Jordan McCarthy looks back on a historic Cheltenham festival.
What a feast of racing! It never fails to disappoint.
The Cheltenham festival of 2013 was the showpiece that we so hoped it would be. It saw the Irish trained horses having a record week. It also saw soft ground on the first day: something that has not happened for well over a decade. The meeting was actually in doubt on Tuesday morning due to the freezing temperatures. However, Simon Claisse and his dedicated crew worked hard and got the meeting on. Thankfully!
The frost covers certainly made the difference. From the off it was national hunt racing at its best. Great tussles and a few processions also. There were some surprises and some well fancied horses failed to shine. It still set the hearts racing though and showed that it truly is the Olympics of horse racing. So although most of us did not have the same success as the Irish punter who netted over £300,000 on a final day accumulator, it still proved to be an exciting few days.
Hurricane Fly became only the second horse ever to regain the Champion Hurdle when he won Tuesdays feature. The Montjeu gelding never really travelled with his usual zest but in the end his class, along with his pilot Ruby Walsh, got him home. It is fair to say it wasn’t anywhere near his performance of 2011 but he won and beat a better field this time perhaps. He looked to be struggling but came back on the bridle and in the end won well. Perhaps this was his greatest win as he showed his grit and determination when the chips were down.
Rock on Ruby ran a good race and the Fly has defeated a quality field. He is a true champion. Quevega also had to dig deep in claiming her fifth consecutive mare’s race at the festival. This mare doesn’t even have a prep run during the season. She is sent straight to Cheltenham. It has obviously paid off as she has emulated Golden Miller’s five festival wins of the same race. She looked to be in trouble turning for home but just got up to win under Ruby Walsh. He did not panic and allowed her class to get her home. It capped a remarkable day for the Kildare native as it completed an opening day treble.
The win which initiated that treble came in the Supreme when Champagne Fever led the field and defeated hot favourite My Tent or Yours. Walsh showed his class aboard last season’s Champion Bumper winner and led practically from the off. He dictated the pace and it paid off as he saw off the favourite with Jezki back in third. This horse is a chaser in the making and was available at a double-figure price the week before the festival. He became only the second Champion Bumper winner to win the following season’s Supreme. It is a rare feat.
That shows the impact that the Champion Bumper can have on young horses. It is a very gruelling race and can often hinder the career of young horses. That is why the maroon & white silks of Gigginstown are rarely seen in the Champion Bumper. However, it is still a very high-profile race. Ireland’s record is phenomenal in the race which we took again thanks to Briar Hill.
Ireland’s novices certainly rose to the occasion. They seemed to be a fairly average bunch initially in comparison to the novices in Britain. However, Lord Windermere and Benefficient beat quality fields in their respective races and proved that this seasons novice chasers on the emerald isle are no mugs. Benefficient saw off a festival banker in Dynaste in the Jewson. This was part of a treble which 20-year-old jockey Brian Cooper won’t be in a hurry to forget anytime soon.
Benefficient won the Irish Arkle this season. However that race attracted just three runners with the market leader Arvika Ligeonniere falling and Oscars Well clattering a fence on the run in. Therefore it was difficult to assess the significance of the victory. An SP of 20/1 and faced with David Pipe’s stable star suggested that the Irish raider had it all to do. He won impressively though and credit to him.
Lord Windermere won the RSA for Davy Russell and Jim Culloty. He was aided with the fall of Boston Bob but ran out the winner of a race that always proves to be a gruelling test. Elsewhere Bailygreen pushed Simonsig all the way in the Arkle. The Mouse Morris trained gelding certainly rose to the occasion and highlights the trainers knack with getting horses spot on for the festival. The winner had to dig deep after pulling hard early on.
The Gold Cup turned out to be a decent renewal as Bob’s Worth ran out an impressive winner. The Nicky Henderson trained gelding won despite being hampered by the fall of Silviniaco Conti. He will be a tough horse to beat as he has so much heart. He is small in stature and is by no means a traditional chaser but he is an extremely talented horse and one that will take all the beating if he turns up for the King George next season. This win completes a festival treble for the son of Bob Back. He will bypass Aintree and has been put away until next season.
