Like many others, I’m feeling slightly flat this morning, as I come to terms with the reality that another wonderful Cheltenham Festival is over for another year. The build-up and anticipation is quite extraordinary these days, but all too soon the final race is run, and feelings of hope, joy, desperation and frustration are replaced by a rather hollow sensation.
Those that love Aintree, Punchestown, Newmarket, Royal Ascot or Longchamp, will feel that I am overreacting somewhat. But I know many feel as I do, that nothing quite compares to those four glorious days at Prestbury Park. The setting itself, with Cleeve Hill as a stunning backdrop, along with the grandeur of the new stand, and the stunning structural improvements throughout the course, all combine to make Cheltenham an exceptional sporting venue. Around 250,000 racegoers can’t be wrong.
And so, to ease my pain I thought I’d reflect on the racing performances that, in my opinion, were the standouts during four days of top-class action. I could have chosen more, and there’s one or two omissions that will puzzle readers, but the following ‘magnificent seven’ stood out for me.
Despite Gordon Elliott having a sensational opening day, I have chosen a Nicky Henderson duo that oozed star-quality on Tuesday.
I’m of the opinion that Altior proved himself an exceptional talent, in winning the Arkle Chase. Many appeared less than impressed by his ‘workmanlike’ victory, yet he went from a length in-front at the last, to six-lengths clear at the line. He needs rousing to get into top gear, but when stoked-up he is a destructive force. He jumped beautifully throughout, and like in the Supreme a year earlier, was doing his best work at the finish. He may well become a Champion Chase winner, but it would come as no surprise to me, if he were to be stepped-up in trip, with the King George as a short-term target.
Just a short while after Altior’s victory, stable companion Buveur D’Air proved himself the class act in a decidedly average looking Champion Hurdle. Time may prove that he beat very little, but the style of his success may well place him in the same league as Annie Power and Faugheen. He was wonderfully slick over his hurdles, as he cruised through the race, waiting for his jockey to give the signal. And when Noel Fehily said go, the six-year-old quickly put the race to bed. My Tent Or Yours proved best of the rest, though was comfortably brushed aside by the winner.
The winning time suggests the performance was a strong one, and Buveur D’Air looks capable of becoming a dominant force over the coming period. It’s worth remembering that this victory was only his second run of the season over hurdles, and there is certainly room for a fair amount of improvement.
I skip Wednesday despite solid performances from Willoughby Court, Might Bite and Special Tiara. An injury to Douvan probably robbed us of a dazzling performance, though I’m of the opinion that a rather circumspect preparation left him ill-prepared for this ‘true’ championship test. He defeated 12-year-old Realt Mor in his prep-race at Punchestown.
Willie Mullins had drawn a blank until Thursday, but then answered his critics with a stunning four-timer. The performance of Un De Sceaux in winning the Ryanair was as good as anything during the festival. Try as he might, Ruby Walsh was unable to apply the brakes on the free-going nine-year-old, and was pretty-much a passenger from the fifth fence. Onlookers waited for him to wilt as he turned for home, but Un De Sceaux kept-up the astounding gallop, and with a floorless round of jumping finished a comfortable length and a half ahead of the strong finishing Sub Lieutenant.
It was a cracking performance from the multiple Grade 1 winner, and reminiscent of his ‘all-guns-blazing’ Arkle success of 2015. This fella has been somewhat overlooked in recent years, with stable companions Annie Power, Faugheen, Vautour and Douvan creating the headlines. But there’s no doubting the star quality that Un De Sceaux possesses. He’s a true Champion in his own right.
I was also stunned by the performance of Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle later that day. Shaneshill had been my confident selection, having highlighted my doubts over the gears possessed by Unowhatimeanharry. I expected NC to be a little too keen to see out the three miles, but I was proved wrong. Not only did he storm up the famous hill to victory, but he looked capable of going around again. Beautifully ridden by Ruby Walsh, he was produced between the last two flights, and stayed-on powerfully to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller.
He’s no mug over two-miles, having finished third to Annie Power in last year’s Champion Hurdle. And it’s clear that he appreciates the better ground he encounters in the spring. His owner Graham Wylie was quick to compare him to his previous staying hero Inglis Drever. Similar in stature, and showing the same tenacious attitude up the final hill, there’s every chance that Nichols Canyon can become a multiple Stayer’s winner, assuming Mullins can keep him fit and well.
Friday’s action began with a stunning performance from Triumph Hurdle favourite Defi Du Seuil. He’s a tank of a horse, and he powered through the race like a potential star. There had been some concern over the drying ground, but in the end, nothing could stop the Philip Hobbs trained juvenile. Yet another dazzling hurdler for JP McManus, it will be interesting to see if he goes Champion Hurdle or Arkle Chase next year. Interviewed after the race, Hobbs spoke in glowing terms, hinting that this fella could achieve anything.
A little over half an hour later, Mullins completed another glorious piece of training, by saddling Arctic Fire to win the County Hurdle off top-weight. The eight-year-old had been off the track since January 2016, and it’s easy to forget that he had finished a close runner-up to Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle of 2015. Rated 169 at his peak, he’d been given a chance by the handicapper running off 158, and so it proved with a performance that was both classy and tenacious. If coming out of the race fit and well, he’ll possibly head to the Aintree Hurdle, with the likelihood of a clash with Buveur D’Air. That could prove a thorough examination for the new Champion hurdler.
It’ll come as no surprise to see that Sizing John is the final member of my ‘Cheltenham Magnificent Seven’. He’s proved a sensation since being stepped-up in trip, having spent the early part of his career chasing Douvan around various racecourses, including Cheltenham. Never out of the first three over obstacles, this huge son of Midnight Legend won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last time, though many questioned whether the steady pace that day had played to his strengths.
Nevertheless, trainer Jess Harrington remained confident that stamina would not be an issue, and she was proven right, with Sizing John seeing out the extended trip in fine style to win by almost three lengths, from the fast finishing Minella Rocco.
Robbie Power rode a beautifully cool and calm race, having the seven-year-old in mid-division throughout the early stages, with the horse always travelling supremely well. Moving onto the tail of the leaders coming downhill to the third last, only Djakadam appeared to be going as well, but by the second last Sizing John was on terms, and a fine leap saw him sweep to the front. Another superb jump at the last sealed the deal, with Minella Rocco getting up on the line to beat Native River for second spot. Djakadam faded late-on to finish fourth.
This was Jess Harrington’s first runner in the Gold Cup. The horse had formerly been trained by Henry De Bromhead, but was moved to Harrington by owners Ann and Alan Potts during the summer. He now stands at the head of the staying chase division, and with age on his side could well be there for some time to come.
And so the curtain came down on another terrific Cheltenham Festival. Once again, we’ve witnessed four days of sporting theatre, scattered with moments of elation and despair. Jump racing’s Olympics never fails to deliver on the most dramatic stage of all.