It was, as it always is, a stirring whirlwind of happenings. Stories – fairytales, plots, sub-plots, familiar formulas – were more prevalent than a rap battle between Hans Christian Andersen and Edgar Allan Poe. This was the good stuff. Mostly.
Below are five Cheltenham Festival sub-plots that caught my attention…
1. Wullie is #1, Ruby is his #1. Bet their #1
Whichever way you look at things – be it from a sporting or betting perspective – Willie Mullins casts the longest shadow across proceedings. In the last five Cheltenham Festivals, Wullie has amassed 27 wins, the equivalent of winning every single race at the 2015 Festival. That figure represents 20% of all Festival races in that time, and is one more than Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls have mustered between them in the same timeframe.
In 2012, Mullins scored a respectable trio of victories at Cheltenham’s hallowed March meeting; in 2013 it was five Wullie winners; and 2014’s record shows four triumphs for Team Closutton. But it is the last two seasons – where the yard has notched eight and then seven scores – that implies a near Mullins monopoly.
From a betting perspective there is much to be gleaned. Ostensibly a 2016 record of 7 from 61, and a loss of £41.85 to £1 level stakes looks like car crash wagering territory. But this is a mise en abyme, a story within a story, and one where right (punters) defeats wrong (bookies) in the most classical sense.
One jockey has ridden 19 of Mullins’ 27 Festival winners in the last five years. And he rarely chooses the wrong one. In fact, Ruby Walsh has an almost unblemished record in sitting on the right horse: the eight Wullie winners without Walsh were as follows:
Sir Des Champs, Don Poli x 2 (Gigginstown retained riders)
Back In Focus, Killultagh Vic (amateur or conditional riders’ race)
Glens Melody (Ruby fell at the last on Annie Power)
Wicklow Brave (handicap, Ruby 4th)
Champagne Fever (Champion Bumper, Ruby 3rd)
In other words, in the last five seasons, but for a last gasp tumble, the only times Ruby has failed to win when a Wullie horse he was eligible to ride has won, was in the County Hurdle and the Champion Bumper – where he finished placed on both occasions, at 14/1 and 12/1 respectively.
If you’d backed Ruby for Wullie in Grade 1’s you’d have won 15 from 48, for a level stakes profit of £20.02 at SP. That owes everything to the 25/1 victory of Briar Hill in the 2013 Champion Bumper, however.
Here’s another way of looking at Willie’s dominance. He is a trainer with a lot of Grade 1 horses: he actually ran seven in the Albert Bartlett! For all that volume, there is a clear hierarchy and it tends to be well understood by Mullins and his team.
So much so that, excluding the Champion Bumper and Annie P’s last flight fluff, the last time Wullie won a Cheltenham Festival non-handicap with a horse not his market first choice was Rule Supreme… in 2004! Rule Supreme was a 25/1 shot when he won, beating his marginally better fancied 20/1 stable mate!!
This is a team who have most of the best cards, and know how to play them. It is also a team who will split their best pairs – as with Yorkhill and Vautour both re-routing late in the day last week. Second guessing the Mullins operation ahead of the day is a mug’s game; likewise betting against their first choice in non-handicaps, the Bumper aside.
2. Phil Smith hates Gordon Elliott!
Not personally, of course, but the ongoing professional battle between the pair is another compelling story within a story at the Festival. It is Phil Smith’s job, as head of the official handicapping team, to give all horses in each race a notionally equal chance of winning. This is as impossible as it sounds, and the task is rendered still more impossible (were gradations of absolutes, erm, possible) by the fact that a large raiding party of horses are not handicapped under his team’s jurisdiction.
The Irish squad is handicapped for Irish races by Noel O’Brien, Smith’s oppo, and his team. However, Smith and co. have license to adjust the ratings of their Irish colleagues as they see fit. Clearly this is somewhat of a balancing act: on the one hand their duty is to give all horses in the Festival races a fair chance, on the other they have to manage a relationship with their handicapping peer group.
So it was that, as Tony Keenan reported here, Smith whacked the Elliott handicap squad with increased ratings, and therefore weight, burdens. For all of the trash talk regarding Diamond King’s rating, the fact is he didn’t just win the Coral Cup, a 26 runner (normally) ultra-competitive handicap hurdle, he – excuse me – pissed up.
