Cheltenham Festival: Review of the Week

March 16, 2012
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And so the curtain comes down on a week of highs, lows, celebrations and sorrows. There is no tomorrow now, there is only next year and Cheltenham 2013.

A week of expectation as four champions returned to defend their crowns. As it was, just two completed the feat and both, in doing so, became quadruple champions in their division. Quevega returned champion of the girls in the OLBG Mares Hurdle, whilst her nearest rival, Voler De Vadette, avoided her and took on the boys in the World Hurdle and very nearly denied the other four timer on Thursday as Big Bucks overcame the best staying hurdlers to lift the title for an unprecedented fourth time; completing 16 consecutive victories over hurdles and remaining unbeaten in the code.

Hurricane Fly and Sizing Europe were unable to defend theirs but went down fighting to new worthy champions. Rock on Ruby, a rare highlight for Paul Nichols on a meager weak by his standards and Finians Rainbow, just another number in the Henderson 2012 bandwagon that saw him eclipse the all time winning most trainer at the Festival, although rather more than that to Seven Barrows Stable-lad Conor Murphy who picked up a cool £1.2m from an accumulator placed last year, and cooler still the fact he turned up to muck out on Friday morning! Henderson maintains he knew nothing of the bet until after it was landed and the most remarkable aspect possibly the fact that the Neptune was not decided as the destination of Simonsig until 48 hours before the race. Had that one gone in the Supreme Novices the bet would have been sunk.

The Gold Cup would have gone down as possibly the weakest class wise for many a year had Tony McCoy not put in yet another amazing ride on Synchronised on his 17th ride in the great race. Kauto Star was applauded as he pulled up early on, Sam Whaley Cohen was seen looking around for his rival as he disappeared behind, he needn’t have  bothered, his main problem was in front in the form of the Giant Bolster who was runner up for a yard that has just 12 horses. The Gold Cup was certainly a huge highlight for David Bridgwater and Tom Scudamore whom I’m sure can hardly believe they beat both the great Kauto and defending champion Long Run into third place.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL TUESDAY REVIEW:

It seems a lifetime ago already that Sprinter Sacre silenced the doubters who could not get over him blowing up in the previous years Supreme Novice Hurdle, as he came up the hill effortlessly to win the Arkle. If a banker was landed on the week in banker style it was this. Banker number two, Hurricane Fly, would not be bothered by those thought most likely to take him on. Neither Binocular nor Zarkandar could beat him on the day, but Overturn and Rock on Ruby did. The latter looking most impressive leading from the front. Quite what Paul Nichols runner could do given a clear round of jumping is anyone’s guess. Tradegy was to befall the Cross Country event in the middle of the course. From my vantage point in the middle it was obvious almost immediately that favourite Scotsirish was in trouble as he came down early in the race. I was not to learn of the demise of the great Garde Champetre in the same race until later in the afternoon, although fitting it might seem that it should happen at the venue of his most exuberant performances. Quevega reined Supreme in the OLBG Mares Hurdle, the question on everyone’s lips, “Can she return for a fifth tilt?” and finally, quite possibly the most improved horse of the season romps home in the final race of the opening day. Hunt Ball just gets better and better. Could it get any better than day one?

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL WEDNESDAY REVIEW:

From a personal point of view, oh yes it could. Teaforthree had long been outlined as my bet of the festival and Rebecca Curtis was rewarded with a fine piece of brave front running over the monster 4 miles of the Amateurs National Hunt Chase. To achieve a win in this race from the front is a remarkable achievement. Then came the Neptune. Simonsig was always going to be a hard one to beat regardless of this or the Supreme being the target. He didn’t let his followers down, running away with the Neptune in fantastic style to also elevate Nicky Henderson to the top of the Festival winning trainers table beyond Fulke Walwyn; an enormous achievement. Well done Nicky! Grands Crus was the next banker buster, the RSA was chosen in preference to a tilt to the Gold Cup. (I wonder what they think now!) It didn’t work out, Bobs Worth scored for Henderson again and First Lieutenant and Call the Police even kept him out of the frame. It was to get better for the bookmakers as another odds on shot, Sizing Europe was unable to retain his Champion Chase crown, Barry Geraghty, in fine form, steering young Finian’s Rainbow to a classic win. It was then time for a monumental gamble. Donald McCain had already one winner in the book with Supreme Novice champion, Cinders and Ashes, but his Son of Flicka had been available at 66/1 on Wednesday morning, that soon disappeared and so did most prices beneath it once Pricewise had tipped it up too. The 16/1 winner had contracted an incredible 50 points in the run up to the race and didn’t let down his investors. Henderson struck again in the next with 40/1 shot Une Artiste providing a  thrilling win for young Jeremiah McGrath and Willie Mullins took the Bumper for Ireland once again, although with what many would have considered his second string.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL THURSDAY REVIEW:

