Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Arkle: The Stuff of Which Legends are Made

For younger readers, or those unfamiliar with the history of National Hunt, Arkle is arguably the best steeplechaser of all time. I say arguably because his Timeform rating of 212, which has become the yardstick for every other steeplechaser since the mid-1960s, was achieved at a time when Timeform ratings for National Hunt horses were in their infancy and is considered, by some, an anomaly.

To put things in perspective, his stable companion Flyingbolt achieved a Timeform rating of 210 and the pair is fully 20lb ahead of their nearest rival in the all-time list. Now, given that hundreds of thousands of steeplechasers have raced in the last 50 years, it’s effectively impossible, statistically, the best two, ever, came from the same yard at the same time. The most exciting steeplechaser of recent times, Sprinter Sacre, is in third place with Timeform rating of 192p but, even if he can be coaxed back to his best form, he still has a long way to go to be mentioned in the same breath as Arkle.

The yard in question was that of County Dublin trainer Tom Dreaper and, whether or not you choose to believe the Timeform figures, Arkle was undoubtedly an exceptional steeplechaser who fully deserves his place in the history of the Cheltenham Festival. Owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, and named after a Scottish mountain, Arkle won what is now the RSA Chase on his first appearance at the Festival in 1962, but is principally remembered for a hat-trick of wins in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1996.

On the first occasion, in 1964, he took revenge on Mill House, who had beaten him, on 5lb worse terms, in the Hennessy Gold Cup the previous November, winning by 5 lengths. He beat the same horse by 20 lengths in the 1965 Cheltenham Gold Cup and in the 1966 renewal, in the absence of his old rival, beat Dormant by 30 lengths. His achievements are commemorated by the Arkle Challenge Trophy, a two-mile novices’ chase run on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, and a half-size bronze statue at Prestbury Park. His skeleton holds pride of place in the museum of the Irish National Stud in County Kildare.

Despite originally be bought for 1,150 guineas, Arkle won 22 of his 26 steeplechases, including the King George VI Chase, the Hennessy Gold Cup (twice), the Irish Grand National and, of course, the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times. Known in racing circles simply as ‘Himself’, a fractured pedal bone forced Arkle into retirement in 1968 and he was put down three years later after suffering from chronic arthritis.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

A Blast From the Past!

queen mother at the races

Horse racing stalwarts Queen Mother and the Queen in the paddock at The Cheltenham Festival way back in 1957!

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2019

The much anticipated 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup (aka the Magners Gold Cup) was the 91st running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup race,  held each year at  the Cheltenham Racecourse, in Gloucestershire, England. The race took place on 15th March 2019 as part of the wider four day Cheltenham Festival and featured 16 runners. The going on the course was good to soft.

Al Boum Photo, ridden by Paul Townend and trained by Willie Mullins won the race (and the £350,000+ prize money), much to the delight of the trainer. The race was won in a time of 6m 39.06s.

It had almost become something of a running joke that Willie Mullins had won everything worth winning over this three decade National Hunt career, aside from the Gold Cup. From the Grand National (Hedgehunter) to achieving more Cheltenham Festival wins than anyone else, he'd done and won it all. As far as the Gold Cup was concerned though, it was a case of 'better luck next time' as he had previously been runner up in the event an astounding six times in total. As they say though, good things come to those who wait, and this long awaited win is certainly the cherry on the cake for the Irishman.

"I had probably resigned myself to the fact I would not win the Gold Cup" said Mullins after the race. How sweet this victory must have been.

The win was also a stark change of fortunes for jockey Paul Townend, who the previous year had received a 21-day ban for dangerous riding after crashing through the barrier at the Punchestown Festival in April 2018. It was a costly and yet uncharacteristic lapse of concentration, that clearly didn't sway Mullins from making him the man for the job here.  Bad luck had also whirled around winning horse Al Boum Photo, as Ruby Walsh had broken his leg on the horse during the previous Cheltenham Festival. Nevertheless all of this bad luck ebbed away during the 2019 Gold Cup, to bring about an impressive and memorable victory.

Seven year old Al Boum Photo won at odds of 12-1, after taking the lead with two fences to go. His closest challenger had been the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly at 22-1, with  Bristol De Mai finishing third at 18-1. Native River placed fourth.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Can Old Favourites Get Back to Cheltenham Festival in 2021?

One of the endearing qualities of jumps horse racing as opposed to the Flat is that National Hunt horses go on for longer.
They really do become public property and the Cheltenham Festival sees the same equine stars turning up year after year. There were some high-profile absentees from Britain’s premier jumps meeting in 2020, so will we see familiar faces return perhaps for the last time next year?
The legendary Sea Pigeon was the last 10-year-old to win the Champion Hurdle way back in 1980. That is the size of the task facing Buveur D’Air if he overcomes the gruesome injury suffered during the 2019 Fighting Fifth at Newcastle and races again next term.
While owner JP McManus and trainer Nicky Henderson won the Champion Hurdle anyway this past season with Epatante, Buveur D’Air has arguably been the leading British hurdler of recent times. It is pretty late in his career to spend time on the sidelines, but the freak accident that saw a splinter from an obstacle sticking out of his hoof is not necessarily the end.
Buveur D’Air owes nobody – connections or punters – anything after many years of loyal service at Seven Barrows. The comeback trail is tough and that is reflected in his odds of 20/1 for the 2021 Champion Hurdle, but Henderson has done it with other great horses in the yard.

Sprinter Sacre immediately springs to mind, and that brings us on to another absent friend from Cheltenham, in his fellow dual Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Altior. Drama has followed this horse in some of his races and during past preparation for previous Festivals.
Last-minute lameness caused Altior to miss his tilt at a Champion Chase hat-trick. There was no late reprieve or miracle poultice that could get him to the track.
As the MansionBet Cheltenham blog highlights, Henderson is the joint-most successful trainer in Champion Chase history though, and Altior is 13/2 to regain his crown aged 11 next year. It’s not unheard of for a horse in double figures to win this prestigious event at the Festival either.
Sprinter Sacre regained it aged 10 to much fanfare from an adoring Cheltenham crowd in 2016. The following year, the ill-fated Special Tiara caused an upset when he won it at the same point in his career.

Altior still showed plenty of ability, registering an easy third success in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February after losing his famous match with Cyrname over an extended two-and-a-half miles at Ascot. This is a four-time Cheltenham Festival winner we are talking about. Moscow Flyer regained the Champion Chase in 2005 at the age of 11, and another great Irish raider called Skymas doubled up in the race at 11 and 12. Recent trends show that younger horses landing the spoils are the exception rather than the rule. As with Buveur D’Air, there is no denying the fact that Altior is vulnerable to rivals with less wear and tear, but no racehorse has yet had the class to beat him over obstacles at two miles.