigginstown.  A Gold Cup win, Gigginstown House Stud’s second, a first since War Of Attrition in 2006, 10 years trying to have another one.  The scenes in the winner’s enclosure told you that the wait and the effort were well worthwhile.

There was the trainer Gordon Elliott, and his faith in this horse.  Complete vindication.  It is difficult to believe that Elliott is only 38 years old, all that he has achieved.  He is still a young trainer on the up, only now he is a young trainer on the up who has trained a Grand National winner and a Gold Cup winner.

There was Elliott’s team, the team to which Elliott always refers, how lucky he is to have such staff, and Louise Dunne, the girl who never left Don Cossack’s side.

And there was Bryan Cooper.  Similar to Elliott, it is difficult to believe that Bryan Cooper is so young, only 23 years old.  If there was pressure on the young rider’s shoulders on Friday, you wouldn’t have known it during the race, not until the inner relief exploded after he hit the winning line.  I guess that’s being 23 years old for you.

There was pressure beforehand, to choose the right horse, to choose the right Don.  He took his time, he assessed each horse’s chance, assessed the conditions, and chose, and once he had chosen, he didn’t waver.

He didn’t waver during the race either.  He got Don Cossack into his rhythm and carried out the plan that they had agreed beforehand, handy from early, relaxed and jumping, and kick on.  Fantastic.

Great week for the Irish

It was a great week for the Irish all round.  Fifteen winners were bred in Ireland, which was more than the total number of winners bred in France (seven), Britain (four) and Germany (one) combined.  Fourteen Irish-trained winners, half the total, equalled the number of British-trained winners.  14-all was a fair result.  We’ll get them in the home leg.

The 1-2 in the Arkle, the 1-2-3 in the Ryanair Chase, a race that Ireland had never won before, the 1-2-3-4 in the Triumph Hurdle and, la pièce de résistance, the 1-2-3-4 in the Gold Cup, a race that the Irish had won just once in the previous decade and just three times in the previous 20 years.  This is a golden era all right.

As well as Willie Mullins’ seven and Gordon Elliott’s three, there was one each for Pat Kelly (Mall Dini), Enda Bolger (On The Fringe), Colm Murphy (Empire Of Dirt) and Aidan/Joseph O’Brien (Ivanovich Gorbatov).

Bolger is a perennial at Cheltenham, but his handling of On The Fringe has been superb.  Not only to win back-to-back Foxhunters – just the fifth horse to do so –  but also to have taken him to Aintree and Punchestown last spring, to win at both of those festivals as well.

It was great to see a relatively small trainer in Kelly bag a Cheltenham winner, and it was great to see Colm Murphy back in the winner’s enclosure there, 12 years after Brave Inca’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, 10 years after his Champion Hurdle and six years after Big Zeb’s Champion Chase.  And Ivanovich Gorbatov’s Triumph Hurdle win was ostensibly another for Aidan O’Brien, 16 years after Istabraq’s third Champion Hurdle, but we all know that, really, it’s Joseph’s first, and that it could be the start of something very big indeed.

Don’t change a thing

There is all this talk about what to change, what to tweak.  Here’s the simple answer: nothing.

We don’t need any more dilution.  We don’t need a veterans’ chase that could have taken Cue Card and Carlingford Lough out of the Gold Cup, we don’t need a Grade 1 two-and-a-half-mile hurdle that could have taken Annie Power and Nichols Canyon and The New One out of the Champion Hurdle, and we don’t need a mares’ chase.

There are only a finite number of top class National Hunt horses to go around, and the thing about Cheltenham is, they race against each other to determine which one is the best.  That’s the theory anyway.  The more races we have at Cheltenham, the more options the top class horses have to avoid each other.

If the 2016 Cheltenham Festival had been staged in 2004, there would have been no Ryanair Chase, so Road To Riches and Valseur Lido would probably have run in the Gold Cup, and Vautour would probably have joined them, unless he would have been re-routed to the Cathcart Chase, which surely he wouldn’t have been.

There would have been no mares’ hurdle, so Vroum Vroum Mag would probably have run in the World Hurdle, and there would certainly have been no mares’ novices’ hurdle, so Limini would probably have run in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  How good would that have been?

Of course, it’s not going to happen, you can’t put the genie back into the bottle but, if there were to be changes, they should look to take races away, not add more races.

Lucky 15 for 2017

Yorkhill – Arkle Trophy (4/1)

Alpha Des Obeaux – RSA Chase (8/1)

Killultagh Vic – Gold Cup (33/1)

Black Hercules – Ryanair Chase (8/1)


© The Irish Field, 26th March 2016