Ten talking-points that defined the 2018 Cheltenham Festival
Hard to believe it's over for another year, isn't it? Hard to believe, after the long drawn-out prologue, that the four days flashed by so fast.
But when Barry Geraghty powered home LE PREZIEN in the green-and-gold silks of JP McManus to land the Grand Annual, the realisation dawned that the curtain had to come down on the Cheltenham Festival 2018.
As ever, it was a Festival of ups and downs, of delight and disaster, of drama and controversy. It would take four more days to reflect in detail on all that happened, but here are ten talking-points that the annual extravaganza threw up:
1. EPIC DUELS LIT UP THE BIG TWO RACES
I feel it was a far-from-vintage from Festival, mainly because of ground as deep as Prestbury Park has known in the spring since the 1990s. But few could complain about the epic duels that developed in the two big showcase events, the Timico Gold Cup and the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Personally, I prefer much more variety to my races than that delivered by the Gold Cup, which was a two-horse affair from the moment the tapes rose. But the manner in which NATIVE RIVER and MIGHT BITE locked horns for three-and-a-quarter miles was a stirring, spectacular sight. Turning for home, I felt sure Nicky Henderson’s favourite would pounce for glory. But Richard Johnson and Native River are tailor-made for each other and they drew from the same deep well of tenacity and resolution to go two places better than the previous year.
The testing ground was right up the winner’s street, and most observers felt that Might Bite would reverse the placings on a better surface. I’m not so sure. The favourite was comprehensively outstayed and jelly-legged up the hill.
That trainer Colin Tizzard should take the race with a grinder such as Native River was hugely ironic given the presence in his Somerset yard of potential Gold Cup superstars such as THISTLECRACK and CUE CARD. But his decision to give the 8yo a much lighter campaign than last year paid off handsomely.
In fending off Might Bite so gamely, Native River also bucked a couple of seemingly rock-solid race trends. He was the first horse, of the last 67 to try, to win the race after being beaten in it at his initial attempt. He was also only the second horse, of the last 81 to try, to lift the Gold Cup, having raced further than the 3m2f during his career. Lest we forget, Tizzard’s champion was beaten by Minella Rocco, now top weight for next month’s Randox Health Grand National, in the 2016 four-miler at the Festival.
Earlier in the week, Henderson was involved in another head-to-head for Champion Hurdle honours. This time, he prevailed, although only just as Willie Mullins’s admirable improver MELON became one of the few horses to get the reigning champion, BUVEUR D’AIR, off the bridle. I expected Melon to run well, even if I wasn’t prepared for the pre-race gamble on him, and granted more progress, he is the one I’d want to be on in the race next year. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much Henderson’s charge found when challenged and he is, without question, a very worthy champion.
2. DODGING BULLETS WITH GROUND AND WEATHER
Dodging Bullets, winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2015, was one of the veterans on display in the Retraining Of Racehorses Parade before the opening race on the first day of the Festival. Appropriately too, given the bullets that Cheltenham dodged with regard to the weather and the ground.
Heavy snow fell less than two weeks before the first day, followed by heavy rain in the days leading up to the meeting. Furthermore, the snow and ice returned the very next day after the Gold Cup. In the circumstances, we were lucky to have a Festival at all.
Fears about how the ground would ride spread like wildfire, but the relief after the opening couple of races was as tangible as the nervousness beforehand. While definitely testing, the surface wasn’t as bad as had seemed likely, heaping credit on clerk of the course Simon Claisse and his groundstaff. The going only appeared to deteriorate on the final day when it was considerably worse than the previous three days. Why this should be, I’m not too sure, but the New Course does not seem to drain as fast or as effectively as the Old Course, nor does it take too much racing to open and churn it up after rain. Some trainers were scathing about the ground on Gold Cup Day, most notably Jessica Harrington, who saddled leading fancy OUR DUKE.
On the whole, I thought that while the ground was annoyingly similar to that we had to put up with through the winter, it did not detract from the quality from the meeting nor, surprisingly, did it make finding winners more difficult.
