We spend weeks and months in the hyperbole of the hypothetical in advance of Cheltenham, spewing thoughts and theories, and then the races are run, the results are in, and that’s that. But, big or small, every race has a “what if” factor of sorts, always retrospective but sometimes forewarning of the future, which is where reassessment works best, and, as such, several of those forward-facing findings are featured in my list of the ten “what ifs” of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.
1. WHAT IF THEY’D BEEN BOLDER WITH BENIE?
If fortune favours the brave, then it follows that misfortune might be the bedfellow of the fearful. Besides the fact she had a score to settle in the Mares’ Hurdle, it felt like they were fearful of Paisley Park, no other reason not to go for the more prestigious prize of the Stayers’ Hurdle, which in truth was more of an obligation than an option for a mare of her ability.
With the benefit of hindsight, of course, she’d have won the Stayers with her head in her chest, whereas the combination of an underestimation of Honeysuckle and an over-complication of tactics resulted in a reversal in the so-called easier option, when the pressure possibly got to one or two.
It’s a lesson in thinking: in maybe not thinking big enough and then perhaps over-thinking the task in hand. But who amongst us isn’t guilt of that when it comes to Cheltenham?
2. WHAT IF NATIVE RIVER HAD BEEN ABLE TO CONTEST THE GOLD CUP?
In his unmissable Sectional Spotlight review of Cheltenham, Simon Rowlands spelled out how steadily run – up to a point – the Gold Cup was, illustrated by the fact that, on parallel splits, the Foxhunter leader at least matched the Gold Cup field until the fourth-last fence, and that the end differential in times between the two winners was only 5 seconds, when the norm is 11 or 12.
The question that raises is less of what impact it had on Al Boum Photo, who coped with a stronger-run race in 2019 (returned a Timeform Timefigure of 169), and more of how much it hurt Santini, whose stamina is his strength, clear from the way he was clawing back Al Boum Photo at the very end. Had Native River not been injured, the gallop might have been that much truer, and Santini might have been that much more potent.
There are lots of suppositions in there, but that’s the point of the exercise, and it’s something to keep in mind as the Gold Cup begins its build up next season when first thoughts are of Simon Holt dusting off his thunderous ‘THREE GOLD CUPS’ line.
3. WHAT IF ASTERION FORLONGE DIDN’T JUMP TO HIS RIGHT?
He let himself down first and foremost, a hint before but a hindrance on his big day, and some of his sways and swerves made life difficult for Shishkin who had to skirt the congestion on occasion, but for which he’d have won more convincingly, which is the primary point to make, so far so good for Shishkin following in the haughty hoofprints of Altior.
But the unglorified victim in all of this was Elixir D’Ainay, who must have a bruise or two on his left flank from the times Asterion Forlonge cannoned into him, and the second-last was the final straw when Elixir D’Ainay became a pushover.
Shishkin and Abacadabras raced away in the end in the style of a prospective Champion Chaser for one and potential Champion Hurdler the other, but Elixir D’Ainay wasn’t done with when he was knocked over and out of the race, and the mind goes to Naas back in January when he was within hailing distance (3½ lengths second) of Envoi Allen.
He’s a half-brother to a cross-country chase winner, and fences may fire him up all the more. On that basis, the 50s (with bet365) could be worth a speculative swing for next year’s Arkle.
4. WHAT IF GOSHEN HAD JUMPED THE LAST FLIGHT LIKE THE PREVIOUS 7?
The most clear and conspicuous “what if” from the Cheltenham Festival, also the most clear and conspicuous answer. The twist of fate was magnified by the fact he’d hurdled so fluently up until the last, and even that costly miscue wasn’t a flaw in technique, just bad timing and bad luck, but the light at the end of the Triumph tunnel is that it’s better timing and better luck as to when he’s arriving on the biggest stage, in an era of a starless Champion Hurdle scene.
The question isn’t if he’s a championship hurdler but whether he waits for it, because he doesn’t need an MOT to uncover his mechanics, including a Group-class Flat engine, and there are million-pound races on the level like the Ebor and Melbourne Cup, for which a mark of 88 to begin with invites an easy approach.
5. WHAT IF PADDY HADN’T HELPED FERNY?
Five wins from 11 rides was some going by Barry Geraghty at Cheltenham, but, on a pure run-to-form metric, other jockeys did even better. Davy Russell got the most out of three-quarters of the horses he rode (12/16), with six placings alongside his three wins, amongst personal bests from other mounts, while Patrick Mullins generated a measurable maximum from 70% of his 10 rides, yet four seconds was all he had to show from it.
He might have been the architect of his own downfall as far as Appreciate It in the bumper goes, because he’d ridden Ferny Hollow in each of his three lead-up races and worked out by Fairyhouse – after odds-on defeats under prominent tactics previously – that the wait-till-late play was the way to go with Ferny Hollow.