Diamond King had a rating of 149, five pounds above his Irish perch of 144. That has now been elevated most of a stone by O’Brien to 157.
But that was as nothing to the victory of Elliott’s Cause Of Causes, in the Kim Muir. Rated 146 when winning the (non-handicap) National Hunt Chase at last year’s Festival, he was in here off 142, two pounds higher than his Irish mark of 140. He won by twelve lengths, the biggest winning distance of the entire Festival, having been hunted in last of the 22 runners for much of the race. He was so far the best that he could have been rated 160 and probably still won (except of course that it’s a 0-145 race, and one which Mr Smith personally handicaps. How he must wish he’d given him 146 and had done with it!).
Elliott’s team performed with staggering aplomb – we haven’t even mentioned his Don Cossack winning the Gold Cup comfortably, nor shall we in this piece – and from 19 runners, he managed a form string of 44F413F440612197090.
Three winners, ten finishing in the first four. That is remarkable. Elliott is the coming man, a fact that seems yet to be fully reflected in the market. His trio of victories were worth a profit across the 19 runners, while focusing on those best fancied – 12/1 or shorter – gave a three from ten win rate, one more placed, and a profit of £11.75 to a £1 stake.
Yup, I think it’s certainly fair to say that Smith – who had a bit of a Festival shocker* with his other chase, the Ultima Business Solutions, where the first two home, both handicap plots, were seven and nine lengths too good for the rest – retains a professional loathing for Gordon Elliott!
*In fairness to Smith, Festival handicaps are akin to a burglars’ convention and he has clear parameters within which to operate. They don’t adequately cope with the likes of Un Temps Pour Tout, The Holywell or, to a lesser extent, the Irish raiders.
**As a footnote, it is worth noting that while British-trained handicappers took six of the ten ‘caps, they did so from 183 runners (3.28% strike rate). 27 won or placed, 14.75% place rate. The Irish claimed four handicap wins from 50 runners, an 8% hit rate (13 won or placed, 26%). There is a fairly strong case for being even harsher on Irish handicappers next season.
3. Too many horses died
While some will disagree, it is easy to sympathise with the view that one horse death is too many. There can be few who fail to concur that seven fatalities is far too many.
Probably the most remarkable aspect of that figure is that four of the seven were injured, leading to death, on the flat. Put another way, a minority of the fatalities were caused by falls.
Without wishing to second guess anything in such a sensitive and important area as equine welfare, it would be remiss not to mention that a course record was broken on day one, a day when the going was officially good to soft, soft in places.
Regardless of new methods of timing the races or new positions of the flights, there seems a fundamental disconnect between the reported going and the race times. That this is nothing new has been a source of wry and/or knowing smiles in the professional fraternity since forever. Generally it is an irritatingly predictable sideshow before racing commences on the opening day, and a true gauge of the firmness of the turf can be established from the Supreme race time.
But this year, it is possible that the clerk of the course’s ‘poetic license’ with regards to official going statements has been a factor in the loss of those chaps who broke down on the level last week. It is for others to decide that. However, after the Zabana starting farce whitewash, expect public declarations of support – and hope for a private ‘drains up’ leading to improvements.
Irrespective of whether or not there was a disparity between the official going and actual state of the turf, the responsibility is not solely with the clerk of the course. Whilst it makes it more difficult for trainers to recommend to their owners to withdraw horses when the official going doesn’t hint at a problem, each handler should have walked the course daily when they have runners and made the right decision on that basis.
Of course, that won’t stop all injuries, but it might have prevented some. At the end of the day, horse racing – and National Hunt racing in particular – is a dangerous sport with inherent risk to all participants. But that risk needs to be managed, by owners, trainers, jockeys and, fundamentally, ground staff.
Jenny Hall, Chief Veterinary Officer for BHA, has her work cut out to understand why this happened. And if the state of the track is a factor, there should be no shirking with regards to making sure it doesn’t happen again. In this context, it should be remembered that two similar ‘on the level’ fatalities were incurred in the 2012 Cross Country Chase when that track was acknowledged as being firm, with no ability to water the turf there. (I still miss my old mate, Spot Thedifference).
Let us hope that the investigation is strongly led, with open and candid co-operation from all parties, and that recommendations are implemented promptly.
