Ten talking-points that made the 2017 Cheltenham Festival so memorable

Buveur D'Air, ridden by Noel Fehily, and trained by Nicky Henderson, wins the Stan James Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last week. (PHOTO BY: Julian Herbert.PA Wire)

Buveur D'Air, ridden by Noel Fehily, and trained by Nicky Henderson, wins the Stan James Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last week. (PHOTO BY: Julian Herbert.PA Wire)

All over for another year, the Cheltenham Festival has written a new chapter in its illustrious, heavyweight history.

The preamble was all about the stars and heroes who were missing. But the four days of action threw up a new roll-call of stars and heroes, both equine and human.

As punters and racegoers, we all emerged with tales to tell. Some of us were up, some of us were down. Some got drunk, some stayed sober, Some avoided the queues, some didn’t. Some lasted the full four-day distance, some didn’t. Some of us woke up on Saturday morning wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, most of us woke up bloody-eyed and wallowing in a pit of post-Festival depression.

However, not many could dispute that Cheltenham’s reputation remained firmly intact as the home of the best Jumps racing in the world and the headiest social feast within all sport.

I’ve come up with these ten talking-points that made the 2017 Festival so memorable:

1. IRISH DOMINATION HAS SERIOUS UNDERTONES FOR UK JUMPING.

Most punters and racegoers don’t care which country the winners come from. We just want to see good horses and good, competitive racing. But the unprecedented dominance of Irish-trained animals at this year’s Festival must have serious undertones for the state of Jumps racing in the UK. The writing has been on the wall for three or four years now. But even those of us waving vouchers of 6/1 for Ireland to win the BetBright Prestbury Cup could not have anticipated such an obliteration as Gordon Elliott, Willie Mullins and Jessica Harrington led the Emerald Isle battalions to victories in 19 of the 28 races. With the admirable exception of Nicky Henderson, whose haul of three winners, six seconds and four thirds ought to lift him towards a deserved trainers’ title, the performance of British-based handlers was little short of woeful. Not a single winner was recorded by the likes of Colin Tizzard, Alan King, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Harry Fry, Dan Skelton, Tom George and Jonjo O’Neill. Skelton, hailed in these parts as the successor-elect to Paul Nicholls, mustered a mere £8,244 in prize money. All of these trainers are perfectly capable, yet none was able to make an impact with horses apparently inferior to their Irish counterparts. In seeking an explanation, it is too simplistic to say all the big, wealthy owners are predominantly based across the Irish Sea. There has to be a reason why they are, and maybe Mullins hit the nail on the head when comparing the balance and structure of the two countries’ Jumps racing programmes. In Ireland, the fixture list reflects accurately the number of horses in training, while each meeting, endowed by generous purses, puts the emphasis on quality through prestigious Graded and conditions events that provide an educational pathway for promising horses. In Britain, the fixture list is too bloated for the size of the National Hunt horse population, resulting in small, uncompetitive fields and paltry prize-money on cards that are increasingly dumbed down and liberally dosed with handicaps, some of the best of which are even failing to be fully subscribed. Little wonder then that Ireland is better placed to produce the kind of high-quality winners required at the Cheltenham Festival when this country seems more concerned with pandering to mediocrity, putting so-called grassroots racing and the obsession with handicap marks before the incentive to find champions. Even if Mullins is incorrect, what we have witnessed at the Festival this year should surely be enough to at least trigger a debate within UK Jumps racing. But I guarantee it won’t, largely because vast swathes of those who should be holding the sport to account, within the racing media, are outrageously biased towards the Jumps game, at the expense of Flat racing, which they need no excuse to snipe and sneer at but which, in fact, is in rude health. The success of Cheltenham 2017 and of subsequent end-of-season meetings at Aintree, Ayr and Sandown will again paint them a convenient picture of a rosy National Hunt garden. But in truth, this merely camouflages the much larger picture of a Jumps season that is falling apart at the seams, particularly during the barren period between Christmas and Cheltenham, which is becoming stupefyingly sterile and must be testing the patience of many of our leading tracks.