The bookies were claiming to have been still licking their wounds from the previous two days when arriving to set up stall for day three. Sir Des Champs winning the opening Jewson would not have helped the healing process despite favourite Peddlers Cross finishing out of the frame. It was a tonic for Willie Mullins too, who, the bumper apart, had not been having a great festival until now. Make no mistake, he has a VERY good horse there! Albertas Run would be attempting a third consecutive Ryanair Chase and was allowed to go off a 10/1 shot for the second year running. For a long way it looked as if the punters had underestimated him once again and perhaps they did, but Nicky Henderson was to win once again. Stable staff running up the shute in wild celebration following Riverside Theatre looked over the top, until we understood one of them had just bagged £1.2m from the most speculative of ante post accumulators. Another favourite landed. The only concern regarding Big Bucks was his fitness. The Ditcheat team had been running below par, Rocky on Ruby excepted, and Ruby Walsh did have an air of concern about his person taking Bucks out onto the course. He also had the same level of relief about him as he crossed the line in front for the fourth time in this race aboard the beast. In behind was quite possibly THE ride of the Festival. Andrew Lynch, aboard Voler De Vadette,  has spotted Ruby coming out to the middle of the course to meet and had identified that only way to beat Big Bucks  was to be away from him, switching in behind to the standside rail. She began to make ground and breathing went on hold. Was this to be the moment the biggest “banker” of the week was to be toppled? Ruby Walsh took the Champ across to take her on, this horse loves a battle, and as tactics go, this was a wonderful finish. Just back into punting mode for a second, VDV is a 10/1 shot for the race next year and that has to be value, 10yos very very rarely win the championship races and that is the task facing Bucks should he return in 2013. Two more favourites going in the final two races would have hurt the bookies satchels perhaps, but not as much as Bucks.

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL FRIDAY REVIEW:

20 races gone and 9 favourites landed. The most in many a year gone by. The bookies were looking for some respite, and they got it in the first two races with 33/1 and 20/1 shots landing the first blows of the day. Short priced Boston Bob was chinned in the Albert Bartlett too, the satchels were starting to refill once again. Onto the Blue Riband event. The Gold Cup. Long Run was looking to retain his crown from Kauto Star who had beaten him twice already this season. In the event it was not to be. Kauto Star just didnt go an inch and Ruby Walsh pulled him up early on, greeted by spontaneus applause of respect from an adoring crowd who, regardless of who they might have bet on, would have loved to have seen him win a third Gold Cup in six years and go down in history as one of the greatest. Sam Whaley-Cohen could be seen looking around for his rival soon after, seeming confused that he couldn’t spot him. It looked set up for a double for him with no Kauto Star left in the field and the Bookies must have been dreading the favourite winning the big one, although Kauto being out would have offset a good deal of the liabilities. It turned out that Tony McCoy who had taken until the previous race to ride his first winner of the Festival should rock up with another masterful ride upon the heavily backed Synchronised, to shove him to the line to deny 50/1 shot The Giant Bolster and land the win. Not a classic Gold Cup by any standard but a worthy winner providing JP McManus with his first Gold Cup success too. The big prices continues to roll in for the rest of the afternoon, including a wonderfully confident ride for Paul Carberry and another winner fittingly for Nicky Henderson in the race named after his father, as Bellvano, jumping the fourth last in twelfth position cruised through the pack to win going away at the finish. It was another great ride that brought the curtain down on a festival that had provided in equal measure, delight, disaster, inspired rides and inspired betting, not to mention a whole host of winning favourites and gambled horses to give the old enemy a bashing.

There may be no tomorrow, but I’m already looking forward to next year

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