Monday 26 September 2016

Eamonn Sweeney: 13 ways of looking at an exceptional Cheltenham Festival

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 20/03/2016 | 17:00

‘Annie Power would have been entitled to take the hump over the presumption that only one horse mattered when it came to the Champion Hurdle’. Photo: Cody Glenn / Sportsfile

Wasn't that a great Cheltenham? One of the greatest even? Of course they all feel a bit like that in the immediate aftermath when you're still caught up in the excitement of it all. But all the same this one did feel a bit out of the ordinary. There was simply so much to chew on and to savour. So here are 13 different ways of looking at Cheltenham 2016. It's the story of Don and Nicky and Annie and Gordon, of Willie and Bryan and Michael, of Ruby and Pat and Frankie and Victoria and Joseph and Ted.

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1 Don

When Don Cossack moved clear coming to the second last in the Gold Cup, you wondered why we'd ever doubted him. Because here was the unmistakable sight of a great champion imposing his will on the opposition.

Don Cossack looks like we imagine a great steeplechaser should, a huge horse with an expansive style. And his form at the tail end of last season made him look the obvious choice for this year's blue riband. Then came St Stephen's Day and that fall two out in the King George. Everyone thought of that one as the leader approached the final two fences. He sailed over them and into history.

2 Nicky

Who saw this one coming? Perhaps Nicky Henderson. Glad as people were to see Sprinter Sacre back in the Champion Chase, he'd become a melancholy story of what might have been.

The 19-length 2013 victory, perhaps the greatest in the history of the race, seemed a long time ago at the start of last week. Heart problems halted his gallop and last year's performance when he was pulled up had the poignancy of a late fight by the fading Muhammad Ali. This year we waited for Un De Sceaux to remind us of Sprinter Sacre in 2013. Instead it turned out that the new Sprinter Sacre is Sprinter Sacre.

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3 Annie

Horses presumably don't take things personally in the way that humans do. But Annie Power would have been entitled to take the hump over the presumption that only one horse mattered when it came to the Champion Hurdle. And that horse her stablemate too. Then Faugheen and Arctic Fire both pulled out and it was left to Annie Power to fly the Mullins flag.

Which she did with such style that her four and a half length winning margin was the biggest since Hardy Eustace won in 2004. It might be 12 months away but an Annie Power-Faugheen showdown looks like one for the ages.

4 Gordon

He's flown very much under the radar but at the age of just 38 Gordon Elliott now has a Grand National and a Gold Cup under his belt. Where other top trainers have something of a seigneurial air, the young Meathman cuts a more unassuming figure.

The son of a mechanic, Elliott began his career by working at weekends and on school holidays with trainer Tony Martin. His meteoric rise is proof that, despite all the money at the top, horse racing remains a meritocracy where hard work and talent can still take you a very long way.

5 Willie

He is the best. And like all the greats he has created the standards by which he will be judged. No-one except Willie Mullins would be regarded as having a slightly disappointing Cheltenham after seven winners comfortably won him the trainer of the Festival.

Yet he had been expected to beat the record of eight he had set himself last year and there were setbacks this year: few saw Min or Un De Sceaux being beaten while the Gold Cup remains unconquered by the wizard of Bagenalstown. Was that hurt in Mullins's eyes after the blue riband finish? Was he wondering if he should have run Vautour in it? Is the Gold Cup becoming to him what the Derby once was to Gordon Richards?

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6 Bryan

The prodigy comes of age. It all seemed so easy for Bryan Cooper once, the hat-trick at the 2013 Festival when he was still just 20 suggesting the world was his oyster. Then came the broken leg which the doctor treating him described as the worst he'd ever seen. Cooper had to dig deep and last week he had to think hard to make the choice between the two Dons, Cossack and Poli. He got it right. Tomorrow belongs to him.

7 Michael

Everyone has an opinion on Michael O'Leary. He has been flamboyant, he has been hilarious, he has been irritating and pugnacious and ubiquitous. The one word you wouldn't use to describe him is ordinary and you get the feeling he wouldn't thank you if you did.

But interviewed just after Don Cossack had given the Gold Cup to Gigginstown, O'Leary was quiet and modest, seeking to deflect the attention on to Gordon Elliott. He was an ordinary man taking a slightly stunned pleasure from achieving his dream. In that moment he was immensely likeable.

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8 Ruby

So much deserved praise has been showered on Tony McCoy since his retirement that we tend to forget the remarkable nature of Ruby Walsh's achievement. Yet Ruby is to quality what AP was to quantity. For the eighth time in nine years he is the leading jockey at the Festival, where it matters most.

He was never better than this year, his seven winners equal the meeting record he set in 2009. The only one who'll break Ruby's record will be Ruby

9 Pat

It's not all about the big boys. This year's fairytale was the triumph of Pat Kelly, a trainer from Craughwell with a string of just seven horses. The Galwayman's Mall Dini started at 14/1 in the Pertemps Hurdle but outgunned the best the big battalions could throw at him to win by three quarters of a length.

After a nerve-wracking stewards' inquiry produced no change, Mall Dini's owner Philip Reynolds, son of Albert, declared, "I've wanted this all my life. I can go now. I'm happy to go now." THAT is what it's all about.

10 Frankie

On St Patrick's Day, the Venetia Williams-trained Niceonefrankie fell in the Brown Advisory Plate, broke a leg and had to be destroyed. He was the fifth horse to be killed in the Festival; the following day Long Dog, trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh, had to be put down after shattering a leg.

The seven deaths made this the worst Cheltenham for fatalities in over a decade. Animal rights zealots have made hay from this but that doesn't mean the issue shouldn't be addressed. Every death is described as a tragedy but could more be done to keep the horses safe? You don't have to be a zealot to ask that question.

11 Victoria

Fair play to her. Victoria Pendleton overcame not just the fences but a great deal of po-faced condemnation to defy the doubters and finish the Foxhunters Chase in fifth place on Pacha Du Polder despite being priced at odds on to fall. It's hard to see why there were so many objections to something which drew so many casual viewers to the Festival.

Sport doesn't always have to be about dour tests of male principle and integrity, especially not a sport based around the love of a gamble. The high horse is a bit like the high stool. It's no harm getting up there now and again but you shouldn't spend your life on it.

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12 Joseph

Joseph O'Brien is, I suppose, an unlikely underdog. But he's never got the credit for riding two Derby winners as a young jockey and chances are he'll always be dogged by the shadow of his father. For that reason it was grand to see this shy young man get what was his first Cheltenham winner in all but name as a trainer when Ivanovich Gorbatov won the Triumph Hurdle. Expect to see Joseph's name next to the horse when it has a right good cut at next year's Champion Hurdle.

13 Ted.

On the final day of the Festival, Channel Four viewers saw Alice Plunkett ask Ted Walsh what he thought about Victoria Pendleton's forthcoming ride in the Foxhunters. Ted replied that he'd seen worse riders at Cheltenham before delivering a brilliant and beautifully judged story about the time he and Prince Charles had fallen at the same fence in the Festival.

And it struck me that, with all the talk about politicians 'representing the country abroad' on St Patrick's Day none of them would have done it with the panache of Ted. His generosity, good humour and unpretentiousness gave a British TV audience a glimpse of everything that's best about Irish people.

He wasn't alone. For four days in the Cotswolds our racing people did us proud. Trainers, owners and jockeys combined did more for the good name of this country than a government jet full of politicians ever could do. It was a pleasure to watch them doing so. A pleasure and a privilege. Personally I'd send Ted Walsh to the White House with the bowl of shamrock every Patrick's Day. But I believe he tends to be busy at that time of the year.

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