Monday 28 December 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2021 - Ones to Watch

Oddschecker columnist Andy Holding and racing journalist Ed Quigley  discuss ones to watch in the lead up to the 2021 Cheltenham Festival

Thursday 15 October 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2019

Two of the showpiece events, the Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, proved anti-climactic, at least as far as the market leaders were concerned, but the Cheltenham Festival in 2019 still produced four days of exhilarating racing. Indeed, Espoir D’Allen may have been sent off at 16/1 against the likes of Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade and Laurina in the Champion Hurdle, but recorded an authoritative, 15-length win and looked every inch a top-class hurdler. He was one of five winners during the week for leading owner John P. McManus.

Similarly, in the ‘Blue Riband’ event, Al Boum Photo was only third choice of four entries from Willie Mullins’ Co. Carlow stable, but the seven-year-old fared by far the best of the quartet, travelling sweetly under jockey Paul Townend and staying on strongly from the final fence to beat Anibale Fly by 2½ lengths. The 12/1 chance was a first Cheltenham Gold Cup winner for Mullins, who had saddled the runner-up on six previous occasions and later admitted that he had ‘probably resigned’ himself to never winning the race.

Elsewhere, it was ‘business as usual’ for Altior, who won the Queen Mother Champion Chase for the second year running and, in so doing, equalled the record of 18 consecutive victories. That said, on officially ‘soft’ going, the 4/11 chance had to work a little harder than usual under Nico De Boinville – leading jockey of the week with four winners – knuckling down well in the closing stages to beat Politologue by 1¾ lengths after being narrowly headed at the final fence. The remaining ‘championship’ race, the Stayers’ Hurdle, fell to a new champion, Paisley Park, who justified favouritism to cap a brilliant, unbeaten season for trainer Emma Lavelle and owner Andrew Gemmell.

Other headline-makers at Prestbury Park included Frodon and Bryony Frost, who became the first female jockey to record a Grade One victory at the Cheltenham Festival when partnering Paul Nicholls’ seven-year-old to a game, 1¼-length win in the Ryanair Chase. Bryony Frost was joined in the winners’ enclosure by Rachael Blackmore (twice) and Lizzie Kelly, as female jockeys collectively recorded four wins at the Festival for the second year running.

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!

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.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2018

The 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup, sponsored by Timico, featured 15 runners, but quickly developed into a memorable match between Native River and Might Bite, with none of their rivals ever landing a serious blow. On soft going, Native River, ridden by champion jockey Richard Johnson, made virtually all the running, but was pressed throughout by Might Bite, ridden by Nico De Boinville, and it was only after jumping the final fence that the former took a definite advantage, staying on strongly to win by 4½ lengths.

Indeed, on the run to the home turn, the King George VI Chase winner Might Bite looked to be travelling the better of the pair and took a narrow advantage between the last two fences. However, the 2016 Welsh National winner Native River wasn’t to be denied, regaining the advantage at the last fence and striding purposefully away from the obstacle to put the result beyond doubt. Anibale Fly, a 33/1 outsider trained by Tony Martin and ridden by Barry Geraghty, finished third, a further 4 lengths away.

Victory on the 5/1 third favourite gave Richard Johnson his second Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, after Looks Like Trouble in 2000, but he later fell foul of the stewards for using his whip above the permitted level in the closing stages. He was fined £6,550, commensurate with the winning prize money of £369,821 and banned for seven days.

Conversely, defeat for the 4/1 favourite prevented Nicky Henderson from completing a unique Champion Hurdle-Champion Chase-Gold Cup treble at a single Cheltenham Festival. Henderson, though, was philosophical in defeat, saying, “A great race and he has done nothing wrong. We were taking on a horse who absolutely loves this [going] and unfortunately we don’t.”

