Donn's Articles » The Irish at Cheltenham

The Irish at Cheltenham

At the start of the week, the general consensus was that this year’s Irish Cheltenham team was not as strong as last year’s.  People pointed to the high-profile defections, the fact that Willie Mullins would have around 40 runners this year, not 60 like last year, that last year’s total of 15 was out of reach.  The markets said that there would probably around 12 Irish winners, maybe 13 if the ball hopped the right way, and 14 or more was long odds-against.

Then the games began and the winners began to roll.  By the time they queued at the bars in Cheltenham town centre on Thursday evening, there were 14 Irish winners in the bag with St Patrick’s Day still to come, and the world knows that St Patrick’s Day is an Irish day.

A total of 19 Irish-trained winners out of 28 races at the Cheltenham Festival is unprecedented.  Last year’s haul of 15 was a record haul and only once before were there more Irish-trained winners than British-trained winners.

The Galmoy years are often cited in this context.  John Mulhern’s top-class staying hurdler was the only Irish-trained winner in 1987 and 1988, and when he came up short, gallant in defeat, in his bid for a Stayers’ Hurdle hat-trick in 1999, there were no Irish-trained winners.  They were bleak years all right.

But you don’t have to go back that far to get context for last week’s achievement by Irish trainers collectively.  In 2004 there were only four Irish-trained winners.  In 2012, just five years ago, there were only five.

There was a labyrinth of sub-plots behind the 19 winners too.  There was Jessica Harrington, Queen of Cheltenham, who sent out Sizing John to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Thursday under a superb ride from Robbie Power.  In so doing she joined Jenny Pitman and Henrietta Knight as one of just three female trainers to have a Cheltenham Gold Cup on the mantlepiece.

Jessie already has the Champion Chase (Moscow Flyer) and the Champion Hurdle (Jezki) on her mantelpiece, so now she has the complete set, and it is not a coincidence that Sizing John was her first runner in the Gold Cup, her first ever entry in the Gold Cup.  Also, with Supasundae winning the Coral Cup on Wednesday and Rock The World landing the finale, the Grand Annual, in a quite incredible crescendo to the week’s proceedings, she is now the winning-most female trainer at the Cheltenham Festival.

There was Pat Kelly, who has more fingers on his hands than he has horses in training, yet for the second year running he took a horse to Cheltenham and landed the Pertemps Final, one of the most competitive staying handicap hurdles on the racing calendar.

There was Henry de Bromhead, who bagged a second Queen Mother Champion Chase with Special Tiara, six years after he had bagged his first with Sizing Europe, and who went close with Sub Lieutenant and with Petit Mouchoir and with Monalee, who had to compete for his share of the spotlight with his travelling companion, Harvey the goat.

And there were firsts.  Alan Fleming notched his first Cheltenham Festival win when the Barry Connell-owned Tully East landed the Close Brothers Chase under Denis O’Regan.  Noel Meade won his first steeplechase at the Festival when Road To Respect, a three-parts brother to Meade’s Gold Cup third Road To Riches, ran out a relatively easy winner of the Cheltenham Plate under an ice-cool Bryan Cooper.

There were firsts for riders too.  Jack Kennedy got Labaik to start in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, which was odds-against, but he also got him to finish, springing a 25/1 shock and landing his first Cheltenham Festival winner.  JJ Slevin had his first on Champagne Classic in the Martin Pipe Hurdle, Lisa O’Neill had her first on Tiger Roll in the National Hunt Chase, both riders clad in the ubiquitous Gigginstown maroon.

All three amateur riders’ races were won by female riders, but it didn’t stop Jamie Codd bagging a brace: Cause Of Causes in the Cross-Country Chase and Fayonagh in the Champion Bumper, whose task looked arduous after she missed the start.  And after hitting the crossbar on several occasions – three seconds, three thirds – Davy Russell got his winner, Presenting Percy in the Pertemps Final, to continue his record of having at least one winner at the Cheltenham Festival.  That’s 12 in a row now.

Noel Fehily is based in Britain but he hails from Cork, and he landed a Champion Chase/Champion Hurdle double: Special Tiara in the former, Buveur D’Air in the latter, which brought up a half-century of Cheltenham Festival wins for owner JP McManus.

And, of course, there was the Gordon Elliott/Willie Mullins thread that ran through the entire week.  It is remarkable that Mullins did not have a winner over the course of the first two days, just as it is remarkable that Elliott had five.  Elliott’s rise has been meteoric, he had his strongest Cheltenham Festival team ever, and he had his horses zinging.

The people who said on Wednesday night that the Mullins horses were out of form had not noted that, with the exception of Douvan, who returned with a fractured pelvis after the Champion Chase, the Mullins horses had actually run well.  Melon, Limini, Vroum Vroum Mag, Bellshill, Next Destination, they had all run big races in defeat.

Then there was that incredible Thursday, Yorkhill, Un De Sceaux, Nichols Canyon, Let’s Dance, and the Ruby Walsh quadruple masterclass, that took Mullins’ score for the week to four, and the brace on Friday under Paul Townend that took him to six.  Elliott needed to land the Martin Pipe Hurdle with 12/1 shot Champagne Classic to wrest the title back, and he did.  He won it on countback.  Both trainers had six winners, but Elliott had three seconds to Mullins’ two.  It would be like winning the league on goal difference.

Some dual, the top two Irish National Hunt trainers going toe-to-toe on the greatest stage.  Some week.

© The Sunday Times, 19th March 2017