Things We Learned » Difficult to sleep

Difficult to sleep

Just three more sleeps now, four if you are reading the digital version of this on Friday night.  And if you are, time to go to bed now.  The sooner you get to bed, the sooner the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle will be upon you.

Appetite-whetting and all as the build-up is, fascinating and all as the 2017 Cheltenham Festival is, the one that stretches before you now for as far as your inner-eye can countenance (how many times recently have you said, after Cheltenham?), it could have been even more fascinating. 

The 2017 Cheltenham Festival will go ahead without Don Cossack and Faugheen and Annie Power and Sprinter Sacre, and of course without poor Vautour.  It has also lost Thistlecrack and Valseur Lido and Coney Island. 

It isn’t just that none of the four feature race winners from last year are returning to defend their titles, it is that none of the four are returning.  Full stop.  For any race at the 2017 Festival.

The Cheltenham Festival has lost high-profile horses before.  If you are of a certain vintage you will remember the defections of Gay Spartan and Jack Of Trumps from the Gold Cup, of Gaye Brief from the Champion Hurdle and, more recently, of Best Mate from an attempt at a fourth Gold Cup.  But it is difficult to recall a Cheltenham Festival that has been shorn of as many top class contenders as this one has.

And yet, it still fascinates.  It is still going to be difficult for children to get to sleep on Cheltenham Eve.  Hopefully everybody else gets there now.  Okay, nobody stand on a stone between now and Tuesday.


Lots of races

It is a lot, 28 races.  Seven for every one of the four days, one for every day in February, if the Festival were run in February, and as long as it isn’t a leap year.

It is not that long ago that we only had three days and 18 races.  Back then there was no JLT Chase, no Close Brothers Chase, to Mares’ Hurdle, no Ryanair Chase, and definitely no Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.  Anyone remember the Cathcart?

You can argue the case for each of the new races, the bumper was a great addition, at least it guaranteed that there would be one Irish winner anyway, back in the days when the Irish dominated the bumper and not much else.  And the Ryanair Chase has been a success in lots of ways, it has evolved into a stand-alone race now, a coveted prize, without having the obvious prestige of a Gold Cup or a Champion Hurdle that only deep roots in history can create.

But if there wasn’t such a proliferation of races, there would be more clashes.  Yorkhill would probably be taking on Altior in the Arkle or taking on the hurdlers in the Champion Hurdle.  If he was running in the Champion Hurdle, he would be taking on Buveur D’Air and Yanworth and Petit Mouchoir and Brain Power all right, but he would also probably be taking on Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag and maybe Apple’s Jade and Jer’s Girl as well.

Un De Sceaux could be getting ready to take on his stable companion Douvan in the Champion Chase, Uxizandre could be doing something similar, or either of them could have been stepping up in trip for the Gold Cup.  Empire Of Dirt would probably be Gold Cup bound all right.

Let’s Dance could be all set for a clash with Neon Wolf and Finian’s Oscar in the Neptune Hurdle, (where she might be going anyway and) where she could also have been meeting Death Duty and Wholestone and West Approach.  Airlie Beach would probably be all set to take on Melon and Ballyandy and Morewiththetimes in the Supreme, while Disko could be set for a clash with Might Bite and Alpha Des Obeaux and Whisper in the RSA Chase.

On the yearning side, these would have been clashes to savour.  On the satiated side, we have lots of clashes to savour anyway.  This is one of the most open Festivals in years.  Douvan and Altior are really the only two horses who fall into the ‘gone by’ category this year.  And ask any of their connections: even they are not ‘gone by’ yet.

And we have four days worth of them.  Two days, half-time oranges, then two more days.  That is also something to be savoured.  We have got used to four days now.

Of course, there is no going back now.  It will not return to three days unless they start to build a clutch of three-bed semi-detached houses in the Best Mate enclosure.  There are very few genies that will return willingly to the bottle. 

It is important that they leave it alone now though.  Four days and a Friday finish.  There is no need to find two more races, there is no need to add a veterans’ chase and a two-and-a-half-mile hurdle, move it to 30 races and make it five days of six races each and a Saturday Gold Cup.  It’s great as it is.


BetBright Cup

People say that they don’t care about the BetBright Cup, the Prestbury Cup, the ‘battle’ between Britain and Ireland.

Fair enough, you don’t really need another cup.  And the captains thing is a bit contrived: Hector plays as good a game as he can play, but it’s not like he has a say in ‘team’ tactics, in where Ireland’s main players are best deployed.

That said, the Cheltenham Festival is founded on the British/Irish rivalry, has been since Vincent O’Brien started to bring his horses over on the boat, and it has thrived on the Irish invasion.  It’s not just a patriotic thing either.  The performance of Irish horses at the Cheltenham Festival has become a barometer that can be used to measure the health of the Irish National Hunt industry. 

Apart from all of that, there is a feelgood factor that invariably follows an Irish horse into the winner’s enclosure.  As long as he has the correct badges, obviously. 


Tough on Geraghty

You have to feel for Barry Geraghty.  It was when his rides started to get distributed during the week – Noel Fehily on Buveur D’Air and Unowhatimeanharry, Mark Walsh on Uxizandre and Yanworth and Jezki and More Of That, Aidan Coleman on Minella Rocco and My Tent Or Yours – that the quality of the book of rides that he would have had was hammered home.

It is a great opportunity for Mark Walsh.  Of course, with great opportunity comes great responsibility, but Walsh is a top rider who is undoubtedly up to the task, and whose talents probably haven’t been fully appreciated yet by the British racing public.  That could all change next week. 

There is no getting away from the quality in-depth that Ruby Walsh has once again, Douvan and Djakadam and Un De Sceaux and Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini and Melon and Yorkhill and Let’s Dance.  And the rest, maybe Shaneshill, maybe Bacardys, maybe Augusta Kate.  And it goes with out saying, Walsh is a brilliant rider whose talents are accentuated at the Cheltenham Festival.  You can easily argue that, all things being equal, he is value at 8/11 to be top jockey for the week, especially with the Barry Geraghty’s rides being diffused among several riders.

The ‘without Ruby Walsh’ market?  Bryan Cooper has an impressive-looking book of rides*: Petit Mouchoir in the Champion Hurdle, Apple’s Jade in the Mares’ Hurdle, Death Duty in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, Alpha Des Obeaux in the RSA Chase, Disko in the JLT Chase, Empire Of Dirt or Sub Lieutenant in the Ryanair Chase, Dinaria Des Obeaux potentially in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle or in the Fred Winter, Shattered Love in the Neptune Hurdle, Outlander or Don Poli in the Gold Cup.  (*All subject to change of course – this is the 28-race Festival after all.)

Cooper should have big chances in the handicaps too, headed by Tombstone, apparently set for the Coral Cup now off his British mark of 149, just 1lb higher than his Irish mark.  He could have Sutton Manor in the Pertemps Final, and he should have good rides in the handicap chases, with Marinero and Road To Respect and A Toi Phil and Balko Des Flos and Ball D’Arc and Clarcam and Tell Us More all in the mix.  And others.

Bryan Cooper exploded onto the Cheltenham Festival scene in 2013 when he booted home Benefficient and Ted Veale and Our Conor, and the British press realised that he spelt his name with a y, not with an i.  Last year’s Gold Cup hero could be in for another exciting week.


One race at a time

Q. Willie, you’ve had 48 winners at the Cheltenham Festival.  What would it mean to you to get to 50 this year?

A. I’m just looking at 49.


© The Irish Field, 11th March 2017