Things We Learned » Cheltenham Review

1. It was a special week.  Cheltenham Festival week is always a special week, but this one seemed to be more special than usual.

There were exceptional moments.  Gavin Cromwell’s first Cheltenham Festival winner, a Champion Hurdle no less.  Martin Brassil’s first Cheltenham Festival winner, Rachael Blackmore’s first Cheltenham Festival winner, Rachael Blackmore’s second Cheltenham Festival winner.

Joseph O’Brien’s first Cheltenham Festival winners under his own name, Jonjo O’Neill’s first, Jamie Codd’s brace, Mark Walsh’s brace, Paul Townend’s brace.  A first jockeys’ title for Nico de Boinville, a last Cheltenham Festival winner for Noel Fehily.

Altior’s invincibility over two miles, Tiger Roll’s dominance over banks and hedges and poles and, perhaps significantly, Aintree fences.  An RSA Chase that saw the three outstanding staying novice chasers of this generation go head to head to head over the final two fences, a Champion Hurdle that produced a brand new star.  And a special Gold Cup. 

2. Al Boum Photo’s win in the Gold Cup addressed the anomaly in racing’s universe that was the fact that Willie Mullins had never won it.  The best trainers win the best races, and it was not right that the most successful trainer that there has ever been at the Cheltenham Festival had not won the race that is the jewel in the Cheltenham Festival’s crown.  Now he has, now it is.

As well as that, it was a superb performance by a young horse, a mere seven-year-old, racing over fences for just the eighth time in his life and just the second time in his season, ridden to perfection by a young man who said afterwards that he owed it to the horse.  Racing’s tiny universe can rest easily now. 

3. Thursday was a truly extraordinary day.  Start to finish.  Every race had a story.  Paisley Park’s win, a Barry Geraghty double, two top class rides from one top class rider, Lizzie Kelly from the front on Siruh Du Lac.  Another Cheltenham Festival winner for Ted Walsh, you could see how much it meant to him, a JP McManus treble, and Noel Fehily’s announcement of his plans to retire.  And then there was Bryony Frost.

4. Bryony Frost is National Hunt racing’s bright summer’s day.  Racing born, racing bred, but extraordinary within racing.  She doesn’t speak in a different language, she just uses a different dialect, she uses the same words as the rest of us, but she puts them together in a unique way.  Uplifting, that’s what she is.

And she can ride.  Boy she can ride.  Frodon may have won the Ryanair Chase on Thursday had he been ridden by someone else, but we don’t know that he would have and he may not have.  It’s the racing rhythm that we speak about so often that Bryony Frost seems to find naturally.  Default position.  Travelling and jumping at ease, horse and rider in total reciprocated tune.  And willingness.  Horses want to run for her.

They waited in and around the winner’s enclosure for Frodon and Bryony to come back in.  It took a while, as the crowd and the media on the racecourse side of the stands drank in all that Bryony would give.  And she gave lots.  She always gives lots.

We have known about the amphitheatre that is Cheltenham’s winner’s enclosure for years, but it’s even better these days with the extra layer that runs across the top.  They packed that deep too. 

The cheer started as Frodon and Bryony Frost entered the parade ring at the top, it rang out as they made their way down the centre of the paddock, flanked by cheering masses, and it reached a crescendo when they arrived into that hallowed circle.  A wall of sound that was almost tangible.

Bryony pointed to the horse.  It was all about the horse.  But it wasn’t really.

5. It was a good thing that the winds abated on Wednesday.  It meant that the contingency plan to run Wednesday’s card on Saturday did not have to be implemented.

It was windy too in 2008, racing was cancelled on Wednesday and they implemented a different plan.  They had a 10-race card on Thursday and they had a nine-race card on Friday.  It was all a little bit disorientating, the National Hunt Chase was run at 12.30 on Thursday morning and the Queen Mother Champion Chase was run 35 minutes before the Ryanair Chase, but it was novel, there was a great atmosphere around the racecourse, and there was a recognition that needs must.

The plan to race on Saturday this year was a brand new departure and it would have had different implications.  You have to hope that it wasn’t seen as an opportunity to trial a ‘fifth’ day. 

We have been here before.  It would be easy to go to five days in terms of race planning.  We have 28 races at present, it would be easy to add another two: a mares’ chase and/or a veterans’ chase and/or a two-and-a-half-mile hurdle.  Then you would have 30 races, and you could add a fifth day, six races each day.  You have to hope though that they won’t.  Four days is one more than three days, but it is good now.  Twenty-eight races, fine.  You don’t know at what point you have pushed it over the edge until after you have gone beyond that point. 

6. It wasn’t all rosy of course.  It rarely is.  We lost Sir Erec and Ballyward and Invitation Only, the last-named duo owned by Graham and Andrea Wylie and trained by Willie Mullins, Sir Erec owned by JP McManus and trained by Joseph O’Brien.  It’s gut-wrenching when any horse is lost.  To lose three young talented horses like this is really tough on connections, and on the people who look after these horses.  We know that the people who are most acutely affected by the loss of a horse are those who are closest to the horse.

The 10-day ban handed to Declan Lavery for his ride on Jerrysback in the National Hunt chase was another low.  Lavery’s ride was a fine ride, an empathetic ride while coaxing his horse into third place and, as has been well aired by now, it was a poor decision.  It is not surprising that the ban was overturned on appeal yesterday.

7. There was a good spread of winners.  No one trainer had more than four winners, no owner had more than five, no rider had more than three.

The 14 Irish-trained winners represented seven different trainers.  Willie Mullins had four, Gordon Elliott had three, Henry de Bromhead had two, Joseph O’Brien had two, while Gavin Cromwell, Martin Brassil and Ted Walsh had one each. 

Leading owner JP McManus had five winners and those five horses (Espoir D’Allen, Defi Du Seuil, Sire Du Berlais, Any Second Now and Early Doors) were trained by five different trainers (Gavin Cromwell, Philip Hobbs, Gordon Elliott, Ted Walsh and Joseph O’Brien).

In all, 16 different trainers and 20 different riders and 22 different owners had winners. 

8. There was a camera shot in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the head-on shot after they had jumped the second last flight and were racing towards the home turn, when Ruby Walsh was in resplendent, vibrant red on Klassical Dream, motionless, while all other riders were in behind, rowing away, clad in varying shades of mud-splattered brown.  It was as if nature was highlighting the winner, live, without the need for technology to do so in the post-race analysis.

9. Some miscellaneous observations, in no particular order. 

(a) The winner, second and third in the Gold Cup were fourth last, third last and second last as they passed the winning post first time.

(b) Paul Townend’s two winners were both by the Haras d’Enki stallion Buck’s Boum. 

(c) There are now 15 or 16 strides between the second last fence and the last fence on the chase track on the Old Course, reduced from 16 or 17.

(d) It might pay to retain faith in Delta Work, and Minella Indo may be under-rated, as is often the case when a 50/1 shot wins a Grade 1 race, and Vinndication will surely be better when he steps up in trip and goes back right-handed.  He will be of interest if he comes over for the Growise Chase at Punchestown, especially if the ground comes up soft.

10.  Ante post Lucky 15 for 2020

Delta Work, Gold Cup, 20/1 generally or 25/1 in places

A Plus Tard, Ryanair Chase, 20/1 generally

City Island, Stayers’ Hurdle, 16/1 generally or 20/1 in places

Minella Indo, RSA Chase, 20/1 generally


© The Irish Field, 23rd March 2019