3. MIXED FORTUNES FOR THE SHORT-PRICED HOTPOTS
As someone who felt that short-priced favourites GETABIRD and APPLE’S SHAKIRA were worthy lays in the opening hurdle races of days one and four, it came as no surprise to see them well beaten. The former’s place at the head of the Supreme market was based on one run, and one run only, when receiving weight from a below-par MENGLI KHAN, while the latter, a ridiculously short-priced favourite for the JCB Triumph Hurdle, had struggled to see off a couple of run-of-the-mill handicappers in her previous two outings.
I was less prepared to embrace the reverses of APPLE’S JADE in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle and UN DE SCEAUX in the Ryanair Chase. Gordon Elliott’s mare did not look right from the moment she jumped the first flight out to the right, and has reportedly not felt right since she returned home. UDS did little wrong, but age just might be catching up with him. The winner, BALKO DES FLOS, breezed by him down the hill in the same manner as Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase two years ago. Henry De Bromhead’s rapidly improving French-bred should not be under-estimated and could well be a serious Gold Cup candidate in 12 months’ time.
Carrying the same Gigginstown House Stud colours as Balko Des Flos was SAMCRO, arguably the talking-horse of the Festival. An assured victory in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle reflected his cramped odds, but after travelling and jumping with elan, I wasn’t over-impressed with what he found once let down off the home bend. In his defence, he had lost a right fore shoe and was racing into a very strong headwind, but he certainly didn’t look a future Gold Cup horse in the making. With such an overhyped animal, it will be fascinating to see where connections choose to go next season. Virtually all races and all trips are open to him, over hurdles or fences. If Samcro were mine, I’d be going the Istabraq route and having a crack at the Champion Hurdle.
If the biggest Irish cheer of the week was reserved for Samcro, the biggest home-based cheer was for ALTIOR, whose victory in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase was greeted by roars and celebrations reserved only for special horses. At no time during the race was Nicky Henderson’s 8yo travelling with his usual comfort or zest, and there were several times during the race when he looked a most unlikely winner. Either the ground was not to his liking or the late injury scare, which rendered him lame two days beforehand, was having an effect. Or maybe even he is now very much in need of further because once asked to pick up from two out, the response was dramatic and he powered up the hill.
Questions have been asked about what would have happened if his main rival DOUVAN had stood up. Unquestionably, Willie Mullins’s charge was sailing along like the Douvan of old, but his fall came too far out to make any kind of reasoned judgement. Only on the morning of the race were we guaranteed to finally see the Altior-Douvan duel that Jumps enthusiasts have craved for so long, so it was a shame it never properly materialised and, in all likelihood, it never will now.
4. MARES’ RACES WERE A LETDOWN
No lesser judge than Sir AP McCoy opened a pre-Festival can of worms when branding the two mares’ races at the meeting a waste of time. They were introduced as essential incentives to encourage breeders, owners and trainers to race mares and to help bolster field sizes, which continue to suffer badly. Up to now, they have been a success. Indeed the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle was arguably the race of the meeting in 2017 when Apple’s Jade, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag fought out a thrilling finish.
However, this year’s renewals were damp squibs. Only eight mares opted to try and dethrone Apple’s Jade, while the novices’ event was a one-horse romp, courtesy of LAURINA. Now, the 5yo may well develop into a superstar, as might her stablemate BENIE DES DIEUX, winner of the main event. But will we get the chance to find out if decisions are made to restrict them to mares’ contests?
It is strongly rumoured that the next new Festival race will be a mares’ chase, for which, ironically, both of the Willie Mullins-trained horses would be ideal candidates. Yet most of the racing public would like to see them tested against the best male opposition, as SHATTERED LOVE was, with resounding success, in the JLT Novices’ Chase. Quevega holds a place in the Cheltenham record books for landing six Mares’ Hurdles, but she cannot hold a candle in terms of reverence and respect to mares such as Dawn Run, Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle winner, and Annie Power, Champion Hurdle winner.
