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Cheltenham review

1. Blackmore class

Rachael Blackmore doesn’t crave the limelight, she doesn’t court the limelight, she just does what she does, as brilliantly as she does it, and she finds herself right in the middle of it.

Like on Honeysuckle, brilliant again. Threaded a path between Appreciate It and Zanahiyr as they raced down the hill between the third last and second last flights, and kicked clear around the home turn.  The path that she charted wasn’t the difference between winning and losing, Honeysuckle won by three and a half lengths in the end and probably had more in hand than that, but it was the brave route, and it maximised her horse’s chance of winning.  Again.  For the 15th time, and for the second time in a Champion Hurdle.

A Plus Tard was different, but similar.  Rachael waited in behind horses as Minella Indo moved clear in front, she didn’t panic, didn’t give up ground or use energy or concede momentum by going around horses.  She trusted that that gap would develop and that, when it did, she would have enough horse to go through it.  Again, A Plus Tard won by 15 lengths, he was obviously the best horse in the race on the day by some way, but again, the ride that his jockey gave him was the perfect ride.  Maximum efficiency.

What she did last year didn’t work, she said, so she tried something different.

The crowd was back this year, the cheers, and they cheered for Rachael Blackmore in the Gold Cup and in the Champion Hurdle.  On the run to the final obstacle, all the way up the run-in, past the winning post and then back down in front of the stands towards the chute that would bring her back into the winner’s enclosure.  And then again in the winner’s enclosure.

There were more firsts.  The first jockey to win the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup in the same year since AP McCoy in 1997, the first female rider to win the Gold Cup.  And that was after all the firsts last year.

The only person for whom it wasn’t about Rachael Blackmore, was Rachael Blackmore.  For the rider, it was about the horses, the owners, the trainer Henry de Bromhead, the team.  So thankful to get to ride these horses, she said.  Just lucky to be a part of it.  For everyone else though, it was about Rachael Blackmore.  As it was at Thurles on Saturday, the day after she won the Gold Cup, where she went for one ride.  She won on that one too.

2. History maker

There can only be one front-page main photograph, of course, but there is a danger that Henry de Bromhead’s achievements this week have not received due recognition.

Another Champion Hurdle, another Gold Cup, the 1-2 in the Gold Cup again, for the second year running.  These are the marquee events of National Hunt racing.  And more firsts: the first trainer to have the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle winner in consecutive years since Vincent O’Brien achieved the feat with Cottage Rake and Hatton’s Grace in 1949 and 1950.  Remarkable.

And he won the Gold Cup with a different horse, with A Plus Tard and Minella Indo reversing places.  It’s Kauto Star/Denman-esque.  Denman beat Kauto Star into second place in the 2008 Gold Cup, Kauto Star beaten Denman into second place in the 2009 Gold Cup.  Rivals from the same yard.  It could happen again.

3. Mullins magic

Strange that you train five of the seven winners on the final day of the Cheltenham Festival, on Gold Cup day, and you are not the main headline the following day.

The Willie Mullins quintuple on Friday brought his total for the week to 10, and that is an astonishing total.  More than any trainer has ever had at the Cheltenham Festival in the history of the event, and it should have been 11.  Even allowing for the four days and the 28 races, it’s still over 35% of the races at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival that went to Closutton, and that is extraordinary.

Only one on the first day, three on the second day, just one more on the third day, and then he cut loose.  For nine different owners and ridden by four different riders.  Among those 10 wins were six Grade 1 races, but two stand out.  Firstly, Billaway’s triumph in the Hunters’ Chase, with son Patrick on board, victory from the jaws of defeat after trading at 19/1 in-running, and a reward for the rider’s persistence.  You had to feel for runner-up Winged Leader, and his rider Barry O’Neill and his trainer David Christie, but this was a victory for Billaway that was at least three years in the making: second in 2020, second in 2021 beaten a short head, first in 2022, home by a neck.

And secondly, Energumene in the Champion Chase.  Shishkin’s under-performance made the task easier than it might have been, and Chacun Pour Soi’s departure, but Energumene was still very good, under the change of tactics that Paul Townend implemented.  That’s the full set now, the Champion Chase was a glaring omission from Mullins’ all-encompassing CV, and you could see how much it meant to the trainer in the post-race interviews.  He said that he was surprised himself at how emotional he became.  Just shows you how much these things mean, even if you have won as many things as Willie Mullins has won.

4. More Porter

You didn’t need to watch the Stayers’ Hurdle, you just needed to watch the members of the Flooring Porter Syndicate, who congregated in the parade ring, black and white scarves and everything, and watched on the big screen.