2.THE FESTIVAL HAS ITS MOJO BACK

This is surely the year when the notorious circuit of Festival preview evenings begins, finally, to grate and crumble. While it was welcome to hear the views of leading trainers such as Gordon Elliott and Paul Nicholls, not to mention those of proper pundits such as At The Races duo Kevin Blake and Gary O’Brien, the claptrap spouted by so many others has reached record levels. Those who continue to support these events are well used by now to pouring scorn on so-called experts clearly happy to wing it without the aid of any kind of preparation, but a new phenomenon this year were the bandwagoners. Those who had heard a comment or an opinion at a previous preview night, or maybe read one within the pages of the ‘Racing Post’, and were content to repeat it as their own. One such opinion that gained more legs than an octopus was that sons of Scorpion, ie: RSA Novices’ Chase favourite MIGHT BITE, were so unreliable that they had no chance of getting up the Cheltenham hill. I lost count of the number of times this was asserted, without any conceivable foundation, so what a delight it was to see Nicky Henderson’s brilliant chaser charge up that hill as well as anything all week, albeit via a right-turn or two. The most annoying preview-evening claim of all, however, was that the Festival had somehow turned soft and, after last year’s string of successful favourites, coupled with a cascade of generous offers from bookies, it had become a licence to print money for punters. With gritted teeth and behind a forced smile, I was grudgingly pleased to see the Festival get its mojo back and return to its halcyon days of invincible unpredictability. LABAIK, the 25/1 winner of the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, booted home by 17-year-old prodigy Jack Kennedy, set the tone, which was duly enriched by a succession of failed favourites, spearheaded, of course, by 2/9 shot DOUVAN and the ridiculously short Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle favourite UNOWHATIMEANHARRY. This is the Festival, for goodness sake. The toughest meeting of the year for punters and one that rewards only hard work. Mind you, those who follow market leaders were not the only ones hit for six. Trends buffs were left scratching their heads, particularly in handicaps where the likes of UN TEMPS POUR TOUT, PRESENTING PERCY and ARCTIC FIRE defied big weights and made a mockery of race profiles. And I never thought I’d see the day when a Triumph Hurdle winner (TIGER ROLL) bolts up in the four-miler!

3.FINE LINE BETWEEN FANTASY AND FRUITCAKE

Many of the most naturally talented sportsmen and women have what is often called an edge to them. And treading that fine line between fantasy and fruitcake can be a delicate proposition. Equine versions abound too, as ably demonstrated during the Festival by novice chasers YORKHILL and MIGHT BITE. Willie Mullins’s Graham Wylie-owned 7yo, a magnificent-looking animal, chose to turn up for his assignment in the JLT Novices’ Chase on the back of the shoddiest of exhibitions in a schooling round at Leopardstown, treating two or three of his fences with disdain and travelling with such abandon entering the home straight that he almost pulled Ruby Walsh’s arms out of their sockets. Such wayward zest made him a prime candidate to join the favourites’ graveyard and yet he proceeded to unleash one of the performances of the week. Yorkhill’s imperious display reminded us not only of the training skills of Mullins, but also of Aintree last season when he refused to settle for almost the entire race and still found more on the run-in to win a Grade One. He is an extraordinary beast and I, for one, have learned my lesson. I will not be opposing him wherever he turns up for the rest of his career. Might Bite is not as good. Not yet, anyway. But he reduced his critics to rubble with an athletic, elegant round of jumping to make all in the RSA Novices’ Chase. It was a breathtaking repeat of the show he put on for the Kempton crowd on Boxing Day, until his own fruitcake tendency kicked in and we were almost treated to a similarly disastrous conclusion. Just as he had when winning his novice hurdle at Cheltenham in April 2015, he barely got over the last and hung wickedly right towards the entrance to the track he had emerged from ten minutes earlier. Only the arrival of a loose horse and his stablemate WHISPER, plus the galvanising powers of jockey Nico De Boinville, reminded him that the race was far from over, and the manner in which he rallied to get back up in a finale of unparalleled drama proved that his sheer brilliance outweighs his quirks. Just!

