So that was Cheltenham Festival 2014. A bruising encounter always, the latest renewal seems to have been the roughest yet, on just about all fronts.
With four horse fatalities and as many serious jockey injuries, there is much grist to the knockers' mill. And, with punters suffering a truly horrific final day at the meeting, it might seem that the Festival hype exceeds the reality of the self-styled "greatest show on turf".
But, scratch beyond the headlines, and you'll find the story as compelling as ever. With sub-plots galore, and more twists than a Chubby Checker-inspired world record, this year's middle March bonanza has much to recount.
Tuesday is usually the best day in quality terms, and also in terms of punter-friendliness. And so it proved again. Although the roar as the tapes went up for race one seemed more of relief than anticipation after so many months of bluster from so many mouths (including this virtual gob), the action soon crystallized attention.
Vautour's demolition job from the front in the Supreme was moulded in the caste of stablemate Champagne Fever's victory in the same colours twelve months prior, except this time there was an unequivocal margin between winner and losers. Six lengths was the official verdict, and buyers of winning distances (a curiously speculative bet) were - briefly - on good terms with themselves.
In the ruck behind, the first major wagers of many a wrecked dream were sunk aboard the good ship Irving, as Britain's primary hope failed to make anything like full steam and was a well thumped ninth, seemingly without excuse.
If the 7/2 joint jolly nabbed the opener, it was to be second blood to the books, as total rag of the field, Western Warhorse, rallied impressively to beat a massed rank in behind. At 33/1. Ouch.
The aforementioned Champagne Fever was a head back, with daylight to third placed Trifolium, who probably ran his race but might have been happier on softer.
Rock On Ruby made a horlicks of fence three, and Noel Fehily performed a rodeo miracle to remain aboard, alas for his backers to no avail, as the partnership trailed the main field by 42 lengths. It's a tough call as to where next for the former Champion Hurdler.
After Willie Mullins and David Pipe had claimed the opening pair of races, it was another CheltFest specialist who took the opening handicap. Jonjo O'Neill has enjoyed at least one winner at the Festival every year since 2006, and he was to have a fine trio of prizes by the weekend, teed off by Holywell's fluent triumph in the Festival Handicap Chase.
In winning with a weight of 11-04, Holywell led home a quartet of placed horses all carrying above eleven stone, and set a precedent for the meeting permitting the highest weighted horses to win races that history suggested they could not.
Next came Tuesday's feature, the Champion Hurdle. Billed as "the race of the meeting", and "the best Champion Hurdle in a generation", and other hyperbolic titles, the race was as dramatic - if not as definitive - as the preamble implied.
Jezki got the better of My Tent Or Yours, but that is a most shallow and literal interpretation of a race with rather too much incident. The first was the worst, as the hugely talented Our Conor - a horse of immense potential - paid the ultimate price for a lunging tumble in the back straight. He suffered a spinal injury and despite extensive efforts on track to save him, nothing could be done.
For some watching in the stands, the race lost its meaning after that. They were more focused on the green canvass screens erected around poor Our Conor than on the middle third of this Championship contest, and it was only as they turned into the home straight that attention shifted back to the race at hand.
In falling, Our Conor had impeded The New One significantly, and that rival lost about five lengths as a result of steering a last minute course around his stricken battlemate. As they turned for home, that deficit was down to two lengths, and this may be what 'unlucky' The New One fans have overlooked - and will overlook again this time next year, to their probable cost.
By the line, Jezki - who nicked first run on My Tent Or Yours, via a cute Geraghty ride - just held his closing ownermate by a diminishing neck. The New One was two and a half lengths back in third.
The facts are that The New One was hampered, but he did regain all of the lost ground. He then got woefully outpaced when the front pair quickened - as Champion Hurdle animals do - and was closing them down at the end, as those with less speed but more stamina will do.
He's surely always going to get outpaced, as he was in the Christmas Hurdle; as he was in the Aintree Hurdle; as he was in the Neptune; in top class company.
Frustration from my punt on My Tent Or Yours (doubled up with Quevega) was muted, as eyes wandered yonder to those green canvass screens. They were up for a long time, and there was no sign of the horse ambulance. Hope sprung. But hope was to be dashed and the grim reality was that Our Conor had perished. He'd have been a bigger player next year, irrespective of what he might have achieved this year. Racing carries this risk, and sometimes the warriors are carried out on their shields.
