Monday 24 April 2017

Favourites feeling the Festival pinch

Robbie Power celebrates with Sizing John after winning the Gold Cup on Friday. Photo: David Davies/PA
Robbie Power celebrates with Sizing John after winning the Gold Cup on Friday. Photo: David Davies/PA

Marcus Armytage

Here are five lessons, highlights and horses to watch on the back of this year's Cheltenham

FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED

1 There is no such thing as a racing certainty.

Last year all the big favourites and bankers won, which added to punter over-confidence. This time only six favourites came in. We should have been warned when Altior was being given a run for his money until Charbel fell at the second-last in the Arkle. At 2/9 Douvan became the shortest-priced favourite to ever taste defeat at a Cheltenham Festival when he finished seventh in the Champion Chase. Horses are not machines and, as Might Bite proved in the RSA Chase, in a horse race it is never over until it's over.

2 Do not write off Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh

The obituaries were being written after he had drawn a blank by the half way stage - usually most of his winning has been done by then - but he bounced back with four-timer on Thursday thanks to Yorkhill, the irrepressible Un De Sceaux, Nichols Canyon and Let's Dance. On Friday, those who follow him blindly were rewarded through Arctic Fire (20/1) and Penhill (16/1). How Arctic Fire, runner-up in the Champion Hurdle two years ago, was allowed to start at that price will forever remain a mystery.

3 Nicky Henderson remains Mr Cheltenham

He saddled three winners to take his tally to 58. One of the best sights of the week was Henderson being asked to pose with punters for selfies. He looked completely mystified about what he is supposed to do and could, perhaps, do with a few lessons from the more extrovert John McCririck, an old hand.

4 Balance of power in National Hunt world is unquestionably with Ireland at the moment

That is mainly because of the influence of Gigginstown and Rich Ricci, who keep their horses there and JP McManus, who keeps half his string there. The score was 9-19 to the visitors. These things tend to be cyclical. Back in 1989, when it was 18 races, Ireland could not raise a single winner. This has been coming for a while, though, with Ireland winning 14, 12, 13 and 14 in the last four years.

5 Not so much 'what we learnt this week' but a question: Is this the most successful owner who has never paid a training fee?

The chancer was removed from the paddock by security but somehow found his way back in to lead in the Gold Cup winner Sizing John.

He was also photographed leading in Frankel after his final race at Ascot in 2012. "We've already got a photograph of him on the kitchen wall leading in Moscow Flyer," said Jessica Harrington's daughter, Emma, yesterday. "He's nothing to do with either horse!" Even the great AP McCoy has not been on the front page of the Racing Post as much as this man.

FIVE HIGHLIGHTS

1. For the pure unadulterated drama of it, the RSA won and lost and won again by Might Bite. Nicky Henderson's chaser is by Scorpion, whose progeny have a reputation for quirks and, my goodness, has this one has got a few of those up his sleeve. Having tried to duck out back up the chute to the paddock, he surrendered a 12-length lead to stable companion Whisper but got going again to get back up in the shadow of the post. Extremely talented, watching Might Bite next season will be exciting - riding him even more so.

2. There were some scintillating performances but few better than Un de Sceaux winning the Ryanair Chase. He is full-on. If you have Ruby Walsh, the best jockey of all time in my book, riding for you, most horses would be inclined to let him be the boss, but not Un de Sceaux.

He carted Walsh to the front after half-a-mile and did it his way. The sight of him, ears back, head down, and doing it with terrier-like determination winging his fences was a joy.

3. The Champion Chase was meant to be the coronation of Douvan and as much as it provided one of the lows of the meeting when he capitulated with an injury, it also provided one of the highs when Special Tiara just hung on from Fox Norton to give Henry de Bromhead a second win in the race. On Special Tiara's fourth attempt, it all came together for him and will partly assuage the disappointment De Bromhead will have felt having bought and trained Sizing John until last September when he was switched to Jessica Harrington's yard.

4. The Gold Cup proved a better race than people were giving it credit for beforehand and was won by the one unexposed horse in the field, Sizing John, trained by the most successful female trainer Ireland has ever known, Jessica Harrington, and ridden by a consummate horseman, Robbie Power. With three winners apiece this week, the dynamic Irish duo have hardly put a foot wrong.

5. The big battalions naturally dominated with Irish heavyweights Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins winning a dozen of the 28 races between them. However, the small man with not many horses and owners without the resources of Rich Ricci, Michael O'Leary or JP McManus, still pops up. That was no better demonstrated than on Thursday when Stuart Edmunds, who has worked in the Newton Pagnell yard he now trains from since he left school at 17, won the Kim Muir with Domesday Book.

FIVE HORSES TO WATCH

Sizing John

The recent record for Gold Cup winners returning to Cheltenham the following year, let alone mounting a successful defence of their title, is not very good, but Jessica Harrington's seven-year-old may not have peaked yet and has the advantage of gears when it matters, which the out and out sloggers such as Minella Rocco, Djakadam and Native River do not have. He could come back again.

Defi du Seuil

Triumph Hurdle winners are bit like two-year-olds on the Flat - they do not always train on. In a lot of cases that is because they have been hard at it all their lives on the Flat but, as a French-bred jumper, he had an easy childhood. As impressive a winner as there was all week, it is hard to envisage him coming back for anything other than next year's Champion Hurdle.

Yorkhill

Ended up having to open the batting for Willie Mullins on Thursday and looked sensational winning the JLT Chase. The world is his oyster on the back of this. Having won the Neptune last year, the JLT showed he clearly loves the place and he would not look out of place in a Gold Cup one day.

Altior

We may not have seen him at his best in the Arkle and, until Charbel fell at the second-last, he did not have victory in the bag but, when he hit top gear at the last, he fairly powered up the hill. Douvan or not, he will be a major player in next season's Grade One two-mile chases.

Douvan

He may have been the disappointment trailing in seventh in the Champion Chase at 9/2 on but an MRI revealed a stress fracture of left illium (pelvis). He will have three month's box rest and should then be as good as new at the start of next autumn. Keep the faith. (Telegraph)

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