Thursday 19 March 2015

Sparkling Cheltenham Festival leaves host of unforgettable moments

Whether you managed to show a profit or not over the four days of the outstanding Cheltenham Festival that concluded recently, it’s hard not to have enjoyed the superb racing and series of utterly unforgettable moments that make the fixture unquestionably the premier jumps racing meeting in the world, writes Elliot Slater.
The biggest headline of the meeting was the utter dominance of champion Irish jumps trainer Willie Mullins, who sent out a record eight winners, including four on the first day alone! Amongst those four was a superb effort from the hot favourite Faugheen (4/5) in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. The unbeaten gelding was facing by far his stiffest task to date - up against the defending champion Jezki, the dual former champion Hurricane Fly, and the leading British hope The New One - but his supporters had few anxious moments as he oozed.
Ruby Walsh’s mount simply oozed class throughout the premier two-mile hurdle and once asked for his effort showed a terrific change of gear to power away up the hill, chased home by his stable companions Arctic Fire and Hurricane Fly, giving Mullins an unprecedented 1-2-3 in the great race. Bookmakers have already made Faugheen a hotpot to repeat the dose in 12 months’ time and he is currently evens favourite with 32Red to lift the title once again next year.
Walsh totally dominated the first day of the Cheltenham Festival, also landing the Supreme Novices Hurdle with 2/1 f Douvan and the Racing Post Arkle Trophy with the brilliant prospect un De Sceaux (4/6f).  A truly dramatic success from 6/1 shot Glens Melody (who has subsequently been retired to stud) cane though at Walsh’s expense in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. The winner looked booked for second place at best as they raced down to the final flight with her odds-on stable companion Annie Power, ridden by Walsh, drawing clear and looking certain to land a crushing four-timer of favourites for the Mullins team that many punters had combined in heavy bets on the market leaders.

Image source: Paolo Camera  Caption: Annie Power fell in the Mares' Hurdle
Inexplicably though, Annie Power took off too early and crashed to the ground having had the title at her mercy, stunning the massive crowd of favourite backers who had already been counting their winnings into near silence. Media reports suggested the fall of Annie Power had saved the betting industry many millions of pounds, but it still resulted in another Mullins success, courtesy of Glens Melody, who just edged out Polly Peachum in a driving finish.
Dodging Bullets (9/2), trained by Paul Nicholls, was the centerpiece of a treble for the champion British jumps trainer on the second day of the Festival. Most eyes were focused on the older champions Sprinter Sacre and Sire de Grugy in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but the former failed to finish and is a shadow of his former self, while the latter was simply no match for the principals this time around. Dodging Bullets jumped and travelled beautifully before finding plenty of reserves to see off the admirable veteran Somersby (33/1) to land the two-mile chasing championship and could well prove hard to beat for the forseeable future.
There were a couple of surprises in store on day three. 16/1 shot Uxizandre (trained by Alan King) became Tony McCoy’s first and only winner of his final Cheltenham Festival when given a masterful ride by the all-time great jockey. He led all the way in the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase to beat the gallant mare Ma Filleule, and came home powerfully to an unforgettable reception. Forty minutes later, similar tactics were employed by the talented Gavin Sheehan on Warren Greatrex’s Cole Harden (14/1), who showed he was back to his best after a minor breathing operation and found plenty in the closing stages to see off the Nicholls-trained pair of Saphir du Rheu and Zarkandar to win what had always looked a wide-open World Hurdle.

Image source: Paolo Camera  Caption: Tony McCoy waved farewell to the Cheltenham Festival
The final day of the meeting began with Nicky Henderson landing a 1-2 in the JCB Triumph Hurdle courtesy of Peace and Co (2/1f) and Top Notch (7/1), but the day was all about the Cheltenham Gold Cup, in which Paul Nicholls’ Silviniaco Conti was a solid 3/1 favourite, while there had been plenty of money for the younger pair Coneygree (7/1) and Djakadam (10/1).
Coneygree, trained by Mark Bradstock, had only had three previous outings over fences, (he won them all easily) and no novice chaser since the great Captain Christy way back in 1974 had won the Gold Cup. Despite having all the stats against him, Nico de Boniville rode his mount positively from the front and it was clear with three fences to jump that most of his rivals - including Silviniaco Conti and former champions Lord Windermere and Bobs Worth -, were struggling.
Going to the final fence the Irish pair of Djakadam and Road to Riches looked as though they may get the better of Coneygree, but he found extra in the last 100 yards and hung on for a truly sensational victory, rounding off an unforgettable week of truly breathtaking performances all round.