5. THE VALUE OF GOOD JOCKEYSHIP
From the moment Noel Fehily somehow got SUMMERVILLE BOY up to win the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, despite bad blunders at each of the last two flights, the importance of experience and finely-tuned judgement in the saddle was underlined at this year’s Festival.
At the lower end of the scale, we had the ludicrously over-steady gallop set by Joe Colliver on SAM SPINNER in the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, which did his mount nor the race any good at all. In fact, for a 3m marathon in demanding ground, the contest was reduced to near-farce with up to a dozen horses virtually in a line approaching the last. We also had Harry Skelton surely committing far too soon (as is often his wont, in my opinion) on the sweet-travelling NUBE NEGRA in the Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
But at the top end of the scale, there were numerous examples of brilliant jockeyship, triggered by the work of art that Ruby Walsh produced on FOOTPAD in the Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase. I can think of many Jumps riders who would have panicked beyond reason when Willie Mullins’s horse made a shocking error at the first down the back when already some way off the electric pace. But instead, Walsh calmly allowed Footpad to find his feet and ease his way into contention before running out an impressive winner. The doyen of Cheltenham race-riding was a huge loss to the Festival when a second-day fall at the second last on AL BOUM PHOTO in the RSA Novices’ Chase aggravated his leg injury.
Walsh’s withdrawal, however, merely allowed the sublime skills of his number two at Willie Mullins’s yard, Paul Townend, to take the limelight. Townend’s waiting ride on PENHILL, classy winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle, was inspired. His decision to take a tug entering the home straight was a moment of genius.
In such an environment, the achievement of Jack Kennedy, at the tender age of 18, to almost wrest the jockeys’ title from Davy Russell is not to be under-estimated. Russell, of course, barely put a foot wrong, as he hasn’t all season,
The armchair ride enjoyed by Keith Donoghue on Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase winner TIGER ROLL is worth a mention too, especially as he had been denied glory on Labaik at last year’s Festival, days after he temporarily quit because of weight issues.
I would also like to sing the praises of a largely unheralded young pilot who has caught my eye before but who is surely destined for a top job one day. Dylan Robinson rode a patient peach on DISCORAMA, runner-up in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle. I get the impression his main boss, Henry De Bromhead, is trying hard to keep Robinson under wraps while he learns his trade. The cat will be out of the bag soon.
6. FEMALE JOCKEYS BRING LOTS TO THE TABLE
Few sports offer more opportunities to compete on a level playing-field with men than racing. Whether that be in the saddle, in the training yard or within the owners’ ranks. So how pleasing it was to see such diversity rewarded by the heartwarming victories of four female riders at this year’s Festival.
One of the visual images of the week was Bridget Andrews being hugged on the walk back to the winner’s enclosure by her boyfriend, Harry Skelton, after victory on MOHAAYED, who went off as big a 33/1 for the Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle even though the gelding was once sixth to Gleneagles in an Irish 2,000 Guineas. Andrews’ success came a year after sister Gina had landed the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase for amateurs on Domesday Book.
Lizzie Kelly confessed that she had to banish her Festival demons after falling so early in the Gold Cup last year on TEA FOR TWO. She looked as authoritative as ever in steering home the Nick Williams novice, COO STAR SIVOLA, in the Ultima Handicap Chase to become the first professional female jockey to taste Festival glory.
Harriet Tucker had demons of a different kind to contend with as she dislocated her shoulder approaching the business end of the St James’s Place Foxhunters Chase, but still managed to steer PACHA DU POLDER to a repeat triumph. I wonder if Harriet will now be able to follow in the footsteps of Bryony Frost, whose career has not looked back since she won on the same horse in last year’s race.
Last but not least, Katie Walsh proved yet again that the family’s horse(wo)manship skills are not exclusive to brother Ruby. She brought RELEGATE from the clouds to land the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, which was just reward for a quite extraordinary ride she gave the novice, PYLONTHEPRESSURE, in the four-miler 24 hours earlier. The 8yo barely jumped a twig in what Timeform labelled one of the worst exhibitions of jumping in Festival history, yet Katie somehow stayed in the saddle and persuaded him to finish fifth.
