Kevin Blake

    In his latest column, Kevin reflects on the key talking points that emerged from the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.
  • Sunday 19 March 2017
  • Blog

Preparation the key for Elliott

Gordon Elliott had a simply tremendous week. It was one that announced his arrival at the very top table of the sport in the season that could well see him achieve what just a year ago would have seemed an impossible task of not just dethroning Willie Mullins as the Leading Trainer as the Cheltenham Festival, but quite possibly as Champion National Hunt Trainer in Ireland too.

Long before Elliott started receiving the quality of horse that he is now, he stood out from the pack as being an exceptional placer of his horses and he has carried that through as the quality of the horses in his yard has risen. If any one example sums up why Elliott has got to where he is, it is that of Cause Of Causes.

Not only is he an example of a horse that Elliott has kept sweet for a remarkably long time and placed him to win three different races at the Cheltenham Festival, it was the lengths he went to in his preparation for his success in the Cross Country Chase last week that really stands out.

With him having looked thoroughly unsuited by the cross-country course at Cheltenham on his first start over it in January, Elliott went to the trouble of sending him back over to Cheltenham during the sales there and having him schooled over the cross-country course on two successive days to help better familiarise him with it. That thoroughness was rewarded last week, as Cause Of Causes was much more assured over the unique obstacles and duly got the job done. For a trainer with the better part of 200 horses in his care to go to those lengths in pursuit of a winner is remarkable. Such attention to detail is just one reason why Gordon Elliott is very much here to stay.


Jessica Harrington is now Cheltenham’s Leading Lady

Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins may have dominated the head of the Leading Trainer table, but Jessica Harrington made her own strong claim as one of the training stars of the week having saddled three winners from just seven runners.

It had already been a week to remember for Harrington after Supasundae won the Coral Cup for her on Wednesday, as what was her ninth career success at the meeting made her the leading female trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival. However, much better was to come on Friday, as Sizing John produced a tremendous performance to win the Gold Cup.

It has been remarkable to witness the transformation of the seven-year-old from a horse that finished behind Douvan on seven occasions into a top-class staying chaser in the space of just four starts since joining Harrington from Henry De Bromhead. Stamina was the question he had to answer in the Gold Cup and he duly did so in authoritative and rather straightforward style, with his jumping being a particular joy to watch in the latter stages of the contest. Just how strong of a Gold Cup it was is open for debate, but Sizing John is only seven and is surely open to more improvement.

To top the meeting off for Harrington, she saddled the final winner of the week with Rock The World winning the Grand Annual under Robbie Power and it is a week that the Harrington team and Robbie Power will never forget.


Ruby excels on Yorkhill

There were many riding performances worthy of great praise over the course of the four days of the meeting and while any of Ruby Walsh’s four winning rides on Thursday could be on the shortlist for ride of the week, in the circumstances I would put forward his ride on Yorkhill in the JLT Novices’ Chase as the pick of the lot.

Yorkhill has been a notably difficult ride throughout his career. He pulls hard, he can jump erratically and he idles badly when in front. That is a recipe for disaster. When one adds into the mix that the relatively small field would make it harder for him to find cover and that Ruby was coming into the JLT off the back of two very disappointing and frustrating days, the potential for it to go wrong was obvious.

Despite this, Ruby produced a masterclass on him. Having dropped him in, Ruby succeeded in getting Yorkhill to settle better than he has in a very long time. He also got him jumping with a consistent accuracy which contrasted with his previous form both over fences and hurdles. Once he had achieved those goals, it was a question of keeping him under wraps until as late as possible, but Yorkhill was travelling so strongly that he got to the front soon after the second-last fence. As he has done on so many occasions in the past, Yorkhill then began to idle and ultimately won with plenty to spare. While Ruby would ideally wanted to have hit the front later than he did, it was still a sublime ride.

While he hasn’t put form in the book to justify it yet, I strongly suspect that Yorkhill has as much talent as any National Hunt horse in training. His pedigree may well be all about stamina and Walsh has expressed on more than one occasion that he sees him as a potential Gold Cup winner, but I can’t help but feel that stepping up in trip would only accentuate his eccentricities. For me, a drop to two miles would be a great help to him, as the stronger pace that generally prevails at the trip would be the perfect antidote to many of the things he can do wrong in his races.

