Cheltenham Festival highlights
Our team pick out their highlights from the 2013 Cheltenham Festival and provide an ante-post tip for next season.
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RIDE OF THE WEEK
Ian Ogg: With the late defection of Dynaste, the Jewson suddenly became one of the more competitive novice chases of the week and, although there might be one or two doubts about the form in hindsight, that shouldn't take away from the ride that Bryan Cooper gave Benefficient. Setting his own fractions in front, it was the coolness he showed to sit back and allow Dynaste to go on from three out that marked him down as a confident jockey performing at the top of his game. He saved enough energy for that final lung-bursting climb up the hill and Benefficient responded willingly having hit the front again at the last.
Ben Linfoot: There were still some lingering stamina doubts about Cue Card going into the Ryanair. He'd blasted his way to success over two miles and two-and-a-quarter miles throughout his career but a non-staying effort in the King George suggested he couldn't stretch his stamina out to three. On his penultimate start before the Festival, at Ascot, he did win over the Ryanair trip of 2m5f, but main rival Captain Chris had made a serious blunder that day. Yet he answered all the questions thrown at him in the Ryanair in emphatic fashion, winning by nine lengths in the end, partly due to a fantastic ride from Joe Tizzard. For me, Tizzard did three key things wonderfully well to enable Cue Card to deliver a maximum effort. First up, he settled him beautifully in the early stages. There were no signs of keenness, no danger he could pull his way out of contention early on. Secondly, he got the fractions absolutely spot on out in front. He went at a pace that was uncomfortable for many of his rivals but left enough in the tank for his finishing effort. And thirdly, he got him jumping brilliantly. The best of example of this was his leap at the last when he saw a stride and settled matters with a fluent leap - any mistake there and he might've been reeled in. A fine performance from both horse and jockey.
Ben Coley: Ruby Walsh, like all great things, is often taken for granted. Some might even question his ability, given the awesome firepower he's privileged to ride on both sides of the Irish Sea. But rides like that which he produced aboard Champagne Fever in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle remind us that he's a uniquely gifted horseman whose record at the highest level owes plenty to his outstanding ability. Going into the opening race of the Festival, all the talk was of My Tent Or Yours, whose breathtaking success in the Betfair Hurdle marked him out as the one to beat. Walsh knew that as well as anyone, but with quiet confidence having exuded from Willie Mullins and co prior to the race, it was apparent soon after the start that the favourite would have a job on his hands. Walsh got the fractions spot-on. They say the easiest way to get a stayer beat is to ask him to go too fast, too soon, but Walsh set a tempo that both ensured a stamina test yet kept Champagne Fever operating within his own comfort zone. Choosing to fill his horse's lungs as the pack galloped into a stiff breeze was another stroke of genius, before Walsh asked his mount for maximum effort up the Cheltenham hill. At this point, both man and beast proved exactly why they're top class by scrapping for every yard gained, in the process breaking the heart of the supremely talented runner-up. It was a masterful performance by a rider who not only knew the strengths of his mount and the potential failings of the danger, but was able to carry out a plot that perfectly exploited them. Genius.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
Ian Ogg: There were many fine human and equine performances over the four days but Thomas Mullins' training of Alderwood gets the accolade. The winner of last year's County Hurdle, Alderwood went on to complete a hat-trick with wins at Fairyhouse and Punchestown before embarking on a chase career which appeared to have one sole objective and nothing was left to chance in achieving the goal. Never out of the first three in three completed runs over fences, he picked up valuable experience in a handicap before Cheltenham and that must have stood him in good stead in a Grand Annual full of drama. One of the best backed winners of the week and one of the most comfortable, this was a job carried out to perfection by a trainer who only had one other runner during the four days.
Ben Linfoot: Two performances from last week stood out and though they're the obvious ones we would look like fools not to mention just how good both Sprinter Sacre and Our Conor were. Sprinter Sacre continues to jump like a buck and he does everything with the style of a Hollywood A-lister. His silky-smooth success in the Champion Chase, on the bridle and 19 lengths clear of a former Champion, was simply the standout performance of the Festival and, indeed, many a Festival. Hopefully this ridiculously good-looking seven-year-old can excite National Hunt fans for many years to come. Grade One races shouldn't be won with such consummate ease, but Sprinter Sacre wasn't the only one in a different league to his contemporaries. Our Conor was another, as he routed the Triumph Hurdle field by 15 lengths and it could've been further. He jumped quick and slick, travelled well and showed an electric turn of foot after merely a flick of Bryan Cooper's in-form wrists. Perhaps he didn't beat much. Time will tell what those in behind him go on to achieve. But one thing's for sure - Dessie Hughes' four-year-old looks certain to take his place at the very top table.
Ben Coley: There were many to choose from, but for me the manner in which At Fishers Cross won the Albert Bartlett stands out. AP McCoy chose to settle the favourite just off the early tempo, one which simply wasn't strong enough for a horse who out-stayed previous Neptune winner The New One on his latest start. It's that which makes this performance all the more noteworthy, as rarely will you see a horse jump as slowly as At Fishers Cross did for half of a championship race and go on to win by over four lengths. As the pace quickened, so did his jumping, and although briefly under threat from eventual second African Gold, the way in which At Fishers Cross finished his race spoke volumes to the engine he holds within. Another summer on his back, a quicker pace to chase and a good few hours schooling under the tutelage of the excellent Rebecca Curtis, and the sky (or, perhaps, Big Buck's) is indeed the limit.
