Nicky Henderson captured the Trainers’ Championship for the second time in five years, with a dominant display at Sandown on Saturday.
Paul Nicholls had hoped for a successful final day of the campaign, but it was Henderson who landed a treble on the day, and came close to making it four, when Vyta Du Roc was denied by a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup.
Altior proved the star-turn with a stunning display in the Grade 1 Celebration Chase. He swept past the Champion Chase winner Special Tiara, as they headed for the last fence, and though he got in close, he quickly regained momentum, sprinting to an eight-length victory. His jumping was arguably as good as we’ve seen from him throughout the winter, and he travelled effortlessly throughout. It was a truly devastating display, and many Jumps fans will already be licking their lips at the prospect of Altior versus Douvan in the autumn.
Juvenile hurdler Call Me Lord had been a comfortable winner for Seven Barrows in the first, and L’Ami Serge finally put in a performance worthy of his talent, in winning the Grade 2 Select Hurdle. That double for owners Munir and Soude arguably should have been a treble on the day, when Vyta Du Roc appeared to be given plenty to do, before charging through traffic late-on to fail by just a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup. Peter Bowen’s Henllan Harri was given a peach of a ride by son Sean, and managed to hold-off Henderson’s horse. Though not the biggest, the runner-up will surely be aimed at nationals next season.
Of his success in the title race, Henderson said: “We’ve got some Grade One horses and to be fair to Paul, he has done incredibly well and won a huge amount of prize money whereas we’ve got horses like Altior, Buveur d’Air and Might Bite.” Of Altior he added: “He's top class. I think we've always known that. He’s got a bit of everything - he's got class, he's got the gears. I think we've always known that he is very special ever since a young horse as a hurdler. You know that Special Tiara is going to set serious fractions but this fellow can always have it covered as he has the pace to do it.”
A special Sandown mention goes to the wonderful Menorah, who won the Oaksey Chase for a fourth time, before being retired by connections. The 12-year-old has been campaigned at the highest level throughout his career, and has brought great success to owners Diana and Grahame Whateley. It was terrific to see him go-out with such a stunning display.
So, whilst Henderson successfully kept Nicholls at arms-length, the same could not be said in Ireland, with Gordon Elliott finally overwhelmed by a tsunami of Willie Mullins winners. A lead of around €400,000 going into the Punchestown Festival put Elliott in pole position, but despite several unlucky defeats during the week, the Master of Closutton still managed to retain his crown by a staggering €199,455.
Great Field was mightily impressive in winning the Ryanair Novice Chase earlier in the week, and on Friday, Wicklow Brave in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Bacardys in the Champion Novice Hurdle put Mullins in front. A double on the final day of the meeting, which included a victory in the juvenile hurdle for Bapaume, proved to be the title clincher.
Of the dramatic turnaround, Mullins said: “I didn't think it was possible for us to win, particularly when a few of the early photo-finishes went against us this week. It's fantastic to win and a big thank you to all the team at home and all my owners. It's been a funny season. It hasn't been that enjoyable and I'm glad it's over. Gordon is a great competitor. He's fantastic and has been a gentleman the whole way through.”
Elliott had led from the off, and was understandably gutted to come off second best: “It's a bit heart-breaking. We've led from day one of the season, but to be in the same sentence as Willie Mullins is brilliant. Hopefully we'll do it one year. I'm still only 39 and hopefully I'll be around for another few years. We've equalled Willie's record of 193 winners in a season. I said coming here that if I could equal that, it would be something. I'll keep my head up and enjoy it.”
Saturday’s action brought the curtain down on a dramatic National Hunt season. Mullins’ ‘against all odds’ title victory will have left him needing a summer break more than ever before. The loss of Vautour was a huge blow, and then Mr O’Leary took his horses elsewhere. Faugheen, Annie Power and Min were all struck-down by injury, yet the Master of Closutton found a way to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.
A tough winter also for Paul Nicholls. His title challenge masks an underlying decline in the quality of horses at his disposal. He desperately needs to uncover a star or two if he is to challenge a resurgent Nicky Henderson. Sprinter Sacre was retired, but Altior has moved seamlessly into the role of Seven Barrows Superstar. He also has a new hurdling hero in Buveur D’Air.
And both will be looking over their shoulders, as Colin Tizzard continues to build on a stunning campaign. Fox Norton, Thistlecrack and Native River have all captured major prizes, and promise much of the same for some time to come.
Now, if we can just get this Flat season out of the way.