Our man in Ireland reflects on a remarkable and historic week at the Cheltenham Festival - and he has three horses to follow too.
Exhale. Try to assimilate all that happened.
It was a Festival of firsts: first one without the bulging stands, first one without the Cheltenham roar, but so many stories.
The dominance of Irish-trained horses was obviously a thread that ran through the week. You expected that the Irish would be strong, it looked like there was as much strength in-depth in the Irish Cheltenham contingent as there had ever been, but you still couldn’t have predicted 23 winners. Not really.
It reached a new level this year, but it is not really a new thread. This is the sixth year in a row in which there have been as many or more Irish-trained winners as/than British-trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival.
The spread of Irish trainers is new though. Last year, when there were 17 Irish-trained winners, seven were trained by Willie Mullins and seven were trained by Gordon Elliott. In 2018 when there were 17 Irish-trained winners, eight were trained by Gordon Elliott and seven were trained by Willie Mullins.
This year, 10 different Irish trainers had winners: six each for Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead, three for Denise Foster and two for Gavin Cromwell, while Paul Nolan, Emmet Mullins, Noel Meade, Paul Hennessy, Ian Ferguson and Peter Fahey had one each.
And it hasn’t happened by accident. So many ingredients have gone into it, most of them with deep roots. From government investment to HRI’s planning, to the natural advantages that Irish horses enjoy during their formative years, to a strong point-to-point scene, investment by owners, to the trainers and the skill of the people who look after the horses every day, and the people who ride them in competition.
Willie Mullins claimed the Leading Trainer’s award again, a last-race lunge by Galopin Des Champs getting him there on the line, and Henry de Bromhead captured the crown jewels. The Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase and the Gold Cup, the 1-2 in the Gold Cup just for good measure. It is a feat that was without precedent. It will probably take a long time for the achievement to sink in, and it will probably take an even longer time for the achievement to be equalled.
And then there was Rachael Blackmore. For years now she has been one of Ireland’s top National Hunt riders, and it is fitting that she got the opportunity to showcase her talents on the greatest stage of them all, when the wider world was watching. Her tactical nous was in evidence all week if you looked closely. The full gamut of talents. From the front and aggressive on Allaho, from the front and conservative on Sir Gerhard, from the rear on Telmesomethinggirl. Always in the right place and forceful when she needed to be forceful on the field of play.
She was brilliant.
There were handicappers to note too. Like Milliner, who ran a big race to finish fourth in the Pertemps Final on Thursday. Rachael Blackmore kicked off on the Gigginstown House horse handy enough and towards the outside, but she allowed him drift back into mid-division over the first couple of flights.
He travelled well down the hill and made nice ground among horses on the run to the home turn. Nothing travelled better than him around the home turn. Three lengths behind the leader as they straightened up, he came under pressure then, and he just couldn’t go on as strongly as Mrs Milner did. He kept on well though, he stayed on admirably over the final flight and up the run-in to take fourth place. He was well beaten by the impressive Paul Nolan-trained winner, but he got to within two lengths of runner-up The Bosses Oscar.
It was a fine run by the Gold Away gelding, in a race in which lack of experience may have just counted against him in the end. He qualified for the final with a promising run to finish third behind Atlantic Shore in the Punchestown qualifier three weeks ago off a mark of 121, when he kicked on around the home turn and was just run down on the run-in.
He just squeezed into the Final on a mark of 126, but he will be of interest again now off a similar mark. He is eight years old, but this was just his sixth run over hurdles, he was off the track for over two years before his debut this season at Navan in January, so he still has the potential to progress. He won his maiden hurdle on good ground, so he will be of interest if he runs again this season in one of the stayers’ handicap hurdles at Aintree or Punchestown.
Jack Kennedy claimed the riding performance of the week, not for his Gold Cup-winning ride on Minella Indo nor his National Hunt Chase-winning ride on Galvin – which were both superb – but for the ride that he gave Mount Ida to win the Kim Muir on Thursday.
Denise Foster’s mare had jumped to her right and effectively out of contention by the time they reached the top of the hill first time. Nobody would have blamed Jack Kennedy if he had pulled her up at that point, but he persevered, got her back into her rhythm and into the race, and he actually got to the front at the second last fence, earlier than he had intended. It was a remarkable performance by horse and rider.
A lot depends on how the market interprets this run the next time she runs, but she may be a little over-priced wherever she goes next. She had a nice progressive profile going into Thursday’s race, she had beaten subsequent triple-winner Scarlet And Dove in a Grade 3 mares’ chase at Cork in December, and she had finished second to Friday’s Mares’ Chase heroine Colreevy in a Grade 2 contest at Thurles at the end of January.
It is not a coincidence that those two good runs were at right-handed tracks, and she will be of interest when she goes back right-handed again, which hopefully she will do at the Punchestown Festival. She is only seven and she has run just four times over fences, so there could be plenty more to come.
There could be more to come too from Drop The Anchor. Pat Fahy’s horse was unlucky not to finish closer than he did in the County Hurdle.
He wasn’t great at the first flight, with the result that he was just worse than mid-division as they raced up past the stands first time. Still no better than 12th or 13th as they raced around the home turn, he got squeezed out of it a little when they straightened up, as Belfast Banter and Champagne Gold came together in front of him. He lost valuable ground and momentum at a point at which he was just starting to pick up and needing to go forward.
He stayed on well from there though, he closed on the leaders all the way to the line to take seventh place, just three and a half lengths behind Peter Fahey’s impressive winner Belfast Banter.
JP McManus’ horse won the Ladbrokes Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown last month, and he has raced 15 times over hurdles, so he looks fairly well exposed on the face of it. He was racing on Friday off a handicap rating that was 15lb higher than the mark off which he won the Ladbrokes Hurdle, and he was allowed go off at 33/1. But he is only seven, and there could still be more to come from him on this evidence.
A fast-run, stiff test at two miles or an extended two miles obviously suits him well. He was tried over two and a half miles or thereabouts four times last season, and it didn’t appear to suit him as well as a true test at two miles, but he could be worth another try over the longer trip now, on better ground. He races over two miles as if he will get further, and a slight step up in trip now could elicit a little more improvement. There is a valuable two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle on the final day of the Punchestown Festival, and that is a race that could suit him well.
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