If the Champion Hurdle was a 'feel bad story', then the ensuing Mares' Hurdle was a feel good story with a familiar ending. Quevega is to Cheltenham what Mary Poppins is to Christmas: we've seen it all before, Julie Andrews (Quevega) plays a blinder while the rest of the cast aren't quite up to it, and the pleasant romp has a routine climax with Poppins preparing to depart (to Punchestown), her work done here.
She had to work pretty hard to get past barnmate Glen's Melody, who ran a blinder on ground probably quicker than ideal, and the third horse, L'Unique, may be the one to take from the race. She won the four-year-old hurdle at Aintree last April, a Grade 1, and she wasn't given the hardest ride here, beaten just a length and a half at the finish. Presumably she'll go to Aintree again, and she might be over-priced in the Aintree Hurdle, for a place at least, if that's her target.
Midnight Prayer won the four miler, for Alan King and co, and the one rattling home here was Suntiep. He could be a live one for the Scottish National if entered up there. And Attaglance failed to win the Novices' Handicap Chase, as his pilot elected to switch inside - to a narrow strip of contested ground, claimed by the winner - rather than outside, to the vast expanses of the Cheltenham hill.
Of course, it's all too easy for us grandstand riders - how many winners have we ridden, let alone at Cheltenham? - but this did look like a jockey rick. Attaglance would surely have won with a clear passage. Incidentally, although this is a compressed handicap, the first three home all lugged 11-07, and were in the top half of the weights.
Wednesday had a pair of highlights for me, the Champion Chase and the Cross Country Chase. Both races had been lampooned this year - actually, the Cross Country is perennially pooh-poohed - but both thumbed their metaphorical noses at the naysayers. Before that, there was another Mullins novice demolition job, this time more literally than the day before.
Faugheen is a big horse with a huge engine. In auto terms, he's one of those 4x4's footballers' wives drive to the shops and back. And in winning four races in Ireland, he'd done the equivalent of driven to Tesco and back four times. This time, he got to show the full range of his off-road capabilities, by assuming the by now tried and trusted Mullins-Walsh prominent bamboozler role.
Always in the front rank, Faugheen collapsed three of the last four hurdles without losing an iota of momentum. As if to showcase what was left in the tank, he jumped the last with the fluency of a Hurricane Fly. And, showing off that big engine, he "just kept on running". Faugheen Gump.
If Mullins thought he had problems keeping his horses apart this year, he's got bigger selection headaches next term, for sure.
Race two on day two was the RSA Chase, and it looked a wide open cracker. The whole field cruised through the first circuit and it was shaping up to be a belting race but, as is often the case, it was a rough one. We'd already watched Mary Poppins and Forest Gump, and it was time to flick over to Sky Sports for Wrestlemania, with scrimmaging aplenty, three falls (Black Thunder, Don Cossack and Le Bec) and a submission (Samingarry pulled up),
Alas, from my vantage point, I had to count this as implicitly unlucky. Unlucky because Many Clouds (one of my two fancies in the field) was brought down went travelling very well; implicitly unlucky because I backed him on the basis that he was the slightly stronger stayer between he and O'Faolains Boy on their Ascot running.
Of course, the last named bagged the pot in a head and head finish with the consistent Smad Place, who can now add RSA silver to a brace of bronzes in the World Hurdle. Carlingford Lough ran a noble race, though he made mistakes which cost him ground at vital times, and Morning Assembly was the finisher. Perhaps something like the Irish National might be on his agenda. Perhaps not.
Talking of unlucky Cheltenham horses, what about Get Me Out Of Here? That must have been precisely what he was thinking when mugged for a FOURTH time at the Festival. Three of those defeats were by a head or shorter, and that's not a resolution issue, it's pure bad luck, plain and simple.
His vanquisher this time was Whisper, second top weight with 11-11, and Get Me Out Of Here himself saddled 11-06, meaning this was another handicap turned on its weighting head.
Then to the main event of Wednesday, the Champion Chase. A Champion Chase without Sprinter Sacre. A Champion Chase featuring a veritable Rogue's Gallery of dogs and dodges. A Champion Chase featuring the standout best two mile chaser of the year, Sire de Grugy.
And yet. And yet... despite the frailties of the opposition, and the relative strength of Sire de Grugy, the bookmakers were out to 'get' the favourite. Such was their belief that they could get a result, a number of them offered 4/1 about SdG in the morning of the race, and he was eventually sent off 11/4.