Sir Des Champs looked like ending Ireland’s drought in racings Blue Riband as A.P McCoy took the ride in the absence of usual pilot Davy Russell. The Gigginstown horse travelled superbly and ran a career best but just came up short finishing second. However, one would have to feel that there is a Gold Cup in the Willie Mullins trained chaser. The ground was slightly against him, although it was against the winner too perhaps. Either way there is a lot of big races in this horse and maybe Punchestown will highlight that.
Our Conor demolished the field in the Triumph Hurdle on the penultimate day and has recently been snapped up by Barry Connell for an undisclosed sum. This horse has already been touted as a very lively contender in next year’s Champion Hurdle and trainer Dessie Hughes did not shy away from that in his post race interview. Current odds of 6/1 seem mad but he is a very exciting prospect.
The other novice hurdles also threw up future stars as The New One and At Fishers Cross both won their respective races. The New One accelerated away from his rivals in the Neptune and looks set for the Aintree Hurdle next. The Nigel Twiston-Davies runner saw off Irish banker Pont Alexandre who set off at snail’s pace under Ruby Walsh. In the Albert Bartlett the J.P. McManus owned At Fishers Cross gave A.P.McCoy his first winner of the week. This horse has been an improving type all season and the soft ground played to his strengths. Could he be a threat in next year’s World Hurdle which will see the return of Big Bucks? It will be interesting to see.
Solwhit took the World Hurdle for the Irish this year under a great ride from Paul Carberry. This horse returned to the track earlier on this season after almost two years on the sidelines. He won a race which had started off at a very slow pace as none of the jockeys wanted to make it. It capped another Grade One for the Irish at the festival. Solwhit was unlucky to run into Hurricane Fly at the penultimate stage of his career and has had to settle for second best on several occasions. He deserved this victory, even with no Big Bucks around.
Another horse who had his day in the sun at the festival is Cue Card. The Colin Tizzard trained gelding took the Ryanair and added to his Champion Bumper win of 2010. This horse is a class act but ran into Sprinter Sacre last year and was involved in a red-hot renewal of the Supreme the previous year. He deserved his victory and cruised home in what was a quality packed field.
The horse on most people’s minds going into the festival was Sprinter Sacre and he didn’t disappoint his followers. He saw off the challenge of 2011 winner Sizing Europe and completed the Arkle/Queen Mother double. This was the race where the French bred could show that he was a champion. He beat a quality field in last year’s Arkle and has beaten all before him this season maintaining his unbeaten record over fences. The hope was that Sizing Europe would make the Nicky Henderson trained work hard for his win as both horses have seen off opposition on home soil with ease all season. Turning for home it looked like we were going to see the classic duel we had hope for. However, the Henry de Bromhead gelding faded after a mishap and Sprinter Sacre took the spoils. Whether or not the Irish horse could have landed a blow is anyone’s guess. The winner showed his class once again though and gave Barry Geraghty a remarkable fifth Champion Chase.
The two-mile chasing division has been lacking strength in depth this season as has been pointed out on several occasions. However, this horse is a superstar and jumps magnificently. Of course people are going to draw comparison with the great Moscow Flyer. Both did the Arkle/Queen Mother double. Both were ridden by Barry Geraghty. Both have taken racing at the minimum trip to new heights. However, Moscow beat better quality fields, most notably when beating Azertyuiop and Well Chief when he took his second Champion Chase in 2005. True, you can only beat what is put in front of you. However, the two-mile chasing division is seriously lacking when you take Sprinter and the Sizer out.
The last decade or so has seen terrific horses grace the division. Names like Edredon Bleu, Flagship Uberalles, Azertyuiop, Well Chief, and Moscow Flyer and of course Master Minded…..you get the idea! Sprinter Sacre could line up against Flemenstar at the other festivals this season though and that could be a challenge. The bottom line is that Sprinter is a magnificent horse. He has blown us away and is the ‘closest thing to equine perfection around at the moment’ according to his jockey. However, we have yet to see him being put under pressure. Heres hoping for a challenger! Then if he does defeat talented individuals he can go down as a great without doubt.