4. Go Pendo!
The very fact that Victoria Pendleton’s on/off affair with the Foxhunters’ Chase had been so divisive within racing nodded unequivocally to its PR value to the sport. Indeed, taking into account the seven equine fatalities, it could be argued that it saved Cheltenham Festival 2016 from being dragged through the mainstream media mire.
I must first confess to not having been a fan of the Pendleton show. Actually, that’s not quite true: initially I thought it was a great idea. But, between then and last week, I changed my mind, worried that VP might be involved in some frightful pile up with the inevitable front page bad news that racing only ever seems to get.
Her tumble at Fakenham – some said her foot was knocked from the stirrup, others that she ought to have stayed aboard – seemed to confirm that a 24 runner amateur riders’ race over Cheltenham’s feared fences was a challenge too far.
In truth, it has been a high stakes PR exercise, the bookies making it something of an ‘each of two’ scenario that Pendleton would or would not complete the course.
But, in the manner of the refreshing current fortunes of the sport, it was a high stakes gamble that paid off. Pendo, aboard an expert horse – albeit one known to not quite see out this exacting stamina test – rode the perfect waiting ride. For those who suggest she might have won, they may be right; but that needs to recognize that horses running over trips for which they have questionable stamina are “ridden like non-stayers” every day of the week.
In the context of this race – for amateurs, all of whom had more experience than Pendleton, but probably only two had more professionalism – she rode a blinder. I was reminded of Aidan Coleman’s quote on the subject, when he said,
“There’ll be at least 10 worse riders than her in the field. Definitely.”
Well, he wasn’t wrong. Pendo was paid a lot of money to do this, and she applied herself with a dedication that few in her corinthian peer group could match – she is, after all, a multiple Olympic gold medallist.
But the thing that wins you over – at least, the thing that won me over – is her eloquence in front of the camera. Her unbridled enthusiasm for the sport. Her ability to take something ‘we know’ and transmit its appeal to the wider world in a way that racing insiders simply cannot do, for lack of gravitas, lack of public appeal, and, frankly, lack of concern.
Fair play to Betfair; fair play to Paul Nicholls, Andy Stewart and, especially to Lawney and Alan Hill. But, most of all, fair play to VP. She couldn’t have played it any better, throughout, in terms of a classic riches-to-rags-to-riches narrative, the kind on which we’ve been nourished since the dawn of storytelling.
The knives were out for her on Friday but, three days after the Ides of March, Pendleton rode fearlessly into fifth place. Here’s hoping she pushes on with her pointing career, and maybe rides in this race again next season. It will be very hard to top what she achieved here.
5. Cheltenham IS the Greatest Show on Turf
From the moment the tapes rose on Altior’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and that famous raucous roar…
Through Min’s bursting bubble; Douvan’s demolition derby; some Annie-Mull magic; and Mags’ vroom vroom…
Through Yorkhill’s glorious diversion; the heroics of No More Heroes and a (Blak)lion’s bite; and the unforgettable Sprinter’s stupendous time machine…
Through Vautour’s vindication; and the magnificence of a Dorset dairy farmer’s Thistlecracker…
To ‘Russian Friday’, Ivanovich Gorbatov and the Don, Cossack…
At every turn, class abounded. The facilities, newly opened earlier this season and heaving with record numbers of racegoers, matched the quality of the action.
In spite of an itch – the sort somewhere in the middle of the shoulder that can’t quite be scratched either under- or over-arm – about the overshadowing of almost all that comes before in the National Hunt season, it is hard to shake the perception that this, truly, is the perfect closing chapter.
Regardless of the epilogues and spin off series at Aintree and Punchestown, Cheltenham in middle March is the ultimate convergence of form lines and plot lines. It is a final act in 28 parts, infectiously pleasurable with or without favour from the punting gods.
How to choose a single highlight? Very difficult. Very, very difficult.
For me, it’s a coin toss between the old and new: Sprinter Sacre rolling past softened rivals warmed every sinew, but Thistlecracker’s (yes, I know that’s not his name, but I can’t call him anything else) utter deconstruction of a credible World Hurdle field by wide margins in a race where plenty threw a punch and all were left sat on the canvass… well, that was really something wasn’t it?
p.s. what were your highlights of the week? Betting wise? Sports wise? Any thoughts on VP? Leave a comment and get it off your chest 😉