That Captain Conan, a horse so disappointing he was referred to in separate Cheltenham previews as "a mutt" and "erm, not the most reliable in a finish" by Henderson representatives on the panel, was backed into 7/2 says plenty about the mania that engulfed the betting on this event.
Now yes, of course, Sire de Grugy had "failed to get up the hill" twice. Even though on the second of those occasions he was conceding eight pounds in weight and had chased a fierce early gallop.
More materially, yes, of course we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Lucky then that this column already had a 16/1 ticket on SdG. Despite that, I was very tempted to go in again and, had My Tent helped me with the Day One Double, I would have gone in again. He was a massive overlay, as they say in the states.
He won. He won well. He IS the best two mile chaser this year, and he proved it. This was the unloved reluctant hero story. Teen Wolf, if you like.
But, no time to savour, for there was walking to do. To the middle of the track, and a closer look at those crazy horses and riders doing that crazy double figure of eight circuit in the crazy cross country race.
Actually, it's not all that crazy at all. And it remains one of the best punting races of the whole Festival. Balthazar King won it in a bobbing thriller with locally-trained Any Currency. Big Shu, favourite and your scribe's biggest bet of the week, was third, and the Grand National looks to be on his agenda.
I'd saved on both the winner and second - as well as last placed Star Neuville at 14's - and the fact that three of the four I backed nabbed all of the podium places again attests to the punter-friendly nature of this race. Three lengths covered the first three home, five back to the fourth, and sixteen-plus to the rest.
And, although weight is not, for me at least, a determining factor in this, Balthazar King was top weight: another high weighted horse to score in a Festival handicap. As an aside, the ground on the cross country course was a good bit softer than the main track, and that would not have suited the winner, so he was value for a bit more than a literal reading of the winning distance.
Wednesday closed with two of the toughest betting races of the entire week, races in which to be only micro-involved. In the Fred Winter the weight carried was just 11-01 this time for the winner, and another above the eleven stone threshold.
The race was marred by a serious injury to Bryan Cooper, who suffered a double leg break, when thrown from Clarcam.
Then came the bumper. The winner, Silver Concorde, was an Irish-trained horse - the seventeenth in 22 years - and a first Festival winner for Dermot Weld since, I think, 1990.
Thursday is traditionally the weakest day of the four, class wise, and usually the toughest from a betting perspective.
The day opened with the JLT Novices' Chase, a two and a half miler. I'd backed Felix Yonger at a decent price, and had him and Oscar Whisky to cheer on the placepot. Oscar fell at the first, and the fate of my wagering day was sealed then and there. It was a daft inclusion for a horse I'd been suggesting hurdled his fences and was an accident waiting to happen in blog posts all season. And I got what I deserved. The dreaded early bath.
That was because Felix Yonger was a never in contention fourth, behind Jonjo's Taquin de Seuil - who just edged out the gallant front-runner Uxizandre, backed by Gavin. Third was Double Ross, nominated as best each way in my preview of this race, but unsupported by me.
I took the hint and trod very lightly through the rest of the wagering opportunities on Day Three. That though did mean that I neglected to back my selection in the Pertemps Final - all part of my not betting too much in the handicaps discipline - and watched the top weight Fingal Bay (yep, another high weighted handicap winner) just edge out the second top weight, Southfield Theatre.
That fine margin was to the be first emotional trigger of a tumultuous couple of days for jockey Daryl Jacob. Moved to tears atop his horse as the result was called, Richard Johnson - in the saddle on the winner - put a fraternal arm around his gutted colleague.
The first six home all came from the top ten in the weights (out of 24), and all shouldered 11-04 or more.
Although the Ryanair Chase looked a Grade 2 of a Grade 1, if you see what I mean, I was quite sweet on Al Ferof. I bet too much on him - don't we always when they lose? - and he may not retain the level of ability I thought he did. It was easy enough to make excuses for his two defeats over further, but conditions looked optimal this day.
Dynaste was a good winner, and both David Pipe and Gavin were pleased about that. Gold Cup next year, I guess, and, given what we know now, why not?
The World Hurdle was the highlight of the day, and it lived up to its billing. Annie Power, annoyingly re-routed from the Champion Hurdle, was a strong favourite. In fact, she was very short indeed given that she had to demonstrate she stayed this far.
