Sunday Supplement: Cheltenham Winners and Losers

Thumbs up for Davy. Top man!

Thumbs up for Davy. Top man!

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

Davy Russell showed he swims against the tide of modern sports behaviour when after winning the Gold Cup on Lord Windermere, in a year when he lost his long-held retainer with Michael O’Leary and Gigginstown House Stud, he said: “You keep your mouth shut and try to do the best for yourself”.

Now in the veteran stage, it would have been easy if he had dropped his hands, with Bryan Cooper usurping him in the maroon colours. Wisely, though, he kept his counsel, and then fell in naturally for the rides made available when Cooper, the darling of the 2013 Festival, broke his leg in one of the many serious injuries of this year’s event.

For me, the star of the show was undoubtedly Simon Claisse, who ignored the ministrations of Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, both of whom advised him not to water for the latter stages of the fixture. Good job he did put some on the New course.

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But Simon knows his track, and also the cumulative potential for danger from big fields, fast pace and ground. Nicholls and Henderson – with Willie Mullins they were expected to dominate affairs –  spent most of the week with a hangdog look as if to say, “I’m supposed to win everything”. They are still one and two in the overall trainers’ table, with Nicholls still half a million quid ahead of Henderson, who must be looking over his shoulder at Jonjo O’Neill, easily the most affable of the trio, creeping closer in third.

To switch sports one man who didn’t engage brain before thought, was David Croft, Sky’s F1 commentator. As the Aussie Grand Prix field went away in Melbourne a few minutes after 6 a.m. today, he offered the gem that “Hamilton has made a great start” and didn’t notice until the third turn that he had immediately after the off been passed by all-the-way winner and team-mate Rosberg. At no time did he correct his omission.

The week has been a lot about retribution. If you like Chelsea, I presume you enjoy Mr Mourinho’s touchline stage directions every week. Last night, his constant attempt at drawing attention, finally did just that, and he was sent away, possibly unfairly. But it was a case of the Boy who Cries Wolf being brought to book.

No need to go into the fact that for once his “brilliant and instant substitutions” were made to come unstuck when Willian, lined up for an early exit, was allowed to remain for an extra minute before earning an admittedly unlucky expulsion for a minor transgression at worst.

But the low light for the Portuguese was undoubtedly the blatant stamp by the Brazilian Ramires, who can add that skill to his other more usual expertise of stamina and diving. He’ll get three games at best. Is Chelsea’s famed good luck finally turning?

But to return to Cheltenham, the big stables, as I’ve suggested, generally won much less than expected. Mullins won four times, with his two star novice hurdlers and dot on the card Quevega. He pinched one more on the last day.

Mullins, with 37 runners, had one fewer than Henderson over the week, so the soon to be deposed English champion will have been choked at such a modest return. Nicholls ran 33 horses for the same number of wins, so the big three between them had six wins from their 110 runners, at a rate of below six per cent. For Nicky and Paul it was around three per cent! Amazingly, the trio’s collective winning rate was almost exactly the same as the percentage of all the trainers’ everyone’s winners to runners average over the four days. There were 497 runners in the 27 races. If there had been two fewer, then the two samples would have been identical in percentage terms. When you consider the class loading advantage of the big stables, the returns for Nicholls and Henderson were derisory.

During the present season, Henderson has run 148 individual horses, compared with Nicholls’ 155. Nobody has run more this term than Donald McCain (188) and Jonjo O’Neill (184), but the latter showed once again that his team is doing better and better, three big wins from 17 Cheltenham runners emphasising that.

Mullins back home has used 182 horses to dominate that country’s jump racing and those two smart young hurdlers, Faugheen and Vautour, promise to step into the void that will undoubtedly be left by Hurricane Fly’s graceful removal from the scene and Quevega’s imminent departure, too.

There was only one trainer to defy the “numbers game” element to jumping. Jim Culloty, three times a winning rider on Best Mate in the Gold Cup, added his name to the list of four previous men to win and train a Gold Cup winner by sending out Lord Windermere to spring a relative surprise.

When Silviniaco Conti led a closing Bobs Worth to the last fence, we all expected the Nicholls and Henderson pair to dominate, but Bob went left, Silvi edged right and a trio on the near side sprinted past them all. Lord Windermere won narrowly to make it two from two at the meeting from Culloty after Spring Heeled’s victory earlier in the week.

Culloty has run just 18 individual horses this season at home, winning three races from 36 runs. At Cheltenham he ran two, won with them both and collected for his owners the second highest return, with only Mullins ahead of him. Nobody minded that at all.

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