There is no such thing as a bad Festival, but by common consensus Cheltenham 2015 will go down as a King of Kings.
The ‘right’ horses won the right races; weather conditions were equitable; victories were balanced between David and Goliath; the Gold Cup turned into a fairytale; AP McCoy had a winner on his last visit as a jockey; the final outcome of Ireland v UK lingered until the very last of 27 encounters; and the expansive endeavours of the ongoing racecourse development meant that a record number got to enjoy the four-day spectacle in more comfort and with less disruption than one would have thought imaginable. Carlsberg don’t do Festivals, but if they did . . .
Lest we think as mortals we can take all the credit, the extent to which fate played a benign hand should not be underestimated. Put another way: if the minimal rain hadn’t fallen at precisely the time it did, Coneygree wouldn’t have run in the Gold Cup. If Uxizandre had lived into the 94 per cent (16/1 against) probability he wouldn’t win the Ryanair, then AP McCoy would have emerged haunted from his final Festival without a winner. If Annie Power hadn’t arisen sound from her full-tilt tumble on Tuesday, the ensuing headlines would have blighted the entire event. And if Willie Mullins had suffered the mildest wobble along the tightrope of getting a battalion of 50-plus to the Cotswolds in the pink of condition, as well as experiencing fair luck in running over the four days (Annie Power notwithstanding), then we wouldn’t now be celebrating a record-breaking training performance with some sensationally memorable personal bests.
The cliché of sport being a game of inches is dwarfed only when you realise whole Festivals are bound by the same principle. If the Gold Cup reflects the brand essence not just for the Festival, but the whole of jump racing, then Lewis Carroll wrote the copy on this particular Friday the 13th. It produced the ultimate underdog story, but not in a Norton’s Coin way where the race was won as much by others underperforming and a race that fell apart as anything else. No. Friday’s field was competitive and deep with 16 runners and all of last year’s old guard (first five home) fronting up to a significant gang of new kids on the block. The seniors facing off against the sophomores and amidst it all Coneygree, the newbie on his first day at big school.
Amateur Patrick Mullins had already warned conditional Nico de Boinville he was going to go quick on On His Own, but the conditional was determined to lead at all costs. It didn’t help then that he slightly missed the kick on Coneygree and needed to exert precious reserves to fight his way to the head of affairs. Up front the novice was given no peace with the combination of On His Own and Road To Riches persistently teasing him throughout. Yet here was a horse in spite of having feet that (by the admission of his trainer Mark Bradstock) “are six inches too long”, managed to still manoeuvre at the obstacles like Fred Astaire fusing together both waltz and salsa. The fluent versatility and relentless gallop destabilised the old guard.
Last year’s winner Lord Windermere was struggling from the second fence. Gold Cup stalwart The Giant Bolster was hoisting the flag soon after, but it was the injection of pace entering the final mile that made the race look like a freight train had just unhitched the last four carriages, and all of a sudden half the field was dispatched. With rhythm in flow and stamina assured, it was now about what others had left in the locker. The answer was just not enough as Coneygree demonstrated steel to go with the steps on the final heave to the line.
Coneygree’s win was more than just a victory for a small operator with just 10 horses from Letcombe Bassett, it was a resounding triumph for the enduring impossible dream that is the very kernel of the jump racing proposition. It will not be missed that amongst those trailing behind in the wake were the names Mullins, Ricci, Meade, Wylie, Hemmings who, in spite of all their wealth and might, have not yet captured the holy grail.
It represents a fascinating dichotomy because if you examine the biggest owners in the sport — JP McManus, Michael O’Leary, Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie, Trevor Hemmings — each has achieved spectacular success in business and knows the value of a pound. Yet each of them also chooses jump racing, as opposed to Flat racing, as their outlet even though they all realise there is zero chance of receiving a return on investment. But this is beyond business. This is where hard nose meets soft heart. They are each buying a dream. A romantic dream.
The same romantic dream the Bradstocks and every small owner, breeder and trainer buys into when they give a pittance for a mare, foal, yearling or store. The big boys just have more resources so they buy more tickets. But just because you can spend three hundred thousand on a bumper winner doesn’t mean you’re automatically entitled to beat the offspring of a three grand mare. Therefore the ultimate victory for the Gold Cup pinnacle of the jumping calendar on Friday is the irony that those who yearn for it most and spend the most to achieve it were undone by the very ideal that attracted them to the sport in the first place.
The other point brought home by Coneygree’s victory in the Gold Cup is the fact that he even ran in the race at all. Within the build-up is the perfect example of disruptive thinking upstaging the accepted convention. Part of the charm of the Bradstocks is their pleasing eccentricity and many professionals thought it eccentric at best that they should commit their freshman to the Gold Cup instead of the RSA against fellow novices. History and statistics backed up the professional view. Those that tried and failed in the 41 years since it last happened include exalted names like Night Nurse, Lanzarote, Carvill’s Hill and Gloria Victis.
There is a tale that Henry Ford never paid too much attention to the views of his customers, which even then was widely seen as unwise. Once asked as to why his reply was, “If I’d asked my customers what they’d wanted they’d have said ‘give me a faster horse’”. The Bradstocks knew what they knew, defied conventional wisdom and the rest is the new history. The more startling aspect though is that if Coneygree were located in the yard of the champion trainer either side of the Irish Sea — Willie Mullins or Paul Nicholls — it would never have run in Friday’s Gold Cup. Sometimes, just sometimes, it pays to be brave, foolish or both.
The undercurrent throughout was the unspoken acknowledgement that this was AP McCoy’s last Festival.
Cheltenham has been witness to some of McCoy’s brightest, and darkest, days. After two days without a winner this week things were beginning to look ominous. Tom Scudamore’s animated celebration on Moon Racer after the bumper on Wednesday was crowded with congratulations from his peers as he pulled up. McCoy was noticeably withdrawn having filled a staying-on fourth on his mount Yanworth. Wife Chanelle described how the melancholy was beginning to set in on Thursday morning leaving the house. The public empathy was palpable.
Therefore, the unlikely victory of Uxizandre in the Ryanair had a significance far beyond its usual merit with a combination of joy and relief engulfing the place. The manner of the victory too was signature McCoy and proved ultimately to be his final sign-off at the Festival. Try as he might, and despite the exhortations of the big screen (‘Good Luck AP!’) and the 60,000 still gathered for the final and 27th race of the Festival, the eponymously named AP McCoy Grand Annual, the fairytale ending just didn’t materialise on Ned Buntline. It was a very emotional champion who admitted afterwards: “I’m always a person who has looked forward but I’ll have to start looking back because I’ve nothing to look forward to now.”.
JP McManus recalled when McCoy first caught his attention and a phone call he received from Christy Roche. “Have you seen this lad — he should be handicapped, not the horse.” It is a sentiment that could easily be applied to Willie Mullins after his eight-winner tally for the week which included a Dickinsonian 1,2,3 in the Champion Hurdle and a 1,2 in the Supreme. He also has Vautour, Don Poli and Djakadam as serious prospects to conquer the Everest of the Gold Cup that has so far eluded him, thwarted yet again — this time from the unlikeliest source.
If Cheltenham 2015 proved one thing it is that the jumping ecosystem has place for both the big fish and the tiny minnows, and that it is all the more consuming for it.