Things We Learned » First Festival firsts

First Festival firsts

Where to start?  Start with the riders perhaps.  There were some outstanding riding performances.  You can easily argue that any ride that results in victory at the Cheltenham Festival is a good ride, but there were a few that stood out.

Start at the start.  Literally.  Jack Kennedy’s ride on Labaik in the curtain-raiser, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, excelled on three levels.  Firstly, Kennedy got his horse to start.  Secondly, he got him to finish.  And thirdly, he rode like a seasoned pro who had lost count of the number of winners he had ridden at the Cheltenham Festival, not like a teenager who hadn’t ridden one. 

It is difficult to know what is at the root of a horse’s decision to refuse to start, so it is difficult to know how to influence that decision.  Just keep him sweet, said Kennedy afterwards.  Just get him to go in along with the others, start with the others.  He said that, once down at the start, he knew that his horse would start all right, he could feel that Labaik was on a going day.  But it might be a mistake to underestimate the horsemanship skill that was involved.

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was not a strongly-run race, not this year, not compared to other years.  Labaik may have been disadvantaged by, out of necessity, racing out the back.  Six of the first seven horses home were no worse than mid-division from flagfall, and three of them raced prominently.  Gordon Elliott’s horse was the only horse who was able to get into it from the rear and, under a perfectly-timed ride by Kennedy, he won going away. 

Labaik is now three for three over hurdles when he has started, there is no doubting his talent and, as long as they can continue to convince him that starting his races is a good idea, there is no telling how high he could go.

JJ Slevin was confident on Champagne Classic, Bryony Frost saved every inch of ground on Pacha Du Polder and was strong in the finish, Gina Andrews conjured an incredible rally from Domesday Book.

And Lisa O’Neill was great on Tiger Roll.  Not only because she sat tight at the first ditch, when her horse left his hind legs in it and shot his rider up onto his neck, but because she didn’t panic after that.  She allowed her horse recover his equilibrium, allowed him find his rhythm again, didn’t rush him up to recapture his prominent position.  She allowed him do that gradually.

Nor did she panic when she ran down the hill to the third last fence, bundles of horse underneath her.  Again she sat still, allowed the two leaders take her there, moved between the two of them and then asked her horse to go and win his race, which he duly did. 


Top riders also excelled

Robbie Power was good on Supasundae in the Coral Cup, but he was even better on Sizing John in the Gold Cup, and you can argue that he was at his best on Rock The World in the Grand Annual.

Power’s ride on Sizing John was great because it was the Gold Cup, because he was under the pressure that the Blue Riband of National Hunt racing brings.  He got his horse settled and jumping, he got him to ease into a lovely even rhythm.  Sizing John was keen over the two fences in front of the stands with a circuit to go, perhaps he thought that this was it, up the chute to the finishing line, he had never before been asked to go around again. 

Power had him settled again quickly, back in his rhythm, moved easily down the hill to the third last, moved out around Djakadam and Native River as they rounded the home turn, saw a stride at the second last fence: one, two, up, and the race was over.  Magic.

The magic continued in the Grand Annual.  Power kicked Rock The World off in the front rank, but he obviously thought that the pace was too strong, so he allowed his horse drift back in the field.  He was no better than 18th or 19th of the 24 runners as they rounded the turn that took them away from the stands with a circuit to run. 

Again, Power got his horse into a rhythm, made ground down the hill on the inside, wheeled to the outside early in the home straight, and delivered him.  It was the ride of a man who was bursting with confidence.

Speaking of confidence: Jamie Codd on Fayonagh, Davy Russell on Presenting Percy, Bryan Cooper on Apple’s Jade, Noel Fehily on Special Tiara, Paul Townend on Arctic Fire, Denis O’Regan on Tully East. 

And then there was the Ruby Walsh masterclass on Thursday, four winners, four very different rides.  It is not a coincidence that the greatest sportspeople shine brightest on the greatest stages. 

Yorkhill may have been the best horse in the JLT Chase, but he may not have been able to show it without a ride that smuggled him around the inside rail.  And Un De Sceaux may have won the Ryanair Chase with any other rider on his back, but he may not have without the presence of mind that Walsh displayed in allowing him stride on over the two fences in front of the stands, after which Willie Mullins’ horse morphed from a keen-going follower to a relaxed leader.  After that, it never looked likely that he would be beaten.

Let’s Dance was probably the best mare in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, although it still needed a pace judge to determine that they were going too fast up front, and to keep her well away from the early scrimmaging.  But it was on Nichols Canyon that Walsh may have made the biggest difference of all.  He held Willie Mullins’ horse up off the pace, sat still on the run down the hill, moved to the stands rail at the top of the home straight, and delivered him with a run that saw him get home by three parts of a length from Lil Rockerfeller. 

