Two years ago I happily trudged through four days of Cheltenham, impervious to the threat of Covid-19 which had yet fully to take a grip on this country, writes Tony Stafford. Allowing the meeting to go ahead was one of the biggest sticks the authorities had to deal with at that time as, by the weekend, lockdown was announced.
Last year’s eerie atmosphere when only the most closely connected – and the best of the well-tried chancers – were admitted went on without me and again last week I watched, by choice this time, the events unwinding from the sofa.
With an otherwise empty house it was no surprise that Champion Hurdle Day 2022 quickly morphed in my mind to 13 years earlier when Punjabi’s 33-1 win in the race was accomplished with barely a cheer from the chair: just a smile of satisfaction.
When Honeysuckle made it two out of two in the race, and 15 out of 15 in all, the smile was just as wide and, like everyone else, my mind was scanning forward to next year as we’d already savoured the extraordinary performance of Nicky Henderson’s Constitution Hill in the Supreme.
Over the years Henderson’s best animals have all enjoyed better ground and the first day after a dry spell provided a surface that enabled a spectacular course record in that Festival opener. Not only that, Constitution Hill was much faster than Honeysuckle’s Champion Hurdle – a race where we hadn’t believed the gallop to have been in any way pedestrian.
Second home behind Honeysuckle and Dame Rachael Blackmore – if you could have Sir Terry Wogan, then why not? – was Henderson’s 2020 winner, Epatante. Afterwards, Nicky ceded greatness to the winner and great merit to his mare. It’s possibly easy to be charitable after witnessing a performance from one of your own horses that promises to keep you near the top for another few seasons, but it was nice anyway.
Coming to race seven on the opening day, the score was UK four, Ireland two and W P Mullins zero. And at that stage there were only 22 races still to be contested. Willie and son Patrick supplied a fuss-free winner of the astonishingly denuded six-horse field for the National Hunt Chase, but who could have thought he would win ten of those remaining races?
There is no question that he is the greatest trainer of jumping horses since his late compatriot Vincent O’Brien. The first master of Ballydoyle used to win Gold Cups, Champion Hurdles and Grand Nationals in the early post-War years in much the way Gary Moore knocks off little races around Plumpton and Fontwell.
The first inkling of what was to come was in the opener on Wednesday when Sir Gerhard strolled home in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Last year’s Festival Bumper hero carried what was to be the first of three Cheveley Park Stud victories during the week and he was possibly the least spectacular of the trio.
Energumene was the next major Mullins winner, but sadly the anticipated re-match with Shishkin failed to materialise, Henderson’s hitherto unbeatable young chaser never going a yard and pulling up.
As I hinted earlier, the Seven Barrows maestro’s horses are usually better on faster ground – not that Constitution Hill minds mud, he was just as impressive up Sandown’s hill in desperate going on his previous Grade 1 start; but I can imagine the trainer’s thoughts on that evening when the new clerk of the course John Pullin decided to water, even though rain was expected in many forecasts.
It was almost as though Willie Mullins had sent the boys round to demand a level playing-field. UK four, Ireland three. That’s unfair!
“I didn’t think we would be getting the rain we did,” paraphrases the beleaguered new boy’s response to turning the previously pristine acres to a midwinter Thurles peat bog. The die was cast and the tide turned irrevocably.
The nice runs continued, especially for Venetia Williams whose strength every season comes in muddy midwinter. Even if it may more usually be in January at Hereford or Haydock, the hurricanes can happen at Cheltenham too as L’Homme Presse showed with a fine performance in the three-mile Brown Advisory – the Sun Alliance for old-timers like me.
The next day Venetia sent out two long-priced handicappers in the Kim Muir. This race, happily restored as an amateur riders’ event post Covid, went to her Chambard, a 40-1 shot. She also supplied the 66/1 third, the 3,000-1 plus forecast only denied by joint-favourite Mister Coffey, yet another Henderson horse to impress.
The Irish did not exactly replicate their total monopoly of the handicaps as had been the case in 2021 but the old chestnut of allowing the always questionable form in France for qualification in handicaps reared its ugly head once more.
I mentioned last week that contrary to an alleged inside source, I doubted Colonel Mustard would be running against Sir Gerhard again, trainer Lorna Fowler being much too shrewd to waste her breath tilting at that particular windmill.
The County Hurdle had to be the answer. By the morning of the race Colonel Mustard was down to second favouritism, but the snag was that Mullins had State Man, a horse with only three runs on his card in the field.
A win in France as long ago as May 2020; a fall switched to Ireland when 8-13 for a maiden on Leopardstown’s St Stephen’s Day card and then a facile maiden romp at Limerick brought a 141 initial mark. Incidentally that put him 1lb higher than the well-tested and openly raced Colonel Mustard.
Lorna’s horse actually hit the front between the last two flights but you could see State Man galloping all over the field. While at the line it was less than a two-length margin over First Street, another fine run by a Henderson horse, with Colonel Mustard (in the conservatory with the lead pipe), battling on for third.
Mullins had already come out on top in the opening Triumph Hurdle. His Vauban always had the edge over the Gordon Elliott pair Fil Dor and Pied Piper with the rest, and therefore the home team, nowhere. It seems even before Vauban carried the resurgent and always on the box Mrs Ricci colours, the Melbourne Cup was being mooted. You wouldn’t put that past him either.
Five wins on the final day for Mullins did not prevent the 2021 star turn Henry de Bromhead striking back in the most emphatic way. Last year in the Gold Cup Minella Indo gained a big enough advantage over stablemate A Plus Tard to hold off Rachael Blackmore’s mount up the final hill.
This time, as the Betfair Chase at Haydock virtuoso performance prepared us for, it was Pas Trop Loin rather than later that French-mangling turfistes might have greeted the Cheveley Park-owned chaser.
Richard Thompson, once a prodigal son who was perceived as having wasted some of the family fortune as briefly chairman of Queen’s Park Rangers but now restored in the bosom of the Cheveley Park management, was centre stage all week. But on Friday mum Patricia was on hand for the starring role.
She is the nearest to my mind in non-Regal terms to the Queen Mother in her status in horse racing. This has been achieved, not only through these great horses – to which we can add Ryanair winner Allaho – but also the wonderful flat-race breeding and racing operation in Newmarket. Lest we forget, she owned Party Politics when he won the 1992 Grand National.
Now, by winning a Gold Cup and a Grand National, she emulates L’Escargot’s owner, Raymond Guest. He did win a Derby, too, with Sir Ivor. I think Messrs Haggas, Stoute and the rest better line up one for that classic before too long.