Dark Clouds Cast Shadow Over Cheltenham

Jubilation turned to despair, as Many Clouds fought like a lion to defeat the mighty Thistlecrack, before collapsing and dying on Cheltenham’s hallowed turf.

In a pulsating finish up the famous hill, Oliver Sherwood’s Grand National winner went toe-to-toe with the young pretender, overhauling the Gold Cup favourite in the shadow of the post to win Saturday’s Cotswold Chase. Smad Place had set the fractions, with Many Clouds taking up the running approaching the third last. Turning for home Tizzard’s star joined the older warrior, and the two tussled all the way to the line. It was a thriller, and yet no sooner had the result of the photo-finish been announced, a tragic twist saw the winner fall to the ground.

Sherwood gave a moving tribute to an outstanding racehorse: “We've got to look forward and not look back. He's been the horse of a lifetime and I always said he would die for you and he's died for me and the team today doing what he does best. He wanted to win that race, he was beaten and then fought back in the last 50 yards to win.

“We've got to be philosophical and celebrate the Hennessy and National wins and that was almost a career-best performance. I thought, hand on heart, having had a wind op that he might have been struggling for oxygen and hence the reason we did it. He was better on his first run back at Aintree this season. The public get to know the horses, especially horses that try for you, they appreciated what he had done and he captured your imagination, really. Leighton is in bits and has gone home.”

Colin Tizzard summed up the mood when saying: “Poor old Many Clouds. My initial thought when we got beat was that I was disappointed but it's as sad as can be, he was a lovely horse and he beat us on the day. We ran our race, we're not making any excuses - today, on winter ground, we were beaten by a better horse, no question. They had a battle and it's just a tragic end to the race. This is what happens in our sport occasionally and you've got to face up to it.”

Despite the sad end to the race, thoughts inevitably turn to the result itself, and the shock defeat of Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack.

His jumping throughout was solid rather than spectacular. He got in close at the fourth last, and found himself several lengths adrift coming down the hill. Despite the error, he was back alongside Many Clouds at the second last and we waited for him to stretch clear. But when Tom Scudamore asked the favourite to find another gear, the response was probably as surprising to him, as it was to the thousands watching from the stands.

Thistlecrack has not been asked a serious question for the best part of a season and a half. We’ve become accustomed to seeing him gallop clear of opponents with his head in his chest. But on soft ground at Cheltenham, with that stiff uphill finish, at the end of a truly run three-mile plus graded chase, and against experienced battle-hardened opposition, it’s fair to say that he failed his toughest test to date.

Better ground may well have brought about a different result. Conditions appeared to favour Many Clouds, putting an emphasis on stamina rather than speed. Thistlecrack’s major weapon is his ability to tank-along at speed, gradually burning off the opposition. That asset was wonderfully displayed at Kempton in the King George, but there now has to be a concern as to whether he can apply the same pressure over such a demanding trip, at a track that serves up such a unique test.

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Though Thistlecrack somewhat fluffed his lines, giving hope to those likely to take him on in March, the season’s best three-mile hurdler proved less charitable.

The Harry Fry trained Unowhatimeanharry maintained his phenomenal run of success, in winning the Cleeve Hurdle. He travelled powerfully throughout, and saw off a rejuvenated Cole Harden, with Tizzard’s talented novice, West Approach, back in third. It will take a good one to lower his colours in March, though a sounder surface at the Festival could leave this gutsy galloper vulnerable to a speedier sort.

Another huge performance from West Approach, coupled with another victory for Wholestone in the latest Neptune Novices’ trial, serves to reaffirm the lofty standing of this pair. The latter has twice finished ahead of the former during the winter, though both were beaten by Peregrine Run at Cheltenham on decent ground in November. I fancy that all three will perform well at the Festival in March, though their targets are yet to be confirmed. I’d imagine both Wholestone and West Approach will line up in the Albert Bartlett, whilst Peregrine Run has the speed for the Neptune.

Un De Sceaux put in another polished performance in taking the re-routed Clarence House Chase for Willie Mullins. He proved five-lengths the better of Alan King’s returning Ryanair hero Uxizandre. It would come as no surprise to see both in the Ryanair come March, and a reversal in positions is a distinct possibility. I’d be amazed if either were to tackle Douvan in the Champion Chase.

Mullins will have been buoyed by the success of Un De Sceaux and of Vroum Vroum Mag at Doncaster, though the mare failed to impress. Sadly, both Faugheen and Min missed Leopardstown yesterday, after suffering minor setbacks. Both are expected to be fighting fit in no time, though Faugheen may now need to head straight to Cheltenham for the Champion Hurdle. Heading there without a prep-run is far from ideal, and it’s worth remembering that his only defeat came off the back of a break when sunk by Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle of 2015.

In his absence, Petit Mouchoir took a sub-standard looking Irish Champion Hurdle. It was another bold, front-running display from the six-year-old, though Footpad got to within a length of him at the line. You’d have to think that a fit Faugheen would chew these up and spit them out.

And so, a weekend that promised so much, turned out to be truly dramatic for so many reasons. Glory and tragedy ride side by side in this wonderful sport. Participants put everything on the line in search of the former, yet the latter occasionally steals the show.

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