Our columnist reflects on last week's Cheltenham Festival including a controversial National Hunt Chase and an under-appreciated leading jockey.
CHELTENHAM REALLY DID HAVE EVERYTHING
Joy and sadness, together with a liberal dose of ecstasy and admiration plus a sprinkling of frustration thrown in there as well, last week’s Cheltenham Festival will linger long in the memory.
From the moment when Klassical Dream won the Sky Bet Supreme Novice Hurdle in the colours of the late John Coleman, we should have known we were set for a rollercoaster of a week.
It had been a lifetime dream of Coleman’s to have a winner at the Festival. He had died last July from bone cancer and never got to see the horse run after it was bought from France.
His widow Joanne, who had brought some of her husband’s ashes with her from her home in Essex, must have found the experience hugely moving.
Hearing the detail of the Colemans’ story seemed to set the tone for the whole week, which contained numerous emotive stories to complement the racing.
It was certainly a great start for Willie Mullins who had come into the meeting with hopes set on minimum and left it with the greatest prize of all.
Al Boum Photo, the horse once famous for being pulled out of the closing stages of a big race for no apparent reason, is now famous not just as a Gold Cup winner but as the first Willie Mullins Gold Cup winner. Oh yes, the dam has been breached now!
The joy of Paul Townend was obvious and it was impossible not to get caught up by the moment – it was wonderful to see. The incident at Punchestown last year has been well and truly exorcised.
There are some big few weeks coming up for Townend who has just started to put clear water between he and Rachael Blackmore in the jockeys’ championship back home.
Blackmore, too, had a fantastic week, opening her Festival account with two winners – not quite enough to land fruity bets for those who took 100-1 or more on her being top jockey.
You wonder whether she will ride an easier winner than A Plus Tard who looks destined for the top after his stroll in the Close Brothers Novice Chase. Remember, he has beaten Duc Des Genievres already this season.
Rachael just failed to make history in the Albert Bartlett as the first female jockey to ride a Grade One winner at the Festival as Bryony Frost and Frodon had got there a day earlier in the Ryanair.
What a performance from horse and jockey this was - a perfect partnership. The Jockey Club media department made a short but wonderful film following Bryony’s proud father Jimmy, the trainer and former Champion Hurdle and Grand National-winning jockey, as he shadowed and followed his daughter doing her thing on the big day.
One felt a little sorry for Lizzie Kelly whose win on Siruh Du Lac, just over an hour later, was somewhat overlooked as they reproduced a carbon copy of Bryony and Frodon with a superb exhibition of front-running jumping in the Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate.
And all this on the same afternoon that Emma Lavelle trained Paisley Park to win the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle for blind owner Andrew Gemmell, which was rightly one of the stories of the week. The unbridled satisfaction it gave to Gemmell was palpable.
Paisley Park is a huge beast and let’s hope he remains sound as he has Gold Cup stamped all over him. He could be back in a couple of years’ time and heading for the big one.
ESPOIR D’ALLEN PROBABLY A WORTHY CHAMPION
The Unibet Champion Hurdle was the most anti-climatic race of the week with the big three of Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade and Laurina falling short of expectations in one way or another.
That said, any 15-length winner - a record for the race - deserves the utmost respect. The fact is that Espoir D’Allen is only a five-year-old, with a hurdles record of just one defeat in nine starts, and he deserves to be taken very seriously indeed for the upwardly mobile Gavin Cromwell stable.
And what a record JP McManus has in the Champion – eight winners now.
I am sure I wasn’t the only one who had been looking forward to the same owner’s Sir Erec’s future as a Champion Hurdle contender when he lined up for Friday’s Triumph Hurdle.
His death was hard to take, as indeed were the losses of Invitation Only and Ballyward, both owned of course by Graham Wylie who has been such a great supporter of the game.
4M NH CHASE MAY NEED A REVISIT
This year’s four-miler did not make for easy viewing, with the 18 starters reduced to four finishers after eight fell (Ballyward fatally), one unseated and five were pulled up.
Nonetheless, the decision to ban three jockeys for a combined total of 37 days, for continuing to race “contrary to the horse’s welfare”, came as a bolt from the blue and rightly caused a heap of frustration.
Interestingly, two of those jockeys, Noel McParlan on Mulcahys Hill who fell two out, and Robert James on Just Your Type who fell at the last, obviously both failed to complete but connections were happy with both rides.
The other one, Declan Lavery on Jerrysback, who was a distant third, had performed miracles to just to stay on when badly hampered at the 14th fence and had nursed his mount back into contention.
It is hard to know where Lavery went wrong as he was notably sympathetic on his horse in the closing stages and one hopes that his 10-day ban will be overturned on appeal on Thursday.
The BHA overstepped the mark here but, in these admittedly sensitive times, they would be advised to have a look at this quirky contest.
The four-miler is an odd race in a sense as it is the longest race at the meeting and it is for novices who, by definition, are going to struggle more to get across these fences – all 25 of them.
Throw in the fact that they are ridden by amateurs, and you could argue that the race conditions provide a recipe for disaster.
Yes, I know that some of the better-known amateurs are every bit as good as the professionals but some of them aren’t and lack the experience.
A tightening up of the qualification process for both riders and horses could be addressed.
They might introduce a condition that a runner has to have won over fences. In last week’s race, Clondaw Cian (fourth), Johanos (fell), Mulcahys Hill (fell), Beyond The Law (fell) and Just Your Type (fell) all lined up as chasing maidens. Johanos had only had one chase start.
NICO UNDER APPRECIATED
Congratulations to Nico De Boinville who won the award for top jockey last week.
The expected armchair ride from Altior in the Champion Chase did not materialize but De Boinville got him home and the jockey continues to impress with the way he goes about his business in an extremely unfussy, thoroughly effective and professional way.
His ride on William Henry in the Coral Cup was outstanding and even Pentland Hills’s win in the Triumph was not without its dramas early on.
Nico is Mr Reliable and for me does not get the plaudits his talent so clearly deserves.
NOEL FEHILY BOWS OUT
Some of the comments of praise above could equally apply to Noel Fehily, who retires this week, but the difference here is that Noel has been regarded as the professional’s professional for a long time now.
Here is another man who is blessed with a rare talent and seldom makes a mistake. But for injury, Noel’s 20-year career as a top-flight jockey would surely have been littered with even more big days and he had plenty in any case.
Noel will bow out as one of the best NH jockeys not to have won the championship. I wish him well.