4.RUBY THURSDAY

The headline writers love it when Ruby Walsh makes hay on the opening Tuesday of the meeting. But this was different. They were made to wait until the third day and while ‘Ruby Thursday’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, boy was it worth the wait! A masterclass of horsemanship yielded a four-timer aboard YORKHILL, UN DE SCEAUX, NICHOLS CANYON and LET’S DANCE that would be hard to supplant as the single most superb effort of any Festival jockey in the modern era and won him, in one fell swoop, yet another Cheltenham jockeys’ crown. As we have already mentioned, Yorkhill is a tricky customer to say the least, yet Walsh got him settled, got him jumping and then produced him at just the right moment. Such polish and judgement was repeated on UDS, who remains a champion disgracefully under-rated in some quarters but who, potentially, was an equally awkward conveyance on the step-up in trip on drying ground in the Ryanair Chase. Quickly recognising that new trip or not, the 9yo wanted to go 2m pace, Walsh chose the ideal time to allow him to stride on in front, but was still able to keep sufficient lid on the exploding gas to guide him all the way to the line. Nichols Canyon was another entering stamina territory far from sure to suit, but who would have known it as Walsh steered the most patient of paths to eke out the wonderful 7yo’s eighth Grade One success? Patience was also the key word on LET’S DANCE, who completed the quilted quartet of wins in the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. This time, the 5yo was coming back in distance to one that even Mullins was doubtful would suit, yet Walsh still felt confident enough to ride out the back and, in truth, to give not only her plenty to do but also her backers plenty to fret about! But he was proved predictably right, understanding that his mount’s chief asset was her class and turn of foot, which came to the fore oh so readily at the death.

5.THE FEMALE FESTIVAL

Reams of rubbish are written and spoken about the supposed lack of opportunities given to women in racing, particularly to female jockeys. In fact, the sport is a leader in its field when it comes to female participation alongside men, whether that be in the saddle, in the training yard or within the owners’ ranks. So how satisfying it was to see the fairer sex enjoy a bumper Festival. The highlight was a triumph for Bryony Frost, daughter of Champion Hurdle and Grand National-winning pilot Jimmy Frost, who upstaged even Victoria Pendleton by steering last year’s mount for the former Olympic cyclist, PACHA DU POLDER, to victory in the St James’s Place Foxhunters’ Chase. The ice-cool Frost worked wonders on a horse most would have put their mortgage on, never mind Pendleton, as a non-stayer. Winners were also booted home by Gina Andrews and Lisa O’Neill, and although Andrews’s success aboard DOMESDAY BOOK in the Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Handicap Chase was tarnished by a deserved 13-day ban for ugly over-use of the whip, and Lizzie Kelly’s Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup ride came to a premature end when TEA FOR TWO unseated her at the second, the female influence on the Festival did not end there. Doughty 70-year-old Jessica Harrington saw to that, of course, with a terrific treble topped by the Gold Cup winner himself, SIZING JOHN. Much has been made of the fact that 16 of the 28 Festival winners hailed from just four stables, but given that Harrington always stays with Nicky Henderson for Cheltenham week, six actually hailed from the same house! The Moone handler was justifiably crowned the new queen of Cheltenham, following in the Blue Riband footsteps of the similarly indomitable duo, Jenny Pitman and Henrietta Knight. But Her Majesty The Queen herself even got involved in the week’s female fireworks because she bred the aforementioned Kim Muir winner, Domesday Book.

6.CURIOUS PEDIGREE POINTERS

Mention of the Queen’s breeding prowess brings me neatly on to one or two Festival pedigree pointers worth shining a light over. Jumps enthusiasts are not renowned for their Stud Book expertise, but it was curious how much influence Flat-bred sires had on last week’s results. Sons of the mighty Montjeu, namely Derby winner Authorized, Montmartre and Scorpion, accounted for four winners, NICHOLS CANYON, TIGER ROLL, LABAIK and MIGHT BITE, while two more ex-Epsom heroes put their stamp on the Festival. One of Galileo’s sons, SUPASUNDAE landed the Coral Cup for Jessica Harrington, while another, Soldier Of Fortune, sired the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle victor, FLYING TIGER. And High Chaparral was not only responsible for ALTIOR, far more impressive winner of a crack renewal of the Arkle Novices’ Chase than most gave him credit for (watch again how he powered up the hill), but also for Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle winner PENHILL, via one of his daughters. Penhill was one of three winners too for stallions based at the relatively modest Boardsmill Stud, run by William and John Flood in County Meath. The son of Mount Nelson followed successes for WILLOUGHBY COURT, son of Court Cave in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle, and FAYONAGH, son of Kalanisi in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.

