Well, that’s it, Cheltenham is over for another year. We as race fans were quite lucky the week went ahead, with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic now a serious threat to human health around the world.
Whether or not the four days should’ve gone to post I am sure will be open to debate over the coming weeks and months, but if the British government said all was fine, what can the top dogs in racing and Cheltenham do?
With 28 races run, so many ups and downs, there is just too much to cover properly, but here are what stood out for me last week.
SUPREME SHISHKIN NAILS ABACADABRAS LATE
The 2020 Cheltenham Festival started with two roars and many bangs. The first roar was premature. A dreaded false start for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. The second roar went up and we were off and running.
The bangs came thick and fast from here however; Asterion Forlonge banged Soviet Pimpernel at the first hurdle and then proceeded to cause carnage jumping right at the third and second last obstacles, banging Elixir D'ainay, helping him fall. In that tumble, Captain Guinness was brought down with a bang.
The final bang came when my fist hit the standing railing, the off-colour Fiddlerontheroof couldn’t finish in the first seven places (I assume we all went a bit made with that concession?); a run that would set the tone for Colin Tizzard’s runners for the week. It was a crazy and brilliant way to start to the Festival, though, and thankfully all horses seemed alright.
The brilliance came from Shishkin and Abacadabras, first and second, respectively. Just a head separated them at the line, but the authority of the Nicky Henderson’s inmate must surely be upgraded given a bad early mistake and a torrid passage home from four out. Under the circumstances, it was a superb victory, defying a late market drift (6/1 SP).
Punters couldn’t get enough money on Abacadabras, sending Gordon Elliott’s horse off second favourite at 11/4. He travelled and jumped with such class and while he had a more charmed run than the winner, although he was also hampered, Davy Russell being left in front so soon was far from ideal. From the stands, I thought Russell got there way too early, but apologies to the evergreen rider, as circumstances just didn’t pan out perfectly for the duo.
I had two question marks about Abacadabras heading into the race, his jumping and attitude. The former was the best display of his novice hurdling career while the latter concern has been curbed somewhat, given the 11 lengths the front two came clear of Chantry House (needs much better ground) where he looked to be battling. He was simply beaten by a top-class novice. This form looks strong.
The question that now needs answering, is what division will Shishkin and Abacadabras compete in next season? Shishkin has options, and will maybe go over fences, but for me, Abacadabras is a horse that Gigginstown and Gordon Elliott have potential in winning the 2021 Champion Hurdle with, a race they have never won.
Historically, senior hurdlers is a division where Elliott has struggled to compete with Willie Mullins in the quest for his maiden Trainers’ Championship in Ireland over the years - Apple’s Jade aside - given Gigginstown purchase a chasing type. However, this is one horse that could stay hurdling and reward both his owner and trainer next season.
HONEY AND BLACKMORE SHOW CLASS IN DOWNING BENIE DES DIEUX
There was much to take from Honeysuckle’s half-a-length defeat of Benie Des Dieux in the Grade 1 Close Brothers David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle. Some on the track, some off it. Let’s start with the horses first.
This was a fascinating tactical race, where both Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore have maybe not got enough credit for the roles they played in victory. The opening stages were run at a pretty slack gallop, led by Stormy Ireland and Robbie Power. Honeysuckle sat just in front of 4/6 favourite Benie Des Dieux, while travelling slightly wider for large parts of the race.
Going out onto the last circuit, Benie Des Dieux, covering less ground and in a perfectly reasonable position given the pace, was in third and marginally just ahead of Blackmore on the eventual winner. Soon after however, Blackmore moved her mount to the lead and having jumped the second hurdle on the final circuit appeared to slow down the pace. Honeysuckle was now two lengths ahead of the runner-up, and tactically, in a better position.
The second move from Blackmore that likely played a significant part in the success came on the run from three out to two out. Honeysuckle for the majority of the race had been wider than Benie Des Dieux, but now, was a length a head of her closest rival, but on the running rail directly ahead. This caused Paul Townend to switch four-wide approaching two out while Honeysuckle covered less ground down the inside turning for home.
With Stormy Ireland slightly adjusting right with her jumps at three out and two out, this created room for Honeysuckle and Blackmore to get through turning for home. From here, the change of gear showed by the winner was classy. In about 20 strides, Honeysuckle took a length out Benie Des Dieux once the pair straightened up.
Approaching the last, a length or maybe just over separated the two mares. While Benie Des Dieux closed the distance to half-a-length at the death, she never really looked like winning. It was fine margins in the end, but Blackmore’s positioning of her mare in two separate stages of the race, along with her companion answering every call, was the difference.
It was a fine ride from the winning jockey while Townend did little wrong. Post-race, it was great to see both Blackmore and Townend embrace after they crossed the line.
