The loss of Thistlecrack from the Gold Cup line-up came as a real bombshell, in a winter that has proved disastrous for ‘Blue Riband’ contenders.
The 2016 winner Don Cossack, had to be retired, and then the 2015 winner Coneygree was ‘pulled’ due to ongoing injury concerns. Each-way prospect Many Clouds tragically died after his sensational win in the Cotswold Chase, and now a potential star of the sport has been struck down.
Colin Tizzard was philosophical as ever when saying: “He had a bit of heat in his leg last night and was a bit sore. We had the leg scanned this morning and he has a slight tear on his tendon. We've seen it at every yard and it happens every year.” The trainer still has the top two in the betting, with Native River now taking over as race favourite.
The setback for Thistlecrack will be particularly galling for jockey Tom Scudamore. The King George success was a special occasion, and he would have been confident of another thrilling spin around Prestbury Park. He said: “It's something that happens in racing unfortunately, look at Willie Mullins this season, he's lost a handful. Even still, it doesn't make it easy to swallow, it makes you feel sick. It's worse for the owners, John and Heather (Snook), and the lads that see him every morning. Look at Olympians, they get their dreams shattered and have to wait four years, hopefully we'll get another chance next season.”
It’s become something of a theme throughout the build-up to this Cheltenham Festival, with the Champion Hurdle suffering a similar amount of upheaval. As in the Gold Cup, the hurdling showpiece has lost its last two winners, with Annie Power and Faugheen both sidelined. Yanworth looked likely to go the staying route but is now a leading contender, whilst Buveur D’Air was sent over fences, and then returned to the smaller obstacles.
Willie Mullins has dominated the Champion Hurdle in recent times, though the loss of his two leading hopes suggested the run of success would end. However, at Punchestown yesterday, we may have witnessed the arrival of a new Closutton contender, with last year’s Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle winner Limini, running a cracker to defeat Apple’s Jade.
Both Mullins and Ruby Walsh looked stunned by the performance, with the trainer saying: “I don't know what way to take that run, but Apple's Jade is a triple Grade One-winning mare and Ruby never even stirred on our mare - he just gave her a shake-up going to the last. Our mare was coming back after a year off and we've had our troubles trying to get her right. The race conditions didn't suit us and the ground didn't suit us, so we came here thinking it was all in Apple's Jade's favour. She has run a stone better than I thought she would.”
Walsh was also impressed, saying: “We kind of steadied up from the fourth-last, it turned into a bit of a sprint to the last and we always knew she wasn't short of pace. It was a good performance, and onwards and upwards. I'd say she jumped better than last season. She was very slick and very accurate. Fingers crossed she'll come out of the race well and she can start her prep for Cheltenham next week.”
The stable has Vroum Vroum and Let’s Dance for the Mares’ Hurdle at The Festival, and it would come as no surprise if they were to supplement this speedy looking six-year-old to a very open looking Champion Hurdle, as they did with Annie Power 12 months back. VVM has looked a stouter stayer, and I’d anticipate Mullins keeping her to the longer trip. Limini is currently 8/1 with those offering NRNB for the two-mile showpiece.
As always, you pays your money, you takes your chance. And second guessing Team Mullins is never an easy pastime. But in a year when so much has gone wrong for the Closutton stable, yet another Mullins mare shows the potential of delivering further Festival glory.