EYE-CATCHER OF THE WEEK
Ian Ogg: Although support for Rule The World gathered momentum as the Neptune drew near, Mouse Morris' runners often seem to go under the radar as runners from 'more fashionable' stables take the limelight. Morris' last three runners in the race were this year's Arkle second Baily Rock (ninth at 100/1), First Lieutenant (first) and Grade One winner China Rock (fourth at 25/1) and there's every chance Rule The World could be better than the lot of them. More of a staying type than the winner, Morris expects him to be better with another year on his back and it would be no surprise to see him among the leading contenders for the RSA Chase in 12 months time.
Ben Linfoot: You have to be wary of horses running on late up the hill to considerably improve their position, but David Pipe's Tanerko Emery looks worth keeping an eye on for the rest of the season judging by his County Hurdle effort. Held up at the rear by Jason Maguire, he couldn't go with them when he needed to improve his position in the middle part of the race. Yet, with too much to do from a winning perspective at the bottom of the hill, he picked up in great style and moved through the field on the stands' rail to almost nick fourth on the line. A step back up in trip looks an absolute must for him now, especially if we eventually start to get better ground and he'd be of real interest in a big-field handicap over two-and-a-half miles at Liverpool.
Ben Coley: I agree with Mr Linfoot's noting of the Pipe horse, and will add Romanesco's run in the Kim Muir as another to add to the notebook. Purchased by Giggingstown prior to the Festival, it was no surprise to see Gordon Elliott's runner come in for support, particularly given the strength of his never-nearer second to National hope Colbert Station on his previous start over fences. A mistake at the first forced Nina Carberry to bide her time aboard the eight-year-old, who could be seen travelling noticeably well turning for home before another blunder at what was the final fence proved too much to recover from. That three-and-a-quarter mile race was a thorough test of stamina and the visual impression is that Romanesco didn't quite see it out. Granted better ground, though, he clearly gets three miles with a little to spare and a handicap chase on the final day of the Punchestown Festival could prove the ideal target. Wherever he goes, it's fair to assume his shrewd trainer will have identified the right race and having pulled well clear of the fourth at Cheltenham, I fancy Romanesco's turn isn't far off.
2014 FESTIVAL FANCIES
Ian Ogg: The World Hurdle only served to highlight how greatly Andy Stewart's star was missed. Solwhit is a fine horse and it was a wonderful training performance but neither Paul Nicholls nor Big Buck's will be quaking in their boots following the events of last week. Okay, a huge amount has to be taken on trust with Big Buck's not expected to run before the next Cheltenham Festival - by which time he'll be 11 years of age - but he's been carefully campaigned over the years and has shown no signs that his powers are on the wane. We won't know whether his injury has left a mark but the bookies have dangled a big carrot in front of us and it's not one that I can resist as there's still no sign of a staying hurdler emerging that can hold a candle to the four-time winner of the staying crown.
Ben Linfoot: On paper, it looked a terrific renewal of the Neptune and it didn't disappoint with the right horses all involved at the finish. Rule The World looks a very smart prospect and perhaps people should stop making excuses for Pont Alexandre and just accept that he's a very good horse who was beaten by two better ones. The New One is a proper racehorse, a resolute galloper with a turn of foot to match and he looks capable of being versatile, trip-wise, over the coming years. Next season, certainly, it would be no surprise to see him drop back in trip seeing he looks to have so much speed. His form stacks up too, whether it be the form line with At Fishers Cross from Trials Day or THAT Aintree bumper that saw him beat My Tent Or Yours. Nicky Henderson's horse could well be a rival of his for the Champion Hurdle this time next year, but though he battled on up the hill behind Champagne Fever you can't help but feel he's going to be more at home on flatter, speedier tracks. The Christmas Hurdle looks to have his name written all over it, but a 'speedy-stayer' is often what you need in the Champion and The New One fits the bill perfectly.
Ben Coley: I see absolutely no reason why Bobs Worth won't be back to retain his Gold Cup crown next year. Plenty went wrong for Nicky Henderson's horse last Friday, not least having to skip past the fallen Silviniaco Conti and plough through ground more testing than is ideal, yet he still had seven lengths in hand of a dual-Festival winner, with an outstanding horse well beaten in third. Quite simply, whatever the conditions, should he line-up next March he would look to have the class of 2013 beaten. Do I fear any of the novices? Not really, no. I thought the RSA was a sub-standard renewal, with due respect to those who dominated the finish, while it's hard to see Henderson sending the exceptional Simonsig past three miles particularly in light of his post-Arkle comments. The Jewson winner looks a specialist at two-and-a-half and basically we're getting 3/1 that Henderson can get Bobs Worth back to the Festival at somewhere close to his best. It's a chance worth taking.