Posts

Cheltenham Festival day one – Let battle commence as stars converge again

With the 2020 Cheltenham Festival beginning just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to take hold, the four-day meeting was the last major sporting event to survive before the country was forced into lockdown and all public gatherings were cancelled.

Twelve months later the world is still not fully recovered and all sporting fixtures must take place behind closed doors, with the Festival no exception.

With no crowds to witness the lifting of the tapes in the very first race of the meeting, there will be no Cheltenham roar, nor will there be the famed reception that awaits winning horses when they return to the parade ring.

Empty grandstands at Cheltenham
Empty grandstands at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

The Cheltenham Festival is as much about the top-flight racing as it is about the off-course atmosphere, however, and still promises to be of its usual calibre, despite the empty grandstands.

The first day is headlined by the Unibet Champion Hurdle, where last season’s heroine Epatante is poised to face the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle – on whom Rachael Blackmore could make history – and a resurgent Goshen.

The Sporting Life Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase looks at the mercy of Shishkin, although Allmankind will not go down without a fight.

Let battle commence…

Appreciate It – right from the start

Paul Townend could be all smiles again with Appreciate It
Paul Townend could be all smiles again with Appreciate It (PA)

It is a rare thing these days for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle not to kick-off proceedings with a Willie Mullins hotpot and this year is no exception, with Appreciate It having been a warm order since a terrific performance in Grade One company over Christmas. Ballyadam got closer to him at the Dublin Racing Festival, but while Appreciate It promises to be better over further – and fences – in time, all the evidence suggests there is little point in ignoring the obvious.

All eyes on Shishkin

Shishkin warmed up for Cheltenham with an easy success at Doncaster
Shishkin warmed up for Cheltenham with an easy success at Doncaster (Tim Goode/PA)

Top of the bill is Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, who has built a flawless record over fences since triumphing in the Supreme at the Festival last season. The Mullins-trained Energumene was his chief rival following a highly-impressive display when taking the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown by 10 lengths, but was withdrawn on Friday after a suffering an injury. Dan Skelton’s Allmankind wears his heart on his sleeve in front, so the Henderson hotpot will still have to be as advertised to get the job done.

Honeysuckle in full bloom ahead of Champion showdown

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore struck in the Irish Champion Hurdle
Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore struck in the Irish Champion Hurdle (Niall Carson/PA)

Epatante bids to defend her crown in the feature race on the opening afternoon, after a three-length success 12 months ago. There is a question or two, however, after the Henderson runner disappointed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She also faces strong opposition from Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle, who has yet to suffer a single defeat in 10 starts under rules and was a 10-length winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle. If she can get her head in front it will see Blackmore become the first woman to ride a Champion Hurdle winner. Gary Moore’s Goshen, who was agonisingly denied victory in the Triumph Hurdle last year when unshipping Jamie Moore at the final hurdle, looked to have bounced back to his brilliant best when easily winning the Kingwell Hurdle and has very much rejoined the reckoning off the back of that performance.

Concertista centre stage in Mares’ Hurdle

Concertista and Paul Townend in winning action at Leopardstown over Christmas
Concertista and Paul Townend in winning action at Leopardstown over Christmas (PA)

The Henderson, Mullins and Skelton yards will face off once again in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Mullins’ Concertista was a 12-length winner at the Festival last season and has since enjoyed two further big-race successes, stepping up in trip on both occasions to prove her ability over two and a half miles. Henderson’s Coral Cup winner Dame De Compagnie reverts to hurdles after unseating Nico de Boinville in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, while Skelton’s Roksana is back down in distance – having dipped her toe in the staying division waters before defeating Jessica Harrington’s Magic Of Light in the Warfield Hurdle at Ascot.

Correct Destination?

Next Destination was a tenacious winner at Newbury
Next Destination was a tenacious winner at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Paul Nicholls made a surprise late decision to reroute his unbeaten novice Next Destination from a prospective clash with Monkfish on Wednesday to the Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase, which closes the card on day one. In the absence here of Royale Pagaille – who will sport the famous colours of Monkfish’s owners in Friday’s Gold Cup – it may prove a wise move. But Galvin will have his supporters too, following a run of four successive victories over fences. Now with Ian Ferguson after moving from Gordon Elliott, he also has strong Festival form in the book.

Gredley relishing Allmankind’s part in what promises to be Arkle to savour

Owner Tim Gredley is savouring the prospect of Allmankind’s bid for Cheltenham glory in the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy.

The five-year-old is unbeaten over fences from three runs, including a triumph in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown and a wide-margin win in the Kingmaker at Warwick.

His next assignment will be on the opening day of the Festival, and will see him clash with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, also a Grade One winner and unbeaten over hurdles. The Willie Mullins-trained Energumene was also set to be in opposition, but has sadly been ruled out.

Harry Skelton and Allmankind clear the last in the Henry VIII at Sandown
Harry Skelton and Allmankind clear the last in the Henry VIII at Sandown (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Gredley, who is himself an amateur jockey and former international showjumper, is not intimidated by the prospect and is instead relishing the chance to be involved in what could still be the race of the Festival.