And who and how shot past him at the end of the Champion Bumper? All the same, Appreciate It did almost everything right in seeing off all the rest, and he’s the likelier of the pair to hit great heights as a hurdler, odds of 16/1 for next year’s Ballymore enough to float my boat.
6. WHAT IF THE GRAND NATIONAL HAD BEEN CALLED OFF PRE-CHELTENHAM?
This is to do with Tiger Roll, and the impossible imponderable of whether anything was kept back for his Aintree ambition. The BHA have his performance figure at 150, which is nowhere near what he can do, some 20lb shy of his handicap mark of 170 for the Grand National. Would we have seen a fuller-power version of Tiger Roll if history wasn’t on the horizon? Would it have mattered?
To focus on Tiger Roll is to overlook what the winner did, significantly so, because Tiger Roll had his high standards squeezed out of him by the electric Easysland, whose technique and talent made the even the extraordinary Tiger Roll look ordinary. He’s only a 6-y-o, begging the question what on earth is going to beat him in the Cross-Country Chase for the next few years?
7. WHAT IF ALLAHO HAD BEEN MOVED TO THE MARSH?
Looking at the markets, and knowing their sensitivity, it’s safe to say it probably wasn’t until the weekend prior to Cheltenham that the decision was finalised to sway the way of the RSA. It might have been splitting Aces, because Mullins already had one-way tickets for the Marsh for Faugheen and Melon, but when they didn’t quite win and Allaho didn’t quite stay, it’s hard for Willie not to wince a bit.
On Timeform terms, in finishing third in the RSA, Allaho ran to exactly the same rating as the first two in the Marsh (158), but he looked like breaching the 160-barrier until the RSA run-in, and free-wheeling at a higher speed and shorter trip, for my money (certainly my ante-post money), would have been a better fit for Allaho.
Time will tell what he wants, but the 14/1 about him for next year’s Ryanair is tempting for him to prove the point, that he’s not a Gold Cup horse, that race at least 20 seconds longer in the completion than an RSA.
8. WHAT IF THERE WAS PROPER QUALIFICATION FOR THE PERTEMPS?
There’s a rationale behind it and even an art to it, but it just leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth when the last two winners of the Pertemps secured qualification via the least means possible, and that those two were the first two this year, by the same roundabout way.
Maybe it’s time for a rethink regards the Pertemps Qualifiers, to have more of them and less golden-ticket spaces in each one, as the whole principle is that it’s meant to be a series, not a summoning.
There’s an irony in that had Sire Du Berlais not got qualification this year (courtesy of a never-nearer fourth at Warwick), he might have been forced into the Stayers’ Hurdle, which it’s reasonable to argue he would have won, measuring his performance in the Pertemps off 152 against what Lisnagar Oscar did 80 minutes later, albeit with Paisley Park clearly not himself.
9. WHAT IF CHACUN POUR SOI HADN’T GOT A FOOT ABCESS?
You could of course ask the same question about Altior’s splint problem, but the reason for making it about Chacun Pour Soi is because of the forward-facing nature of this piece, and Chacun Pour Soi will still only be 9 next year, whereas Altior will be 11.
Like it or not, we’ve had a somewhat watered-down version of Altior for the past 18 months or so, and it’s hard to believe he’ll reverse that in the veteran stage. Add a sub-standard Arkle into the mix and it’s clear that Chacun’s championship ascension is in his hands, merely delayed by a year in all probability, and therefore 6/1 for 2021 Champion Chase isn’t so skinny as it sounds.
By the way, as they say, any horse can have an off-day, but what a day for Defi Du Seuil to pick.
10. WHAT IF STORM DENNIS HAD FORCED ASCOT TO ABANDON?
The most abstract of our “what ifs”, but perhaps one of the most influential, because it’s multi-faceted. It looked a lost cause in the morning, that the Ascot card on February 15th would succumb to the swirling storm, yet it went ahead, a blessing on the day for some of those who shone but a curse for the same crew who came to Cheltenham.
Maybe racing on such testing ground just three weeks out from Cheltenham did for them, because six horses from that card came to the Festival and none of them really turned up, including such heavy-hitters as Sporting John, Copperhead and Riders Onthe Storm, though the last-named was still in contention when falling 3 out, but not his first error.
Did they leave their Cheltenham chance behind by giving their all at Ascot, and therefore would it have turned out differently for one or all of them had Ascot been abandoned?
It’s all hypothetical, but that’s the point of this piece, to create debatable dots never mind join them, also peering into the future via lessons of the past, the very recent past. So, with that in mind, here’s a Lucky 15 for Cheltenham 2021 based on some of the “what if” wringers from last week:
Jamie's ante-post Lucky 15:
ELEXIR D’AINAY, Arkle (50/1)
APPRECIATE IT, Ballymore (16/1)
CHACUN POUR SOI, Champion Chase (6/1)
ALLAHO, Ryanair (14/1)