7. IRISH EYES ARE STILL SMILING BRIGHTLY
There was to be no repeat of the rick made by bookies before the 2017 Festival when they offered odds as big as 6/1 about Ireland winning the Betbright Prestbury Cup. But for a long time last week, it did look a shade of odds-on that they would better their 19-9 victory of 12 months ago. Last-day doubles by Paul Nicholls and Colin Tizzard put paid to that, and the final score of 17-11 retrieved a scintilla of respectability for the home team.
Nevertheless, it was impossible to ignore the domination of Irish horses, trainers and owners. Seven times now in the last eight seasons, at least 12 prizes have gone across the Irish Sea when, in previous years, even double figures were unheard of.
The stables of Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins landed no fewer than 15 of the 28 races between them, while the owner operations of Gigginstown House Stud (seven winners), JP McManus (two winners) and Rich Ricci (one winner) carried home satchels overflowing with almost £1.4 million in aggregated prize money.
Elliott pipped Mullins to the trainers’ title for the second Festival running, helping himself to trebles on the second and third days and emphasising his uncanny talent for delivering the goods in handicaps. The Pertemps Handicap Hurdle, the Fred Winter, the Martin Pipe and the Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase were all garnered by Elliott, who is now primed to land the biggest handicap of all, the Grand National, next month. Maybe he will take it with Tiger Roll who, by sauntering home in the Cross-Country Chase, meant Elliott had twice trained horses to win three different races at the Festival. Amazing stuff.
Mullins bagged no mean consolation, however, by scooping the most prize money (almost £400,000 more than Elliott) and overtaking Nicky Henderson as the winningmost Festival trainer of all time. His achievement in saddling Penhill to win the Stayers’ after a year’s absence was probably the training feat of the week, not far behind his effort in sending out the first three and five of the first seven in the Bumper.
There was a time when Mullins’s monopoly was pooh-poohed. Now the Mullins and Elliott monopoly is pooh-poohed. Not only is it bad for the Festival over here, it is also bad for Irish racing over there, they say, not allowing the smaller trainers a look-in. This conveniently ignores the fact that one such smaller trainer, Patrick Kelly, has produced a Festival winner in each of the last three seasons and was responsible for probably the performance of the week this year by PRESENTING PERCY in the RSA.
Personally, I think that instead of moaning, we should be basking in the privilege of witnessing two masters of their craft at work. We should be thankful that their owners are prepared to invest so much time and cash in Jumps racing, enabling us to marvel at the best horses on the biggest stage. Most punters and racegoers couldn’t give a monkey’s who owns and trains the winners and losers. They just want to see good horses and good races and, hopefully, to make a bit of pocket-money along the way. Providing the Mullins/Elliott domination is not stifling competition among the best horses, and there’s no evidence to suggest it is, then I see few downsides. Certainly, I am wildly against any artificial restrictions, such as limiting the number of runners each trainer or owner can have in a race. Just as Martin Pipe and Paul Nicholls did in their pomp, the two Irish wizards are setting the training standards for the rest to aspire to.
Put it this way, I would much rather be entertained by the battalions of Mullins and Elliott than have to endure the dull, dumbed-down, low-grade, uncompetitive fare that passes for much of the Jumps campaign in the UK. Given their fight for the trainers’ championship in Ireland, Mullins and Elliott are not expected to be heavily represented at Aintree next month, so the standard and size of fields on Merseyside will provide an interesting monitoring exercise.
8. THE SAD DECLINE OF BIG-NAME UK YARDS
Going hand in hand with the inexorable rise to Festival prominence of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott has been the disturbing decline of once high-profile yards in the UK. Never did I think I’d see the day when the likes of Philip Hobbs, David Pipe, Alan King, Jonjo O’Neill and Venetia Williams would trudge home without a winner among them. Two or three of King’s horses ran respectably, most notably MIDNIGHT TOUR in the Mares’ Hurdle, but Pipe and Hobbs failed to hit the first three and Jonjo failed to pick up a single penny of prize money. Equally worrying is that up-and-coming trainers are showing few signs that they are ready to fill the void. The shortage of graded quality within so many yards is not only harming the Festival but also having a damaging effect on the UK Jumps season as a whole.
