It promised to be one of the best Cheltenham Festival’s, and duly delivered in stunning style.
Numerous top class horses provided thrilling performances and there proved to be a fair sprinkling of drama along the way. The first bombshell arrived several hours before any action had taken place on Tuesday, when Rich Ricci speaking on The Morning Line revealed that Vautour would not be taking part in the Gold Cup, but instead would take up the easier option of the Ryanair Chase.
Channel 4s finest appeared stunned into silence, barely breaking off at all to question the decision or digest the magnitude of the news, before seamlessly moving on to the next item. ‘The Gold Cup or nothing’ promise made by Mr Ricci in the lead up to Cheltenham would certainly have left something of a bitter taste for many out of pocket punters.
Nevertheless, the real action began on Tuesday afternoon with ground conditions described as good to soft, soft in places. Rich Ricci, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh were expected to run riot on day one, with Min favourite for connections in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. The main opposition to the favourite came in the form of the Nicky Henderson trained Altior. Seven Barrows were due a change of luck in the Festival opener, having hit the woodwork so often in recent years.
So it came to pass, with Altior streaking clear to win by seven lengths. In a fast run race, he stayed on powerfully up the famous hill. The finishing time was as dazzling as his performance. Henderson has had many outstanding two mile hurdlers through the yard, and this fella looks set to take high order.
Henderson and Mullins went head to head half an hour later, when Vaniteux did his utmost to keep tabs on the sensational Douvan. Ruby had just started to let out a little rein as the pair approached two out, with Nico de Boinville sending out distress signals in his attempts to stay in touch. With pressure applied, Vaniteux duly blundered and unseated his jockey. It was a shame for the horse, as he certainly deserved better for his efforts. Douvan went on to win by seven lengths, with Sizing John staying on for second place.
Henderson’s horse remains a hugely talented chaser, and there are more races to be won. Douvan looks every bit as talented as stable companion Vautour. He does things so effortlessly, seemingly always travelling well within himself. The Champion Chase looks the most likely target for next season, and he has already been installed as a short-priced favourite.
A third outstanding performance on the opening day came in the Champion Hurdle. Many had doubted whether Annie Power could challenge the geldings despite a lack of quality in the race. I certainly had my doubts, but was made to look rather silly when she absolutely romped home. Dominant from the off, Ruby gave her a positive ride making the most of the mares allowance and her undoubted tried and tested stamina. The boys never stood a chance.
Ruby spoke after breaking the course record, saying: “Willie asked me the other day what I was going to do and I'd looked up Dawn Run the other night and I said I was going to ride her like she's Dawn Run. If they catch me, they catch me. She's put in a brilliant performance and it was brilliant of Rich and Susannah to supplement her. She's a cracking mare.” Future clashes with Faugheen are a truly mouth-watering prospect.
Wednesday opened with another exciting clash as Yanworth took on another Mullins inmate in the striking looking Yorkhill. Alan King’s gelding went off favourite, but was no match for the stunning son of Presenting. When Ruby asked for an effort turning for home, the answer was instantaneous. Yorkhill has the stature, the gears, and is adaptable with regards to ground conditions. Ruby hinted at the Arkle for next season, but in truth this fella is probably just as capable of winning the RSA Chase. He looks a superstar in the making. To Yanworth’s great credit, he battled all the way to the line with the two pulling well clear of the remainder.
Yorkhill’s performance was truly stunning, but the outstanding performance of the day was yet to come.
The favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase was the Willie Mullins trained Un De Sceaux. Many believed he only had to stand up to win, having yet to taste defeat when successfully completing a race. Few dared to dream that Sprinter Sacre could land a blow on the favourite, despite being one of the greatest chasers the sport has ever produced.
When Un De Sceaux breezed into the lead at the top of the hill, the outcome looked inevitable. Henderson’s mighty chaser had looked a little outpaced, and though still in third appeared unlikely to be able to respond to the move. We waited for the favourite to pull clear, but no sooner had we anticipated Un De Sceaux cruising clear, than we witnessed Sprinter back on the bridle tanking alongside, before powering into the lead himself.
He’d put the race to bed turning for home, as long as the huge tank didn’t run empty. To my eyes, he looked all-out at the finish, but it didn’t matter. I and several around me had screamed him home, and as the realisation of his victory sunk in, I looked around me to see many open-mouthed racefans, visibly stunned at what they had just witnessed.
Horse, jockey and trainer received the adulation they so richly deserved. Henderson deserves all the plaudits for how he has nursed this wonderful horse back to something like his best. His performance will go down as one of the greatest comebacks in Cheltenham Festival history. The horse becomes a Prestbury Park legend. This is what Jump racing is all about.
From one superstar to another when Vautour duly won Thursday’s Ryanair Chase. Travelling like a dream and jumping like a stag he brushed aside the persistent challenge of Road To Riches to win by six lengths. It was a dominant performance on ground that would have been ideal. Would he have won the Gold Cup? We will likely get the answer to that question next March.
Vautour was simply sensational, and it is hard to believe that his performance could be eclipsed later the same day. Nevertheless, it certainly was when Thistlecrack stormed to victory in the World Hurdle. The Tizzard’s all-conquering gelding pulled seven lengths clear of the talented Alpha Des Obeaux, with the rest of the field an astounding 22 lengths further back. Colin Tizzard has a monster on his hands, and the Gold Cup is likely to be on the radar in the not-too distant future.
Already an eight-year-old, it would come as no surprise if he was fast-tracked to the blue riband in the same manner as Coneygree last year. Much will depend on how he takes to fences, but few could deny that he has the potential to reach the very top.
On Friday the Tizzard’s would have hoped for a similar performance from stable star Cue Card. They almost got it, as when he hit the floor three from home he looked to be travelling as powerfully as anything. His demise left Don Cossack in front, and he stayed on tenaciously to defeat Djakadam. It was a mighty performance from Gordon Elliott’s stunning looking chaser. His jumping was solid throughout, and both he and the runner-up kept up a relentless gallop all the way to the finish. The pace proved too hot for Don Poli as he stayed on best of the rest for a distant third.
The Cheltenham Festival always delivers, and as ever we now have a number of outstanding champions, along with numerous talented newcomers with the potential for stardom. Mullins dominated as we had expected, but he failed to land several major pots, and again fell short in the Gold Cup. Henderson, Tizzard and Elliott fought off a Mullins onslaught, though the undisputed winner over the four days was Jump Racing itself. The sport continues to produce thrilling action and heart-stopping drama. How fortunate we are to play a part.