7.ABSENCES HAD LITTLE EFFECT ON TOP OF THE BILL

As much as anyone, I was guilty of suggesting that Festival racegoers this year should wend their way up to Prestbury Park wearing sackcloth and ashes, given the doom and gloom surrounding the absence of so many star names, from Thistlecrack to Annie Power. I should have known better. The Festival possesses an incredible resilience, and the strength in depth of its playlist guaranteed that little damage was done to the top of the bill. The main attraction, the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, threw up a worthy winner in SIZING JOHN, who redeemed the reputation of Douvan somewhat, having previously chased home Willie Mullins’s fallen star over what we now know to be unsuitable 2m trips on no fewer than seven occasions. Time may well tell that it was not a vintage renewal of the race, but it was certainly a fascinating one to watch, loaded with possibilities coming down the hill. For most of the contest, Djakadam looked the likely one, only to fail to find that final ounce of stamina for the third year running. On the prevailing ground, Native River failed to find that final ounce of class required. And with advancing years looming large, Cue Card failed to find his legs at the third last once more. The Stan James Champion Hurdle was a similar mixture of brilliance and disappointment. The former was provided by the winner, BUVEUR D’AIR, a shining example of the instinctive expertise of trainer Nicky Henderson, who broke many a golden rule when opting to switch JP McManus’s 6yo from fences back to timber in mid-season. The French-bred emphasised what a red-hot race last year’s Supreme was, when he was a running-on third behind Altior and Min, and created two pieces of history, providing Henderson with his record-breaking sixth Champion and owner JP McManus with his 50th Festival winner. With veteran MY TENT FOR YOURS second in the race for a third time, it was also a contest that provided Henderson with the first of a couple of one-twos during the week. His third contender, BRAIN POWER, was as bitterly disappointing as the favourite YANWORTH, while the decision to pitch MOON RACER into the contest as a novice backfired badly. Henry De Bromhead was responsible for the gallant third, PETIT MOUCHOIR, a horse who also ran in the 2016 Supreme and one he inherited from Willie Mullins after the Closutton trainer’s dispute with Gigginstown Stud over training fees. It’s worth remembering that nugget of information because much has been made of how De Bromhead himself used to train no fewer than three horses that went on to bag big Cheltenham pots, most notably Sizing John who departed when owners Ann and Alan Potts also jumped ships last summer. Such musical chairs are part and parcel of racing nowadays and, in any event, the likeable De Bromhead still enjoyed his Festival day in the sun when veteran SPECIAL TIARA not only cashed in on Douvan’s injury in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase but also did so by pipping one of the Pottses’ charges, FOX NORTON.

8.THE GREAT IRISH TRAINERS’ DUEL

At the halfway point of the Festival, the conspiracy theorists were having a field day. Willie Mullins, king of Cheltenham in recent years, was having a nightmare. No winners in two days, while his great rival, Gordon Elliott, had already strode to five. Something must be wrong with the Mullins horses, the whispers went. His horses couldn’t be touched with a bargepole, the cynics crowed. We all know what happened next. The Closutton maestro sent out a four-timer on the Thursday and bounced back with such gusto that he actually overtook Elliott and briefly grabbed the lead on Gold Cup Day in the race for the top trainer title until an unexpected victory for CHAMPAGNE CLASSIC in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle turned it the way of the County Meath-based 38-year-old. Even so, Mullins amassed in excess of £350,000 more than his rival in prize money from the meeting, which was some effort considering how many high-profile horses he has been forced to be without since last summer. It was also deserved reward for the way he conducted himself through the week. Even when the behind-the-back critics were sharpening their knives, Mullins exuded professional calm, strengthened by years of wisdom and experience. His winners spoke for themselves, but even with horses that were beaten, he demonstrated his uncanny ability to get his charges ripe for the big day. Horses such as MELON, who shrugged off inexperience in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, VROUM VROUM MAG, who shrugged off illness in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, and WICKLOW BRAVE, who shrugged off as long absence to run an unheralded cracker in the Champion Hurdle. Mullins’s duel with Elliott for the trainers’ title will provide a thrilling denouement to the Irish season and suggestions made this week that their success, and those of their owners, is somehow damaging to the game are, quite frankly, risible. There have even been calls for the number of entries under one ownership to be restricted. Yet all attempts within the parameters of sport to manufacture or fabricate an outcome should be resisted wholeheartedly. Competitive sport must be allowed to follow its natural course. It’s not long ago that the likes of Gigginstown Stud and Rich Ricci were being shot down for being supposedly reluctant to run their horses against each other. Now the critics, dripping with envy, want to stop them doing just that! It’s also not long ago that the moaners were showing their distaste for an apparent Mullins monopoly. Now he has a genuine challenger in Elliott, and still they moan! In truth, the big guns cannot win. Except, of course, that they do -- and very often.

