There were many outstanding performances during last week’s Cheltenham Festival, though there’s no doubting testing conditions proved a gamechanger for some.
Summerville Boy and Kalashnikov had fought through the mud in the Tolworth Hurdle back in January and were well suited by the heavy ground encountered in the Festival opener. As at Sandown, it was Tom George’s six-year-old that came off best, though he needed every yard to get his head in front. A haphazard jumping display almost cost him, but he stayed on powerfully up the famous hill to deny Kalashnikov by a neck.
Mengli Khan travelled powerfully and on better ground may well have finished ahead of the front two. There’s plenty more to come from Gordon Elliott’s youngster, and he may be the one to take out of the race. Getabird was a major disappointment, having pulled his way to the front he travelled far too keenly and faded out of contention after the second-last. He’s not been the easiest to train, and I’m convinced that he’s far better than he showed here. It would come as no surprise should he bounce back to form at Punchestown in April, where he’ll likely clash again with Mengli Khan.
Ground conditions were also ideal for Footpad as he romped to victory in the Arkle Chase. His task was made far easier by a rare poor riding performance from Davy Russell aboard Petit Mouchoir and an inspired one from Ruby Walsh. De Bromhead’s chaser had little chance of seeing out the trip having set-off like an equine Usain Bolt, whilst the Mullins-trained favourite was ridden with restraint and delivered with a perfectly timed challenge. This isn’t to say that Footpad was a lucky winner. He’s a class act and looks capable of mixing-it with all bar Altior at the minimum trip. Though I’d be surprised if Mullins didn’t move him up in distance next season. He looks a natural successor to Un De Sceaux.
Buveur D’Air clung on to his crown and fought off Melon to win the Champion Hurdle. Conditions wouldn’t have favoured the favourite. Slick jumping at pace has proved his forte, along with a potent finishing kick. On this occasion he was forced into a slug-fest with a Mullins youngster who clearly has more to offer than many had anticipated. Melon is no mug, though I fancy on better ground the Champ would have too many gears for the youngster. It’s hard to assess how the pair will match-up in a year’s time. There’s the possibility of further progress from the Closutton inmate, though the team may also consider sending him over fences. He has the size and scope to make a chaser and could easily become an Arkle contender.
Another that could be heading for next season’s Arkle Chase is the wonderfully talented Samcro. Second-guessing future targets for this fella won’t be easy. Seemingly blessed with the speed that would make him a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, connections seemingly insist that his future lies as a staying chaser. There’s certainly plenty of stamina on the dam’s side, though his sire, Germany, was responsible for the mighty Faugheen.
Samcro proved far too quick for the opposition in the Ballymore. Having powered through the race, he swept past the field turning for home, with only Black Op capable of putting up any sort of resistance. The Tom George-trained seven-year-old managed to get within three-lengths at the finish, though never looked like landing a serious blow. The runner-up looks a cracking prospect and should improve plenty for fences. Next Destination was badly outpaced coming downhill towards the second-last, yet flew up the hill to finish third. He’s likely to be sent chasing and looks an RSA type.
Presenting Percy was next to impress, though I’ll reserve judgment as to his potential as a serious player in next year’s Gold Cup. Monalee finished second though looked a non-stayer. Al Boum Photo came down at the second-last when looking to lay down a challenge, though I doubt he’d have got to the winner. Nevertheless, Presenting Percy has now to step into the ring against top-level experienced chasers. Our Duke’s performance later in the week illustrated the unique demands of a high-class Gold Cup. Presenting P has been installed as a 6/1 joint-favourite for next year’s ‘blue riband’ and I fancy that’s a slight over-reaction to his RSA romp. Native River remains available at 8s.
Wednesday’s Champion Chase finally delivered the Douvan/Altior clash that so many Jump racing fans had been waiting for. Mullins also threw Min into the mix, attempting to wrestle the prize away from Nicky Henderson’s stable star. For much of the race Douvan looked back to his sublime best, jumping like a stag at the head of affairs. But just as we started to get excited he guessed at the fourth-last and was down.
Altior was struggling in the testing ground and turning for home looked in trouble, with Min travelling much the stronger. But rarely has a horse surged up the famous hill like Altior. He put seven-lengths between himself and the runner-up in a simply astounding finishing burst. Min wasn’t stopping, but the winner is a freak. That he should arrive on the scene so soon after the glorious Sprinter Sacre must be a dream come true for Nicky Henderson.
Gordon Elliott had a sensational Festival, as did owner’s Gigginstown House Stud. Day three proved a cracker for both, with a talented mare, Shattered Love, landing the opening JLT Novices’ Chase. She’s regally bred, being by Yeats out of a Bustino mare, yet has the perfect physique for this game. She’s a huge beast, and powered clear up the final hill, despite taking a chunk of the final fence with her. Now five from six over the larger obstacles, she did fiddle a few, but given this type of testing ground is clearly hugely talented.
Gigginstown supremo, Michael O’Leary, then landed his own race, the Ryanair Chase. Balko Des Flos travelled supremely well throughout and proved far too hot to handle. The seven-year-old drew clear of last year’s winner, Un De Sceaux, to win by a little over four-lengths. There’d been concerns over the suitability of the ground, but in the event, he simply cruised his way through the mud. This was a power-packed performance from a horse on a steep upward curve.
Many had hoped for a similar display from Sam Spinner in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but a pedestrian pace played to those with a finishing kick and it was Penhill that found more than Supasundae. The winner is without doubt a talented horse, but this was a disappointing race for those that had hoped for a pulsating battle.
Elliott and Gigginstown were at it again at the start of day four, when Farclas landed the Triumph Hurdle. He toughed it out to beat fellow Irish raider Mr Adjudicator. Apple’s Shakira ran well but was probably undone by the testing conditions. Stormy Ireland was another that ran with huge credit, before tiring and coming down at the last. She could take some catching on better ground.
Colin Tizzard’s Kilbricken Storm caused an upset to win the Albert Bartlett, though the lightly raced Santini looks the horse to take out of the race. Henderson’s six-year-old should make a terrific chaser next season.
It became a day to remember for Tizzard and his team, when Native River pulled out all the stops to defeat Might Bite in the Gold Cup. The pair proved a class apart as they duelled throughout the race. Turning for home, Henderson’s King George winner appeared to be travelling the better. But it was Richard Johnson who managed to get a little extra from the gutsy Native River up the final climb to the finish. The runner-up lost little in defeat and, on a better surface, may well have come out on top. Nevertheless, this was Tizzard’s day, and in Johnson and Native River he’s uncovered a match made in heaven.
In a Festival where Mullins and Elliott proved dominant, the Brits turned to Henderson and Tizzard for a small piece of solace. There were grounds for concern throughout, but once again Cheltenham delivered.