They jumped every hurdle with their horse, cheered every time he got to the landing side, another obstacle fluently negotiated.  The more the race developed, the louder each successive cheer grew, and it reached a crescendo when their horse landed over the final flight and stretched out willingly up the hill, almost three lengths clear of his closest pursuer.

The Gavin Cromwell-trained gelding has his quirks, but that’s him, they are part of his talent, and perhaps now he will get the true recognition that he is due.  The staying hurdlers’ title-holder, just like last year he left the impression that he had more in hand than the bare winning margin.  He joins some of the great staying hurdlers as a dual Stayers’ Hurdle winner, Crimson Embers and Galmoy and Baracouda.  Inglis Drever won the race three times, Big Buck’s won it four times, and there is every chance that Flooring Porter will be able to emulate one or both of them. He is still only seven, the same age as Big Buck’s was when he won his second, and a year younger than Inglis Drever was.

5. Future is bright

Maybe it is the same every year, but this year anyway, it appears that we have a really exciting group of novices.

L’Homme Presse could not have been any more impressive than he was in winning the Brown Advisory Chase, Edwardstone won the Arkle with plenty in hand, Stattler won the National Hunt Chase with a similar amount in hand and, well, Galopin Des Champs looked like the superstar that he threatens to be in the Turners Chase before that bizarre capitulation at the final fence. 

It could be some Gold Cup next year please God if they all get there.  A Plus Tard will only be nine then, he will still be the standard-setter, but he could be challenged by L’Homme Presse and Galopin Des Champs, possibly, unless Galopin Des Champs remains at shorter distances.  Stattler could improve enough to be a Gold Cup contender, and Bravemansgame should be back, and Monkfish should return, and don’t discount Bob Olinger.  Henry de Bromhead’s horse was a fortuitous winner of the Turners Chase of course, but we may not have seen the real Bob Olinger on Thursday.

The hurdlers were at it too.  Constitution Hill was awesome in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Tuesday, clocking a time that was almost six seconds faster than Honeysuckle’s.  Vauban appeared to win the Triumph Hurdle with plenty in hand, and Sir Gerhard ran out a comfortable winner of the Ballymore Hurdle on Tuesday, on soft ground and over the longest distance over which he had ever competed, after racing more keenly than ideal through the early stages of the race. 

Sir Gerhard may go jumping fences, but it would be some Champion Hurdle next year, Honeysuckle and Constitution Hill and Vauban and Sir Gerhard.  Maybe add State Man.  Maybe Dysart Dynamo.

6. If it ain’t broke

We have heard all the arguments, commercial realities and suchlike, and it may be that a fifth day is an inevitability.  You know the argument, it only needs two more races, five days of six races, that’s just 30 races, only two more than the 28 that we currently have.  It won’t dilute the competition that much.  And if you re-instate the novices’ handicap chase and add a veterans’ chase, it mightn’t dilute it at all.

But it would.  Even that would.  Take just this year for example, Global Citizen could have run in a veterans’ chase, Coole Cody could have run in a veterans’ chase, Chambard could have run in a veterans’ chase.  In recent years, Croco Bay could have run in a veterans’ chase, Vintage Clouds could have run in a veterans’ chase, The Package could have run in a veterans’ chase, The Shunter could have run in the novices’ handicap chase.

Look at it the other way.  Look at the races we could have had this year if some of the ‘extra’ races that were added recently had not been added.  Galopin Des Champs and Bob Olinger could have taken on L’Homme Presse and Ahoy Senor in the Brown Advisory Chase.  Elimay and Mount Ida and Concertista could have taken on Allaho and Janidil and Eldorado Allen in the Ryanair Chase, and that’s without even considering the pre-Ryanair Chase era.

Of course, you can’t put the genie back into the bottle.

The other thing is that, when a fourth day was added in 2005, the total number of races went up to 24, six races per day.  But the creep started just three years later: 25 races in 2008, 26 in 2009, 27 in 2011, 28 in 2016, seven races per day and the talk of a fifth day could begin.

A significant portion of the value of a Cheltenham Festival winner lies in its rarity.  An rud is annamh in iontach.  What’s rare is wonderful.  Increase its availability, reduce its rarity, and you dilute its value.  There is a magic about the Cheltenham Festival that is not easily defined, which has its roots deeply embedded in its history.  It has evolved as such, generations in the making, and serious consideration should be given to the implementation of anything that could put that in jeopardy.  When you blow up a balloon, you don’t know where its bursting point is until you have passed that point.

© Sporting Life, 20th March 2022