Somewhere along the line, something is going very wrong. And it is too simplistic to say that the richest owners are based in Ireland and are hoovering up the best horses. Some of this year’s Festival winners for the Irish yards were relatively cheap buys. UK connections exist in the same marketplace as everyone else. Are they buying the wrong animals? Or are they being lured into paying extortionate fees for ordinary animals? Or, Heaven forbid, are the likes of Mullins and Elliott simply much better at their jobs than most of their British counterparts?
Mullins has identified a reason why the latter might be the perception of some. “It’s totally down to the Horse Racing Ireland programme, race planning and the prize money that they give to good horses in Ireland,” he said. “Good horses are rewarded in Ireland. They don’t have to go handicapping.
“Owners realise that they can buy a good horse to be a good horse and have races to run him in, whereas over in England, a lot of the novices have to go to a handicap to win prize money, and you leave a lot of good horses behind doing that. Our programme in Ireland is better, and it has been reflected in the results at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.”
There does seem to be a hotch-potch, ill-thought-out pathway to the top graded races in the UK. And too often, the prize money for graded races, especially for novices, is kept to the minimum, removing the incentive to run, whereas handicap purses are bloated to the extreme. Take Sandown on the opening Saturday in January, for instance. A veterans’ handicap chase, full of slow, exposed plodders, was worth twice as much as a high-quality Grade One Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle, which yielded the one-two in the Supreme Hurdle last week, Summerville Boy and KALASHNIKOV. That cannot be right.
I have warned before that Jumps racing in the UK is sleepwalking into a crisis. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by the massive popularity among the public of the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals when the rest of the Jumps season is not quite dying on its feet but definitely wallowing in a pit of mediocrity.
In mitigation, at least the UK found two more winners at the 2018 Festival than last year, thanks to a bumper concluding day. And at least the winners of three of the big five championship events went the way of UK-trained horses. But with all due respect to the likes of Colin Tizzard and Tom George, who enjoyed terrific weeks, we continue to thank goodness for the big-gun yards of Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls for propping up the home-based honours list. Nicholls again showed that even though his stable is not blessed with the depth of talent of old, and even though many of his best horses prefer decent ground, he is still a handler worthy of the utmost respect. Henderson might have been disappointed not to celebrate more than two winners, given the powerful squad of runners at his disposal, but he still picked up two of the top prizes, still fielded 16 in the first five, including six seconds, and still wasn’t far behind Mullins in the amount of prize money trousered.
9. HORSE DEATHS AND WHIP ABUSE
If you’re wondering why this review of Cheltenham is appearing so late, it isn’t solely because of the time it took me to shrug off the post-Festival hangover of depression. It is also because I felt deeply uncomfortable about the furore that erupted after the deaths of three horses in the last race of the week, the Grand Annual, and the whip-abuse ban and fine dished out to champion jockey Richard Johnson after his winning ride in the Gold Cup. It was a furore that tarnished the entire week and took the gloss off an event that should be showcasing all that is good about the sport we love.
The deaths elevated the number across the meeting to six. An unacceptably high figure. Yes, Jumps racing will always carry an element of danger and risk. But measures to minimise those elements must continue to be sought, so the BHA acted commendably in announcing an immediate review into the circumstances, particularly those that darkened the Grand Annual.
Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, the 2m handicap has always been run at a hell-for-leather pace and has always invited falls and accidents. Maybe 24 runners is too many. Maybe its place at the end of the card should be moved. Maybe it should be switched to the Old Course and run earlier in the week. But clearly something must be done to drastically reduce the chances of three horses losing their lives in one race.
Of course, whatever action is taken will not appease the activists and extremists who would like to see racing banned. But it is crucial that the authorities keep reasoned public opinion on their side and guard against the possibility of that public opinion, fuelled these days not only by the traditional media but also by social media, perceiving a sport too cruel to support.