Whichever route his connections choose to send him down, Yorkhill is sure to be thrilling to watch.


Roller-Coaster week for De Bromhead

Even prior to the Cheltenham Festival, it had already been a remarkable season for Henry De Bromhead. Having lost the patronage of his biggest owner Alan Potts in the early stages of the campaign, it would have been natural to expect De Bromhead to take time to rebuild. However, he responded in immediate and sensational style with him already having smashed his previous seasonal-best tallies of winners and prize money.

The roller-coaster nature of De Bromhead’s season was mirrored in how his Cheltenham Festival panned out too. While Petit Mouchoir and Ordinary World acquitted themselves well in the Champion Hurdle and Arkle Trophy respectively, five of his nine other first runners in the opening two days failed to complete and De Bromhead then had to watch his former inmate Supasundae win the Coral Cup for Jessica Harrington in the Potts’ silks.

However, his luck changed in the most satisfying style in the Queen Mother Champion Chase when his Special Tiara, who had finished third in the last two renewals of the race, produced a typically bold performance to hold off Fox Norton and prevail by a head. While much of the post-race focus was on the eclipse of Douvan, Special Tiara’s performance warrants celebration, as does that of Henry De Bromhead.

While he had to watch another former inmate Sizing John win the Gold Cup later in the week, De Bromhead should be very proud of what he has achieved in difficult circumstances this season and further big-race success seems assured.


Irish dominance

Of the 28 races, Irish-trained horses won 19 of them, with seven different Irish-based trainers saddling a winner. This tally smashed the previous record of 15 Irish-trained winners which was set in 2016. As well as that, 12 of the 28 winners were bred in Ireland.

While we are unquestionably in the middle of a truly golden time for Irish National Hunt racing at the highest level, such success shouldn’t be taken for granted by those that are in the driving seats of this domination or indeed by the Irish racing authorities. The change in the domestic balance of power between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott in less than a season has illustrated how quickly things can change in National Hunt racing and everyone involved needs to keep pushing in the right direction to ensure that this golden period continues.

That said, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that while things have never been better at the top of the sport in Ireland, life on the lower rungs of the National Hunt ladder is not nearly as rosy for many, as the recent interview with Adrian Maguire on At The Races so clearly encapsulated. It is on those lower rungs that the sport rests upon and they cannot be neglected.


Codd in a different class

Jamie Codd, now better known as the Coddfather thanks to his appearance on the At The Races Cheltenham Preview a fortnight ago, once again showed just how far he is in front of the average amateur rider. While On The Fringe didn’t help his cause by running flat in the Foxhunters Chase, Codd was brilliant on Cause Of Causes in the cross-country chase and even better on Fayonagh in the Champion Bumper. Having the likes of him and Derek O’Connor riding in the amateur ranks is akin to letting Premier League players loose in Division Three.


Russell bitten but never shy

Davy Russell is one of the most popular regulars on the Cheltenham preview night circuit as he isn’t afraid to take a very strong opinion. However, there is always the possibility that bullish declarations might come back to bite the proclaimer and that is what happened Davy in the most dramatic of circumstances with Might Bite in the RSA Chase.

While he was far from alone in expressing strong concerns that Might Bite’s attitude might prove to be his undoing, how the race panned out for Russell was nothing short of cruel for him. Not only did his opinion look set to be vindicated as Might Bite sought to throw away certain victory by idling and hanging right up the run-in, Russell looked to be the one to profit from it and those antics allowed his mount Whisper to take an unlikely lead in the closing stages. However, what would have been a perfect result for Russell was seized from him as Might Bite staged an unlikely rally to nail Whisper by a nose on the line. If only horses could talk, one can only imagine what Might Bite would have had to say to Russell as they pulled up!

Thankfully for Russell, his week improved after that with him riding the Pat Kelly-trained Presenting Percy to victory in the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle on Thursday. Remarkably, this was the 12th successive season that Russell has ridden a winner at Cheltenham Festival which is a testament to his ongoing status as one of the finest go-to jockeys on the biggest occasions.