“The whole reason we like to own racehorses is to be in these kind of races,” he said.

“It’s always great when there’s a big build-up to the race and there’s a good story for each horse.

“If we come out second or third best or if we win, it’s just great to be part of the build-up and the story – that’s what it’s all about.

“If he was to go in an odds-on shot against some moderate horses it certainly wouldn’t give you the same kind of buzz.”

Though this year’s Arkle does look to be a notably strong renewal, Gredley – who owns the Sea The Moon gelding together with his father, Bill, is bolstered by the occasionally fortuitous nature of jumps racing and concludes that there are few forgone conclusions in the sport.

“The great thing about jumps racing is that you can throw the same bunch of horses in the same race on a different day and you get a different result every time,” he said.

“It’s not always the case that the same horse wins, we’ve only had a small amount of jumps horses but that’s one thing I’ve really enjoyed about it.

“If you get beaten one day, don’t be too disappointed because there’s every chance you can go again and beat them.”

Third in the Triumph Hurdle 12 months ago, Allmankind was a 14-length winner when last seen under Harry Skelton in the Kingmaker, but arguably did not jump with his usual fluency and made a significant error two fences from home.

Trainer Dan Skelton attributed the blunder to the testing going and did not seem to harbour any concerns about the horse’s jumping technique, a conclusion echoed by Gredley.

“I do genuinely think that the ground was really desperate that day,” he said.

“Harry said it was something he’s never really encountered and he could tell even cantering down to the start that all the horses in the race weren’t quite comfortable with where their feet were.

“When you’re being asked to jump a big obstacle, you want to know where you’re landing and I don’t blame him for second guessing a few times to be honest.

“Horses have to hit those fences like that to learn from their mistakes, it’s testament to their character how they take it.

“He won his first few races from just taking off outside the wings and he’s not going to be able to do that his whole career.

“He survived it, that’s always the most important thing, and Cheltenham’s another day.”

That positive, forward-facing outlook is something that Gredley shares with the Skelton team, an operation he credits as being masterful in preparing a horse for a specific, long-held goal.

“I’ve got a few horses with them and their positivity and optimism is quite infectious, they’ve got that sort of attitude,” he said.

Allmankind in full flight at Warwick
Allmankind in full flight at Warwick (David Davies/PA)

“The guys are good at making a target and then pulling it off, obviously the Arkle has been Allmankind’s main aim and that’s not to say that he wasn’t fit for his other races, but Harry said he’s never felt better than he does now.”

The Gredley family silks are more likely to be associated with the Flat racing sphere, with the much-loved long-distance specialist Big Orange their most recent flagbearer on the level.

Indeed, Allmankind began his career at the Flat stable of Michael Bell, the same trainer responsible for the success of Big Orange, and Gredley notes the two horses have more in common than may be expected.

“One thing we’re not worried about with Allmankind is his stamina, it’s a bit like when Big Orange was in the Ascot Gold Cup – if he’s in the lead and he’s not off the bridle swinging round that last corner then he’s got every chance,” he said.

Big Orange leads the field in the Ascot Gold Cup
Big Orange leads the field in the Ascot Gold Cup (John Walton/PA)

Gredley’s venture into the world of National Hunt is not only proving to be highly successful, but is also providing him with an insight into the camaraderie among jump racing fans and the great sense of anticipation that builds before the Festival.

“I only had my first runner at Cheltenham last year, but I’m learning with the Festival that when a horse starts to build up a reputation, everybody has an opinion and everybody thinks their opinion is right, like we all do – that’s what the game’s all about,” he said.

“We need these big festivals, both Flat and jumping, to get everybody interested, I’ve been amazed at how many people I know socially that I didn’t think were racing people but are following Allmankind because of the Cheltenham Festival.”

Like all owners, Gredley will not be able to watch his horse perform in person, but counters that the longer career-span of jumpers will provide plenty of opportunities to watch Allmankind run once restrictions are eased.

Tim Gredley aboard Bivouac ahead of their victory in the 2017 Newmarket Plate, a Flat race for amateurs held at Newmarket
Tim Gredley aboard Bivouac ahead of their victory in the 2017 Newmarket Plate, a Flat race for amateurs held at Newmarket (Nigel French/PA)

“It’s a real shame, but one of the enjoyments of jumps racing is that these horses come back year after year,” he said.

“It’s not like with Ascot, if you’ve got a two-year-old or a three-year-old that’s their year and it’s the be-all and end-all.”

For Gredley the sole benefit of viewing from home could be an easing in the pre-race nerves he suffers when watching his horses run.

“I get very nervous, I’m dreadful,” he said.

“I try to pretend I’m all right, but just as they’re cantering to the start I normally walk off on my own and try to find a screen somewhere and watch it alone.

“But whether we win, lose or draw, honestly, the most important thing for me is that he comes back safe and sound – I really mean that.”

The Cheltenham Festival will be broadcast on ITV Racing March 16-19. For more info visit greatbritishracing.com