One negative from the week was Paddy Power’s tattoo stunt. Hunt Ball, trained by Keiran Burke, donned a Paddy Power symbol on his coat as he took to the track during the festival. I’m all for publicity but this was a step too far. Horse welfare is crucial and the authorities have been under pressure over the last few years in this regard. The sport does not need horses being painted- end of! It is completely wrong and it is very surprising that the BHA have not acted. With that, the week ended on a sad note with JT McNamara suffering a bad fall. The jockey remains in hospital but is stable. We hope that JT will pull through this and our thoughts are with the family.
Of Course many fancied horses were beaten at the festival but one would expect a few of those to bounce back. It may be next season or it may even be this season. My Tent Or Yours was narrowly beaten in a strong Supreme and is rated high enough to feature strongly in a Champion Hurdle. The Betfair Hurdle winner will have another big day in him and it may even be soon, perhaps at the Grand National meeting.
Oscar Whiskey is another hurdler who was defeated at the Festival. He went off favourite in the World Hurdle but failed to mount a significant challenge for the second successive year. Three miles may be beyond him although he did finish a close second to Reve de Sivola in the Cleeve Hurdle earlier in the season. The next stop for Whiskey is Liverpool where he bids for a third successive Aintree Hurdle. The Henderson runner has almost made this two and a half mile event his own. The trip suits him as he tends to find a few too good over the minimum two miles and his stamina is stretched over three miles. Therefore he is likely to excel when back over his favoured distance next week. It truly is a shame that there is no ‘Ryanair’ hurdle at the festival which has been reiterated by his trainer. That is a debate for another day.
This year’s Aintree Hurdle could be a superb encounter as Zarkandar, The New One, Grandouet and Countrywide Flame all take on Oscar Whiskey. It could be a classic. One other horse that did not feature at the festival, because he was at home in his box, is Flemenstar. He is being prepared for a crack at the Melling Chase after suffering a slight setback. He looks set to take on Festival victors Cue Card and Sprinter Sacre. That should be exciting to say the least!
Jezki’s unbeaten run over hurdles came to an end in the opener but Jessica Harrington will be aiming to have him right for Aintree and Punchestown. Rule The World is certainly a horse to keep on our side as he ran a good second in the Neptune. He may feature at Punchestown and is a horse that excites his jockey Davy Russell. He will have a couple of Grade Ones in him hopefully. One man who had a very quiet festival was Paul Nicholls. By his standards one winner has to be considered a below par performance. Sure, Al Ferof and Big Bucks were ruled out of the festival and Kauto Star has been retired. However, one feels that the tide is turning as Nicky Henderson looks set to take the Trainer’s Championship. Unless of course Nicholls takes the National like he did last year! Either way, although we look set to be entering the era of Henderson, expect Nicholls to bounce back. He may not have the firepower of seasons gone by and may be competing with Henderson’s superstars but expect him to have a couple of more Grade One successes before the season ends.
So many questions have been answered, new heroes have been born and the novice events showed us that we have much to look forward to. It was truly a remarkable week for the Irish as they took 14 of the 27 races. This is a record tally as we surpassed 2011’s total of 13! The festival threw up some great races and it is no wonder why we love it so much. The Irish Rugby and Football teams always receive credit where it’s due (and criticism more often than not!). Hopefully the Irish horses will receive massive credit as a result of their success. What Irish horses achieved was by no means a guarantee going into the week. We beat the hosts 14-13 and that is no mean achievement. Irish horses, trained and bred, had a magnificent week. There were 20 Irish bred festival winners. Of the 12 Grade One contests, 8 of those were won by Irish bred horses. This is including the Gold Cup winner Bob’s Worth. Cheltenham 2013 was the shop window for Ireland, the equine capital of the world!
So as the dust settles in the Cotswolds, talk of next year’s festival is already mounting. Can Bob’s Worth be toppled? Will Big Bucks regain his Crown? Is Our Conor going to claim the Champion Hurdle? The list goes on! One thing is certain: it is the greatest show on earth! To keep us occupied for now though we have the Easter Festivals at Cork and Fairyhouse respectively. The Grand National meeting at Aintree will see ‘the most extreme sport’ at its very best as Channel 4 have put it. Then, Punchestown festival will bring the curtain down on the National Hunt season. Then it’s the turn of the Flat to take centre stage when we see the Derby, Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood, Galway Festival, the Arc, and much, much more.
Oh, what a sport!