In the immediate aftermath, Willie Mullins spoke to Lydia Hislop on RTV. It was good of Mullins to share his thoughts after Rich Ricci’s mare had lost - especially given he couldn’t see her beaten pre-race - it’s not always easy to do, and while philosophical in the main, Mullins clearly wasn’t happy with the ride Robbie Power gave his Stormy Ireland, the eventual and well-beaten fifth.
“(I’m) a little dazed, I just think there was a miscommunication turning for home. Maybe Robbie thought one of our horses was behind him rather than Honeysuckle, but anyway – it just looked like he gifted the winner a huge gap while Paul (Townend) was going around the outside. There you are, things happen. Stormy didn’t go fast enough, she probably should’ve been going much faster to take the sting out of the rest of them. There was no pace, I didn’t think there was enough pace”.
Mullins’ perceived views on pace and of Power giving Honeysuckle room to go through on the inside are interesting in my own mind, from a team tactics point of view. Mullins was obviously spot on with regards the gallop, early anyway, it certainly wasn't an end-to-end tempo but isn’t in front the best place to be under such circumstances? Or was Mullins expecting Power to set the race up for Townend?
Power was in the best position possible from a tactical perspective and gave his horse the best chance of winning. On the day, Stormy Ireland was below her best, but even at her peak is comfortably behind the likes of Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux while I have also never been convinced of her stamina in a strong-run 2m4f race at this level. If she had gone faster, like Mullins wanted, I think she would’ve been beaten further in the end.
Mullins must know Stormy Ireland is not in the same league as Benie Des Dieux, so was he expecting a horse in different ownership to the race favourite to act as a pacemaker and set the race up for Ricci’s mare? This is not something we want.
We also wouldn’t have wanted Robbie Power to dangerously shut the door on Blackmore and Honeysuckle, causing the winner hardship and not having a fair crack. That would’ve made for terrible viewing and quite frankly ruined the race. We wanted these horses, two top-class mares in Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux, to have a good, clean and fair race.
That’s what we got in the end, and it was only an excellent Blackmore ride and a classy Honeysuckle performance that just won it.
Finally, to defend Robbie Power on his ride from Mullins’ criticism; from four out to two out on the Old Course, there is no inside running rail guiding horses and riders for large parts. Jockeys run the risk of horses running out if jumping those hurdles down the very inner. Jockeys could maybe edge out right and slingshot left at those hurdles, if safe to do so, but with Stormy Ireland jumping ever-so-slightly right, for me, Power did the best he could for his mare and thankfully kept it a fair race.
ELLIOTT AND TEAM MUST TAKE HUGE PLAUDITS FOR SAMCRO’S SUCCESS
As talk at Cheltenham gathered pace on Thursday if racing should be going ahead due to Coronavirus, I couldn’t but have a little laugh to myself after Samcro won the Grade 1 Marsh Novices’ Chase. The horse with now well-publicised airway, breathing and lung problems had just won at his second Festival while COVID-19, an illness that affects human lungs and airways, was the talk of the world.
Samcro may not go on to reach the heights his reputation suggested he once would, but he is now a two-time Cheltenham Festival-winning horse; both at Grade 1 level, a fair feat. At 8/11, we “expected” him to take the 2018 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, but his comeback here, after a winless and health-affected 2018/19 campaign, is of great credit to Gordon Elliott and his team.
This season started well at Down Royal before going downhill. Indeed, there was even a comeback within a comeback this campaign, after he overcame a fall when looking the likely winner two out in the Drinmore Novice Chase in December and then going on to be well-beaten by Faugheen over Christmas at 4/6.
In last Thursday’s Marsh win, he was the old Samcro, a breathing operation maybe of help; making it all look so effortless. He travelled with such class; it was great to see him enjoying himself. And his jumping, apart from the second last was good, too.
He maybe had some luck in how the bob of the heads went in just nosing out Melon, but he answered many doubters about his heart for a battle, for all he will likely always be a horse who does his very best work on the bridle.
It was a fine training performance from Elliott and maybe the one he’ll cherish most of his seven Festival winners in 2020.
A special mention must go to Willie Mullins and his team, too, who trained the second and third home in Melon and Faugheen. To my eye, Melon has looked half the horse he was in the 2018 Champion Hurdle and this is his best run since. I’m not quite sure how Mullins got him to produce such a big effort based on his runs earlier in the season, but it was a fantastic crack at a Grade 1, and he was unlucky not to win.
Faugheen was beaten a length back in third at the age of 12; simply incredible. After all his injury setbacks, to be performing to such a high level now, it just shows how good he was at his peak – that was frightening ability. The Mullins camp sending him over fences was without any doubt now, a great call.