Ten take-aways from the Cheltenham Festival
While watching Comic Relief last Friday, I had to admonish myself for the cynicism that was coursing through my senses, shamefully so. The older and greyer I get, the more cynical I get, so I’ve discovered, to the extent that I was even casting a suspicious eye over the Cheltenham Festival, of whether it was really worth all the fuss, fanfare and focus. And then it happened, last week, and from start to finish I was mesmerised and magnetised as if it was my first Festival.
In racing, it can pay to be cynical, when assessing form and horses, but, at Cheltenham, it was out with the sneering and in with the cheering, courtesy of a four-day magic show when the brief spots of darkness only brightened the light that shone from the heroes and heroines, horse and human. The beauty of Cheltenham is its blend of the past, the present and the future: propelled by the past, played out in the present, and pointing to the future.
Pointing to the future is something of a theme in these ten take-aways from the Festival, some obvious and others oblique, but each is meaningful to explaining what went on and envisaging what may be coming.
1. BALLYMORE A CHAMPION CONDUIT?
Faugheen, Rock On Ruby, Hardy Eustace and Istabraq are recent illustrations that the Ballymore can be as much of a segue to the Champion Hurdle as the Supreme, and that may be the case with the current crop of novices. For one thing, everything about the Supreme winner, Klassical Dream, from his size to his style, screams ‘chaser’, so it’s odds-on that he’ll be on the Arkle path next season.
The Champion connection for this year’s City Island related less to City Island, whose future probably lies over fences and over further, and more to Champ, as well as, perhaps, Brewin’upastorm. More a glider than a grinder, Champ has long since looked a two-miler, and the temptation to trial him as a Champion contender could be too strong to resist next season. Brewin’upastorm may have other business by then, blessed with the build and background (point winner) of a chaser, but, in the Ballymore, he traded as low as 3/1 with good reason, looking more of a match for the first two for a long way. And speaking of Brewin’upastorm…
2. OLLY MURPHY HAS ARRIVED
Not a winning one but a breakthrough all the same, one of the training performances of the week, on the quiet, to get his only three runners at Cheltenham to peak so powerfully on their big day, as, besides Brewin’upastorm in the Ballymore, Murphy masterminded both the second and third home in the Supreme, Thomas Darby at 28/1 and Itchy Feet at 25/1, the pair prepared expertly, springing forward off a break.
The masters and their apprentices is a recurring theme of Cheltenham, and indeed racing, and what’s increasingly clear is that Olly Murphy is putting into practice everything he learned as assistant to Gordon Elliott.
3. PAUL NICHOLLS HAS MASTERED THE CRAFT
Olly Murphy is to Gordon Elliott what Dan Skelton is to Paul Nicholls, as trainees and not just trainers of talent, and Skelton’s two winners at the Festival put him in the big time, but Nicholls’s Grade 1 double was significant to the season and to the sport. That’s because Cheltenham can be like an impromptu awards ceremony, where only that meeting matters, rewarding minutes rather than months of work, and the danger therein is that we forget a full campaign which Nicholls has charged through when Cheltenham, for him, is seen as an opportunity and not the objective.
What’s more, while Frodon was a full-throttle freight train right through the season and not only through the Ryanair, Topofthegame called for a very different touch, patience paying dividends, chasing shelved for a year after falling on his debut in November 2017, then having his skills honed at home since Boxing Day at Kempton. Two Grade 1s via two contrasting avenues, connected by adept and astute training by Nicholls.
4. LA BAGUE AU ROI LOOKS BETTER AND BETTER
The most ‘in-the-moment’ snapshot of the Festival was probably the finish of the RSA as Topofthegame and Santini slugged it out, when everyone was enraptured and enthralled, in the moment. Out of the moment, and out of minds, was La Bague Au Roi, who must have watched with a smile on her face, safe in the knowledge that she’d smothered the pair of them at Kempton.
She purposely by-passed Cheltenham to wait for Aintree, far more La Bague’s bag, and she’ll be fuelled by Festival form, a variation on the theme.