9.WATCHING THE CROWDS AND THE TV COVERAGE

It might not yield many, if any, arrests, just as town centres on Friday and Saturday nights don’t, but drunken behaviour is undoubtedly prevalent in and around the bars at Cheltenham during Festival week. It’s all very well for mediamen, cocooned in their press boxes, to pooh-pooh this, but such behaviour does impinge on those who are at the track to enjoy the horses and the races, rather than get tanked up. Consequently, Jockey Club Racecourses is to be applauded for the measures they took to try and get a grip on alcohol consumption, restricting the number of pints bought in a single round and backing a crackdown by police. On last week’s evidence, the measures brought about an improvement in behaviour on recent years. Two areas the course has yet to tackle, however, are stewarding and acoustics. The former is too flimsy and too ineffective at some of the entrances to the Club Enclosure, resulting in spectators easing their way in without the appropriate badge and increasing congestion and overcrowding, particularly on Gold Cup Day when the crowd limit of around 70,000 remains too high. The course’s sound system has been a problem all season, to the extent that, on the Saturday of the Open meeting, the race commentaries could not be heard from within the main grandstand. The track has too many ‘deaf spots’, including one side of the paddock, which struggles to pick up interviews taking place in front of the winner’s podium a matter of yards away. Far from the madding crowds, many racing enthusiasts, of course, watched the action unfold on ITV for the first time. By all accounts, their coverage was welcomed, even though it very much followed the now-established template. Viewing figures were better than those achieved by Channel 4, but so they should be. In fact, given that ITV’s overall audience-share is about double that of Channel 4, there is an argument to be made that the figures were very unsatisfactory. But then again, of course, viewing habits are so wildly diverse these days. So many platforms are available to use. For instance, I watched the Kim Muir on the Betfair website on a mobile phone in a pub in Cheltenham town centre. And since getting home, I have been in the process of watching all 28 race replays via Racing UK, whose coverage, fronted by Nick Luck, won huge admiration.

10.ROOM FOR ANY CHELTENHAM CHANGES?

Considering the Festival is so amazingly popular, it beggars belief that it still attracts criticism for its race schedule. Those who resent the Ryanair Chase and the JLT Novices’ Chase have long since been consigned to la-la land, particularly after two more tremendous renewals that produced wonderful winners in UN DE SCEAUX and YORKHILL. Neither race had any detrimental effect on their ‘brother contests’ over 2m and 3m+, and it has always mystified me why there is such opposition to champions being crowned over an intermediate distance of 2m4f that clearly suits many horses best. The latest races it has become trendy to have a potshot at, however, are the mares’ hurdles. And with a similarly glaring lack of justification. Encouraging mares into training is utterly crucial to bolster field sizes, and while the recently introduced novices’ event needs time to find its feet, it still threw up a competitive field and a superb winner in LET’S DANCE last week, while its parent heat, the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, after years of domination by Quevega, is now firmly established as an unmissable attraction. In fact, I would go as far as to say this year’s renewal, in which three top-class mares, APPLE’S LADE, VROUM VROUM MAG and LIMINI, jumped the last flight in unison, was just about the race of the meeting. Changes to the schedule are always being considered, but I cannot envisage any in the foreseeable future. The only contest I would scrap is the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase, which must be the most tedious eight minutes or so of action in the entire season. But even that created a compelling story this year with Gordon Elliott’s CAUSE OF CAUSES entering Festival folklore as the winner of three different contests at the meeting. And calls for a veterans’ race to replace it ignore the fact that punters detest them from a betting point of view. Sifting through the form of ageing, slow, exposed has-beens is no idea of fun. If any changes are made, I can only see extra races being inserted into the programme, which would inevitably mean extending the Festival to a fifth day on the Saturday. Doing that would be easier than many opponents suggest because reducing each card to six races would necessitate the addition of only two more heats. And that could be done by the smooth transfer, from Sandown’s Imperial Cup Day card, of the mares’ bumper and the EBF Novices’ Handicap Hurdle Final. Having said that, what effect would an extra day have on the wallet and the liver?!