She got beaten, and bookmakers - who laid her for fortunes allegedly - breathed a collective sigh of relief. Big Buck's, the former World Hurdle standing dish, had missed the Festival last year through injury and came back as an eleven year old trying to do the nigh on impossible. In finishing fifth, he ran as well as he could and this became his swansong, as owner and trainer immediately retired him after the race.
Back to the front of the race, and Annie Power was beaten by More Of That, another for Jonjo, and another - like Annie - having to prove he'd stay. Stay he did, and stay better than Annie he did, though to suggest the lass didn't see out the trip is probably unfair. After all, the pair were five lengths and more clear of the rest, led by At Fishers Cross. Her Racing Post Rating was uniform with her three previous runs and, though she might have improved on that in the Champion Hurdle, she might not.
More Of That has rather had his thunder stolen by Annie Power, but make no mistake, this was the emergence of a potential Big Buck's. Immensely exciting in winning four previous races, this was his first run beyond two miles and five furlongs. And, as in the Champion Hurdle 48 hours previously, Tony McCoy found himself sitting on the wrong one, and Barry Geraghty found himself sitting on the right one. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: jockeys are pretty poor judges, even the best of them.
The 23 runner Byrne Group Plate was followed by the same number of horses contesting the Kim Muir. The former went the way of the sixth highest weighted horse, Ballynagour, though this time he carried less than eleven stone thanks to the inclusion of Champion Court. His presence meant second top weight was 11-03, and Ballynagour's weight was 10-09.
The winner has had problems - is probably a bleeder - and pulled up when favourite for this last year. He showed here what he can do when a fresh horse, as he absolutely bolted up, the official margin being eight lengths, pretty much on the bridle. I'd written about his chance,
"Ballynagour was a huge punt for this last year before finishing eighth, and he looks like a horse with bleeding problems to me. Such animals tend to run their best races fresh, so the 117 day layoff can be seen as a positive. On balance though, he’s unlikely to get to the finish without over-exerting himself and I’m afraid that could mean another ‘P’ by his name."
Erm, yes. Part right. Ahem.
The Kim Muir - a handicap which favours high weights - was won for the first time in yonks by the Irish, as Spring Heeled proved just that to give Jim Culloty his first winner of the 2014 Festival, but not his last. He carried 11-06.
After that, it was time for a lie down and a look forward to the final day, Gold Cup Day.
Gavin and I had commented on how this looked a relatively easy day, with us fancying a fair number of favourites between us. I also then remarked, "You know how when it looks easy, it often proves anything but...".
Well, Gold Cup Day 2014 will probably go down as one of the least punter-friendly days in Cheltenham history. It was, quite simply, betting carnage. With shortest-priced winner returning 15/2, and the other six winners all 10/1 or bigger, you needed to be lucky rather than good in the main.
The Triumph Hurdle kicked things off, and I knew I wasn't going to be too lucky when Calipto's rider, Daryl Jacob, had to ride out of the irons for the last two hurdles after his stirrup leather broke. That he finished fourth under such a handicap marks the horse down as one of considerable merit. It also marked Daryl Jacob down as officially unluckier than me, and it marked my placepot down as dustbin material.
Tiger Roll won it, beating Kentucky Hyden into second, and reversing form with Guitar Pete back in third. He was entitled to do that given how much further improvement he was open to, and looks a really nice prospect for next season, if not in the same mould as the late Our Conor.
Two early fallers, Abyssial and Adriana Des Mottes - both trained by Willie Mullins - led to two hospital visits for their riders, Ruby Walsh and Paul Townend. Walsh is likely to be out for three months with a most unfunny fracture of his funny bone; while Townend gave up his remaining mounts after the County Hurdle.
The County Hurdle at last reverted to handicap type, with those weighted below eleven stone taking the first three positions. That said, each of the first eight home carried 10-10 or more.
Gavin and I were cheering Arctic Fire, whose Graded form we felt was the best on offer. He ran a stormer and jumped the last in the manner of a horse about to win a County Hurdle. Alas, Lac Fontana was a willing respondent to the desperate Daryl Jacob's bid for Festival glory, and he powered up the near rail to steal the thunder of two website-owning half-cut cheering loons in a boozer in darkest Aldgate.
If we were disappointed for ourselves, we were at least delighted for Daryl. He's a good lad and he's endured a torrid year as 'stable jockey' (more like 'unstable jockey') at Paul Nicholls' yard. He deserved this, if such things aren't clichéd folly.
