Another Cheltenham Festival has been and gone, but of course this year’s behind-closed-doors meeting was like no other.
While the lack of a crowd made for an unusual atmosphere, there were the typical spills and thrills on the track, with new stars anointed, old favourites eclipsed, gambles landed and bankers who blew out.
We take a look at the major talking points of the Festival:
Ride of the week
Jack Kennedy’s ride on Mount Ida in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup will be talked about in the same terms as Paul Carberry’s masterpiece on Frenchman’s Creek in 2002 and other great Festival rides. Heavily backed into 3-1 favouritism, her supporters would have been forgiven if they had admitted defeat after four fences as the mare was jumping like she had never seen a fence before and was almost tailed off. Kennedy coaxed her back into contention, though, before she arrived on the bridle on the turn for home and cruised to victory.
Disappointment of the week
Perhaps what made Kennedy’s ride on Mount Ida more meritorious was the fact that earlier in the afternoon he had suffered crushing disappointment. For many the banker of the week was Envoi Allen – transferred to Henry de Bromhead’s yard from suspended trainer Gordon Elliott – he arrived at Cheltenham unbeaten and already a dual Festival winner. However, he fell at the fourth but thankfully returned unscathed.
Biggest winning distance of the week
The very first race of the meeting, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, produced the longest winning distance over the four days as Appreciate It sauntered to a 24-length verdict. Trained by Willie Mullins, who was winning the race for the seventh time, he was arguably only the stable’s second-string for this earlier in the season before Ferny Hollow was ruled out. Only eight lined up and main market rival Metier clearly did not run to form, but it was hard not to be impressed by the winner.
What might have been?
Each year countless horses miss the Festival and rob the meeting of anticipated clashes, but many have been asking just how good is Ferny Hollow? Hopefully we might not have to wait too long to find out if he recovered from a mid-season setback to make Punchestown but his form stands up to the closest scrutiny. He beat subsequent Supreme winner and stablemate Appreciate It in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago and on his hurdling debut had none other than Bob Olinger, hugely impressive in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, behind him on his one and only hurdles run.
Changing of the guard
The story behind Paisley Park and the willingness of his connections to engage with the media and public over the previous three seasons has made him a huge fan favourite. Having won the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in last-gasp style, he was sent off favourite to reclaim the Stayers’ Hurdle crown he took two years ago. Beaten last year when suffering from a fibrillating heart, he could only manage third this time with no excuses other than not being able to keep up with all-the-way winner Flooring Porter and his best days may now be behind him.
Star of the week
There is no denying racing approached this year’s Festival on the back foot after the furore of last season’s meeting going ahead as the pandemic took hold and in the wake of Elliott’s suspension. However, Rachael Blackmore waged a one-woman PR campaign. She became the first female to win the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday on the unbeaten Honeysuckle, with that win the highlight of six successes which secured the leading rider crown. With Sir Anthony McCoy and Ruby Walsh hailing her as the best jockey currently in the weighing room, her influence on future generations cannot be underestimated.
Stop the contest
Had the Prestbury Cup been a boxing match, it would have been stopped by the referee after just two days. Heading into the meeting the Irish looked to hold the upper hand in many of the championship races, but few would have expected a final scoreline of 23 wins to the British-trained five. These things tend to go in cycles, we are told, and there was a time any Irish winner was heralded as great for the meeting. It has now gone full circle and if it were not for Nicky Henderson providing two victors through Shishkin and Chantry House, it would have been more embarrassing still.