5. CILAOS EMERY COULD WELL BE A TOOL OVER FENCES
From collateral to conjecture, to some extent, but Cilaos Emery left Arkle-winning team-mate trailing at Gowran in January, which is a direct line of sorts, acknowledging that it was a very different Duc Des Genievres who turned up at Cheltenham, but prior to his setback that saw him sidelined, the money for Cilaos Emery strongly suggested he was the trainer’s top dog in the division.
Gowran said he was good, Cheltenham, by proxy, said he could be very good indeed.
6. ANOTHER REVAMP FOR THE NATIONAL HUNT CHASE
We’ve been here before with the signature race of the meeting, which, like the little girl who had a little curl, is very good when it’s good, but when it’s bad it looks horrid.
First things first, when less than a quarter of an 18-runner field completes something has probably gone wrong, and when two of the four finishers are out on their feet then that only adds to the discomfort. Incriminating, and punishing, certain riders for keeping going when out of contention feels unfair in the sense of pointing a big sponge finger of blame in the wrong direction; not so much a workman blaming his tools as the tools blaming the workman. What did you expect from the conditions of a unique race, more so on soft ground? Only it’s not a unique race, is it, and if the stewards, or the authorities, took issue with the test rather than the jockeys then, by definition, all long-distance chases are brought in the firing line, including the sport’s crown jewels, the Grand National.
When the National Hunt Chase was run later in the week, on the other course, the equivalent trip was marginally shorter and there were three fewer fences jumped, which is perhaps a short-term compromise for the future, possibly just a stay of execution, an appropriate turn of phrase.
7. CHELTENHAM IN THE TECH AGE
This is not mine, instead an acute observation by Sean Boyce in a debrief last weekend, only we didn’t have the time to squeeze it in on The Racing Debate. And there isn’t really the time nor space to do it justice here, other than to say this Cheltenham, more than any before, felt the full force of social media, the feel-good factor spreading like wildfire for the blockbuster moments, but equally the negative news circulated far and wide, and swiftly. There’s nothing to be done about that, but there is something to be done about timing.
Whether or not you’re a believer in the power of time analysis, the fact that, at a championship event, there was no official time returned for two of the races beggars belief, never mind what sophisticated sectionals could add to the drama in real time if the investment was made.
8. A PLUS TARD FOR NEXT YEAR’S RYANAIR
Arguably the performance of the week, given the style, given the surprise and given the statement of a Grade 1 storm brewing. It may have ‘only’ been a handicap, but in – literally and figuratively – running away with the Close Brothers off a mark of 143 A Plus Tard recorded a higher Timeform rating than the first two from the JLT.
We saw various horses over the four days travel like he did to the home turn, but none took off quite like A Plus Tard, who was sensational in full flight and rational in hindsight, having beaten Duc Des Genievres at Naas in mid-winter. The sky is the limit for him.
9. JANIKA FOR NEXT YEAR’S CHAMPION CHASE?
As exceptional as A Plus Tard was, it wasn’t the handicap performance of the meeting, as that award goes to Janika, even in defeat. For a second time in succession he was second to Siruh Du Lac, and for a second time in succession he didn’t race altogether efficiently, again keen to go quicker.
To be doing what he’s doing off such a high mark is the hallmark of a Grade 1 chaser, and I just wonder if, next season, he may be let rip over two miles, to make more use of his speed and stride. It’s a longshot, but there are worse longshots in what’s likely to be an Altior-free zone if, as expected, he ascends in trip.
10. WILL THERE BE A “GIRLS” TEAM AT THE SHERGAR CUP?
Now this seems like a world away, and it is months away, but it’s wrapped up in a week at Cheltenham when things changed for good, courtesy of several female jockeys who put the quality in equality. It felt like a dividing line had been erased once and for all, and yet a girls team at the Shergar Cup, by definition, draws a defining line.
It was perfect for a platform, but Ascot will now have to give serious consideration as to whether to move the lines to move with the times. The Shergar Cup is split for competition and not for confrontation, but even so it may be time for a re-think.