The Albert Bartlett was the Gold Cup warm up act, and punters everywhere had Briar Hill as nap banker good thing material. He might well have been if he'd stood up, but an uncharacteristic spill at the seventh sent groans through the crowd - and the pub - and the odd muffled cheer in the bookmaking ranks.
With the jolly cooked, Kings Palace looked the most likely beneficiary. Alas, his attacking ride saw him spent by the time he fell at the last. I'd backed Deputy Dan and Captain Cutter and, while the latter was never in it, the former jumped the last like the winner. For the second race in a row, my fancy was collared by a stouter stayer. This time I hadn't seen the Very Wood from the trees.
I confess to not having even considered this fellow, only to read that he'd finished a three length third (of three) behind Briar Hill last time out. The half mile longer trip, and the slightly better ground, and the championship pace, were all credible reasons for the improvement, and this was a result that made a lot more sense afterwards than before.
No matter, for it was Gold Cup time. I'd long had this as a two horse race between Bobs Worth, the reigning champ, and Silviniaco Conti, the King George winner. What else could possibly win?
Last Instalment was inconvenienced by the ground, Cue Card and Captain Chris were both absent, and the rest were surely no hopers.
And it looked exactly like that, as Silviniaco Conti cleared the last in front of a staying on Bobs Worth. However, close at hand was a trio of unconsidered stayers and, in a bizarre parting of the ways, Bobs Worth veered violently left at the same moment that Silviniaco Conti veered violently right. In that belief-beggaring instant, their races were run, and the also rans had their day.
Still it wasn't easy to separate the three. At the line, there was but a short head and three-quarters between the places, Lord Windermere edging out On His Own for gold in the Gold Cup. The Giant Bolster added a third place to his previous second and fourth place efforts, and also added another feather in the training cap of the excellent David Bridgwater.
But wait. Bing bong. Stewards' enquiry.
The head-on revealed a very definite veering off a true course by first past the post, Lord Windermere. It looked like he might lose the race, given the winning margin was a mere short head. But it's a brave soul that reverses the placings in a Gold Cup. The televised nature of the enquiry gave us all a slightly deeper insight into the deliberation process, and made us all a bit more understanding about how such judgements are arrived at.
The result stood. And good job too, as I'd had a score on Lord Windermere at 25's before he ran the first of his clunkers this season in the Hennesy. I'd advertised the fact here way back when too. It was an unexpected ray of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy betting day.
There was to be another small ray in the next, the Foxhunters, though, when Tammys Hill obliged for me and geegeez readers. He stayed on more resolutely than On The Fringe, with Carsontowns Boy running a 40/1 screamer to split the pair.
All that remained was a pair of fiendish handicaps to round out the 27 leg Cheltenham Puntfest, and it was time for strong discipline. Unfortunately, somewhere halfway down a vat of Guinness, strong discipline is hard to locate. So I backed Caid Du Berlais, along with Art Professor. Caid ran a cracker in third, Arty was 17th.
The winner, Don Poli, was a third on the day for the Ryanair squad of Michael O'Leary and Gigginstown, and he did it easily. Carrying third top weight of 11-08.
The Grand Annual gave us all a thrill irrespective of what we'd backed, as Next Sensation tried to do a Master Minded and blitz his field from tape to lollipop. He got close, but was mown down by the more conservatively ridden Savello, for that man O'Leary. Savello heaved and hoed under a burden of 11-05, the sixth highest weight in the race. In doing so, he pulled the 6/1 joint favourites with him, and there was just a length and three-quarters between the winner and the fourth placed Next Sensation.
In all, nine of the eleven handicaps were won by horses carrying 11-05 or more, and all eleven handicap winners bore at least 10-09. I'm not entirely sure of the implications of that, but it does seem to point to all horses being given a chance by the handicapper, and the better horses prevailing. As it should be, then.
It was a ferociously tricky test of stamina, in every sense, was the 2014 Cheltenham Festival. Sad losses of horses, bad injuries to jockeys, mad losses for some punters. Beer and craic everywhere. And four new champions in the most transient of CheltFest's for many a moon.
Only 359 days before we do it all again...
p.s. well done to snitter, who won the Cheltenham Festival tipping league. £100 in vouchers is coming your way. And well done to Wanderin, whose 16/1 nomination of Silver Concorde secured the highest priced nap £50 voucher. I'll be in touch!