There is a real chance that the quality of the ride made a difference of more than three parts of a length and, in sport, that is the greatest difference of all: the difference between defeat and victory.


Sizing’s win was gigantic

It is difficult to over-estimate the magnitude of Jessica Harrington’s achievement, producing a Gold Cup winner with her first ever runner in the race, her first ever entry in the race.  Sizing John was her first ever runner in the Irish Gold Cup, and she won that with him too, so why not?

Jessica Harrington was already the winning-most female trainer at the Cheltenham Festival by the time she sat down to dinner on Wednesday night, but a Gold Cup and a Grand Annual now puts her clear.  Add that to the fact that she is now one of just three female trainers to win the Gold Cup, and it is momentous.

It is a team effort.  Jessie would not be able to do all she does without her daughters Emma and Kate (who was deprived of her shot at glory in the saddle when Someday had to be scratched from the Champion Bumper) and all her team, top man Eamon Leigh and Sizing John’s groom Ashley Hussey.  And Robbie Power, obviously a massive cog in the wheel at Moone, who said, of course he’ll stay, no bother.

And the role that Henry de Bromhead played in Sizing John’s formative years, in allowing him evolve into the horse that he has become, should not be under-estimated.

Initial inclination is to think that Sizing John could go on now and win another Gold Cup or two.  He is only seven and, notwithstanding the fact that the two horses who chased him home are also seven, he could go even higher. 

On that point, on the assumption that another Gold Cup is the ultimate aim, it may be best to campaign him relatively sparingly now.  There have been five seven-year-old Gold Cup winners in the last 30 years, and just two of them returned to win the Gold Cup again. 

Imperial Call, Kicking King and War Of Attrition all had troubled seasons, the seasons after their respective Gold Cup victories.  Neither Kicking King nor War Of Attrition made it back to Cheltenham the following season.  Imperial Call got there all right, but he got there on the back of a poor preparation, and he ended up being pulled up in the 1997 Gold Cup.

Best Mate raced just twice in the 2002/03 season – he won the Peterborough Chase and the King George – before going back to Cheltenham and winning his second Gold Cup, and he raced just twice again in 2003/04 – he finished second in the Peterborough Chase and he won the Ericsson Chase – before going back to Cheltenham and winning his third.

Kauto Star raced four times in 2007/08 before going back to Cheltenham and getting beaten by Denman in his bid to retain his Gold Cup.  The following season, 2008/09, he raced just three times – in the Champion Chase, the Betfair Chase and the King George – before going back to Cheltenham and regaining his Gold Cup.

So neither Best Mate nor Kauto Star raced again between Christmas and Cheltenham during the seasons in which they won their second and/or third Gold Cups, and they ran no more than three times in total in those seasons before the Gold Cup.  That may not be a coincidence.


Irish on top

Nineteen Irish-trained winners was an unbelievable haul and, if the Cheltenham Festival is a barometer of the health of the Irish National Hunt industry, things have rarely been better. 

Of course, it is not as simple as that, and there were more British-trained horses placed than Irish-trained horses, but it is a good starting point.  The meeting was obviously dominated by Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, as their domination of the Irish scene travelled east, and hasn’t there been a seismic shift since the late 1980s and early 1990s – two Irish trainers having six Cheltenham Festival winners each – when Irish trainers as a collective struggled to muster more than four winners between them.  Only once in the 12 Festivals that ran from 1984 to 1995 inclusive were there more than four Irish-trained winners.

It wasn’t all about dominance though.  The seven Irish-trained winners who were not trained by Mullins or Elliott were spread among five different Irish trainers.  Alan Fleming, Noel Meade, Pat Kelly and Henry de Bromhead had one each, while Jessica Harrington had three.  So seven different Irish trainers had at last one winner at the Cheltenham Festival.  Until 2005, there had never been more than seven Irish-trained winners in total.

As importantly, the 19 Irish-trained winners were spread among 13 different owners.  Gigginstown House had four winners, Ann and Alan Potts had two, Andrea and Graham Wylie had two, and every other owner of an Irish-trained winner had just one winner.  Even JP McManus, he had three winners at the Festival, but only one of them, Cause Of Causes, is trained in Ireland.  There was breadth and there was depth, which provides encouragement for a level of achievement that could be sustainable.


Ante post 2018 Lucky 15 

Sizing John, Gold Cup, 8/1

Labaik, Champion Hurdle, 16/1

Presenting Percy, Stayers’ Hurdle, 25/1

Sutton Place, RSA Chase, 20/1

© The Irish Field, 25th March 2017