Enda’s banks advantage eroded

Enda Bolger has a long established reputation as the “King of the Banks”, but last week’s action again hammered home the fact that the clear advantage he held in the early years of the cross-country chase at the Cheltenham Festival has been eroded. Having saddled the winner of four of the first five renewals of that race, he has failed to win it on the day since 2009 and since then has saddled 24 runners with only four of them hitting the frame. Those are facts worth bearing in mind, as the market continues to concentrate on Bolger’s representatives in the race based on his reputation in the discipline.


Don’t take Michael O’Leary too seriously

There were plenty of eyebrows raised and comments made in the aftermath of the win of the Gordon Elliott-trained Champagne Classic in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle after the winning owner Michael O’Leary told Lydia Hislop on Racing UK that: “I think that was miraculous as he's probably the worst horse we own.”

Some people seemed to get very wound up by this, opining that such comments were disrespectful to the horse, the race and the meeting. However, reading too deeply into such comments from Michael O’Leary is ill-advised, as he is an absolute wind-up merchant that seems at his happiest when making such statements. Indeed, he has made far more provocative comments than that about his horses and racing in general in recent years. That is just his personality and such comments shouldn’t be taken at face value.


Nightmare Festival for Mark Walsh

Spare a thought for Mark Walsh. Barry Geraghty’s unfortunate injury led to Walsh being presented with a book of rides for JP McManus that represented a well-earned opportunity of a lifetime. However, rather than being the career-defining week it had the potential to be, it turned into a nightmare that only lasted three rides.

Walsh’s first mount of the week was on Yanworth who was sent off as the favourite for the Champion Hurdle, but the seven-year-old was badly outpaced after the third-last flight and was ultimately well beaten. Things got no better later that day in the Mares’ Hurdle, as his mount Jer’s Girl was in the process of making a promising forward move only to take a crashing fall at the third-last flight. Unfortunately, the worst still was to come, as Walsh’s mount in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, Consul De Thaix, took what proved to be a fatal fall and Walsh got a bad kicking which saw him suffer a bad concussion and a fractured fibula that rules him out for much of the rest of the season. This game would tame lions.


Irish handicappers in focus

There was great fun had on social media during the week after Irish-trained horses won seven of the 10 handicaps with a predictably large quantity of stick being thrown in this direction regarding my opinions on anti-Irish bias in British National Hunt handicapping. While much of the stick was tongue-in-cheek, enough of it was serious to warrant brief discussion.

While I have clearly been nailed by a bad case of commentator’s curse, the main conclusion that I drew in my piece (http://www.attheraces.com/blogs/kevin-blake/08-Mar...) was based on a clear long-term reduction in Irish-trained success in season-by-season statistics over the course of over a decade. Such a conclusion was never going to be altered by the results of any 10 races, even on as high-profile a stage as the Cheltenham Festival.

The facts remain that the BHA handicappers have publicly stated that they set out to deliberately reduce the “disproportionate” Irish-trained success in British National Hunt handicaps from 2005/6 onwards and duly succeeded in doing so by giving them higher marks, with the Irish-trained strike-rate dropping from a high of 18% in the 2004/5 season to a current rate of 11%. While there are obviously much more robust statistical means to more precisely assess the changing success rates of Irish-trained horses in that time than win strike-rates, those are the statistics that the BHA handicappers choose to use and they illustrate in simple terms what they set out to and duly achieved. One can choose to use a more sympathetic word to describe this process, but based on any dictionary definition, that is bias, no matter what the motivation for it is.

While that much seems clear, what is very much open to debate is whether such action is appropriate. After all, the British National Hunt handicappers are fully entitled to handicap Irish-trained horses as they see fit regardless of their reasons for doing so, be they related to differing weight-for-age scales, long-term slippage/inflation of ratings in one or both jurisdictions or anything else.

One thing that is certain is that that if we continue forward using the current handicapping systems, we are destined to have the same arguments each and every National Hunt season. While there is nothing like a bit of British-Irish niggle to get people’s blood up, it is a very unsatisfactory situation for two racing jurisdictions that share such a wonderful love of National Hunt racing to be drawn into conflict on the same issue every year.

If the British and Irish handicappers and racing authorities can come together over the summer months and try to find a means to recalibrate the two handicapping scales in a way that is fair and satisfactory for all parties, that would very much be in the interests of the greater good of the sport. That is an undeniable fact.

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