Which brings us conveniently to the whip. Johnson’s ride on Native River has been widely acclaimed as admirable. A front-running masterclass of measured aggression. But it broke the rules of the sport. He used his whip too many times, and he did it in one of the biggest, most-watched races of the year.
Johnson not only accepted his punishment, he was also in a position to shrug it off. No doubt the seven-day ban could be converted into a holiday at the end of another long, hard campaign, while the fine represented peanuts in comparison to the prize money collected from victory. Is this right? Or are we heading for the pivotal moment when an increasingly sensitive Joe Public puts two and two together and says: hang on a minute, these horses are only winning these important races because they’re being beaten, illegally, into doing so?
The obvious solution is to beef up the penalties. But the dilemma racing faces is that, by far the most popular suggested remedy, is to disqualify the rule-breakers. And that punishes those in the direct firing line who are not at all culpable, namely the horses, the owners and the trainers and, most importantly, the punters.
Imagine the fury among backers if a prize as prestigious as the Gold Cup had been taken away from Native River last Friday. Imagine the chaos that would have followed the Kim Muir the previous day when the jockeys on both of the first two past the post, Noel McParlan and Patrick Mullins, were found guilty of whip abuse. The race would have gone to the third, with each/way dividends paid out to the sixth, beaten almost 20 lengths.
It is a dilemma indeed, but unless jockeys begin to take more seriously their responsibilities, the calls for heftier punishments or even more restricted use of the whip, will grow louder with every Cheltenham Festival that passes.
10. CHELTENHAM CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
The dust had barely settled on the 2018 Festival before traditionalists were up in arms over the removal of racing legend Fred Winter from the title of the juvenile handicap hurdle. I find it sad that Cheltenham have seen fit to cave in to the demands of sponsors, Boodles, although critics are barking up the wrong tree by comparing it to the loss of Vincent O’Brien’s name from the 2m handicap hurdle That race has always been known as the County, rather than the Vincent O’Brien. Commercial considerations should not be allowed to ride roughshod over the identity and familiarity of races, which play such a key role in the success of the Festival. I wonder how the Cheltenham committee would react if a sponsor demanded the Queen Mother’s name be scrubbed from the title of the Champion Chase?
In stark contrast, one change at this year’s meeting -- the move to introduce 48-hour declarations -- was an unqualified success. In fact, it was so successful that hardly anyone noticed it had happened. Knowing the final fields much further in advance helped punters no end and probably boosted betting turnover too. Surely it is time Jumps racing emerged from the Dark Ages and embraced 48-hour decs for the entire season.
Certainly not stuck in the Dark Ages is the slick manner in which Cheltenham racecourse and its partners organise and administer the whole shebang. Despite records crowds on three of the four days, the facilities operated smoothly. Service at the bars was generally good, there were just about enough food outlets and a stroll around the tented shopping village was comfortable and relaxing. Even ticket-stewardship at the Club entrances and the course’s general acoustics, which were two of my gripes last year, appeared much improved.
A word of praise too for Stagecoach, whose shipping of shuttle buses to and from the course to link up with the town centre and the train station, was exemplary. The less said about the train station, the better. Comprising only one line in and one line out, it is palpably unfit for purpose on an occasion as massive as this.
As for challenges for the future, the main topic of debate continues to be whether the Festival will be extended to a fifth day to embrace Saturday. In my view, it is inevitable, particularly as the track would only need to find two extra races if each day’s programme is reduced to six. Equally inevitable is the introduction of a mares’ chase, which would then leave room for a much-needed championship hurdle over 2m4f to cater for the many not quite quick enough to win a Champion but lacking the stamina to bag a Stayers’.
If the Festival does follow Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood in stretching to five days, I would also cap the attendance to 60,000 per day. This year, significant progress was made in attaining the Gold Cup levels of 70,000 for each day, which course director Ian Renton desires. But even though the ingenious lay-out of the venue meant getting about was manageable, it still proved impossible to have a good look at the horses in the paddock and then bag a place in the terraced stands for the race -- and that, as all seasoned racegoers will tell you, should be the litmus test as to whether a course is packing too many in or not.