The second favourite, Our Duke, trained by Jessica Harrington and ridden by Robbie Power, proved a major disappointment, being pulled up four fences from home after a couple of mistakes at halfway, while none of Willie Mullins’ four runners made much of an impact. The outsider of his quartet, Djakadam, fared best, finishing fifth, beaten 20½ lengths, while Killultagh Vic, Bachasson and Total Recall all failed to complete the course.

Saturday 7 March 2020

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017

The 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup, sponsored by Timico, featured 13 runners, headed by 3/1 favourite, Djakadam, who had previously finished runner-up behind Don Cossack in 2016 and Coneygree in 2015. Indeed, having travelled well for most of the way, Djakadam looked as if he might break Willie Mullins’ Gold Cup “hoodoo”, but made a mistake at the second last, having just taken the lead, and eventually finished fourth, beaten

Victory went to Sizing John, a 7-year-old owned by Alan Potts, trained by Jessica Harrington and ridden by Robbie Power. Potts said afterwards, "It’s unreal, it’s my dream and it’s come true. It’s our first runner in the race, the jockey’s first ride and Jessie's first runner.”

Earlier in his career, for Henry De Bromhead and Jessica Harrington, Sizing John had been campaigned at distances short of 3 miles. He actually finished second behind Douvan, trained by Willie Mullins, seven times over hurdles and fences at, or around, 2 miles. However, he won on his first attempt over 3 miles plus, beating Empire Of Dirt in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February, 2017, and dispelled any lingering stamina doubts with a stylish performance at Cheltenham.

Aided by the departure of 9/2 third favourite, Cue Card, at the third last fence, Sizing John took up the running between the last two fences and quickly established a 3-length lead, which he held, more or less, until the winning post. Minella Rocco finished strongly to snatch second place from 7/2 second favourite Native River, by a head, but the 18/1 chance was still 2¾ lengths behind Sizing John crossing the line and never looked like catching the winner.

The winning time, of 6 minutes 36.10 seconds, was 0.90 seconds faster than the standard time for 3 miles 2½ furlongs on the New Course at Cheltenham, which bore testament to the unseasonably fast – officially “good” – ground. Unfortunately, Lizzie Kelly, the first female jockey to ride in the Cheltenham Gold Cup for 33 years, was unseated at the second fence when her mount, Tea For Two, blundered badly.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2016

The 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup, sponsored by Timico, featured just nine runners, but was nonetheless a dramatic contest, in which the market leaders came to the fore. The race was won by then 9-year-old Don Cossack, owned by Gigginstown House Stud, trained by Gordon Elliot in Co. Meath and ridden by Bryan Cooper. In fact, the 9/4 favourite led home an Irish 1-2-3, with the second, Djakadam, and the third, Don Poli, trained by Willie Mullins in Co. Carlow.

Leading domestic fancy Cue Card, who was chasing a £1 million bonus after previously winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock and the King George VI Chase at Kempton, was sent off 5/2 second favourite, but crashed out of the race at the third last fence when travelling well within himself. Whether he would have won or not is debatable, but his departure left the way clear for Don Cossack and the 2015 runner-up Djakadam to fight out the finish.

Don Cossack took the lead at the third last fence and, with Djakadam failing to jump the second last with any real fluency, had the race in safe keeping from the last, staying on well up the hill to win by 4½ lengths. Don Poli, also owned by Gigginstown House Stud, stayed on from well off the pace to finish third, a further 10 lengths away, but never posed a threat to the front pair at any stage.

Don Cossack, who pulled off a shoe in mid-race, was a first Cheltenham Gold Cup winner for trainer Gordon Elliot, but an eighth Festival success overall. Elliot said, “I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I’m just so happy for all of us, all the staff in the yard, my mother and father. It means so much to me to win a Gold Cup. It was something special.”

Sadly, Don Cossack was sidelined with a tendon injury the following April and never raced again. Announcing his retirement in January, 2017, Elliot said, “He’s a horse of a lifetime and he owes us nothing. I said all season that if he had any sort of setback at all we would not abuse him and retire him straight away.”