It was a week that had everything, writes William Kedjanyi. The issue is that everything, as in other sport and indeed life, wasn’t always ‘good’; and for all the amazing memories that our champions gave us on the field, some will see only the negatives.
Here’s to reflecting on a Festival that had more highs and lows than Cheltenham’s racecourse itself, viewed below through the prism of twitter.
- The Week’s Leading Lights….
Everyone will have their takeaways from the last week, but the group that made arguably the biggest lasting impact on the Festival? Women.
This was a week which saw women riders claim four wins on the track; perhaps more importantly, there were three different winners, and two of the successes came at Grade 1 level, one in a Championship race.
Lizzie Kelly takes no prisoners on the courageous Siruh Du Lac. Fantastic meeting for the women jockeys. Not that long ago, perfectly nice racing people thought women too vulnerable for the hurly-burly of the jumps. I hope young girls are watching with dreams in their hearts.
— Tania Kindersley (@taniakindersley) March 14, 2019
Whilst many will focus upon Bryony Frost’s all the way win on Frodon, Rachael Blackmore – who has arguably had an even better season – was just as strong on Minella Indo, and Lizzie Kelly managed to time her fractions to perfection in the Festival Plate.
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) March 15, 2019
That wasn’t the only success, however, with Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park capping a season of domination at the top level with a fantastic Stayers’ Hurdle victory too.
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) March 17, 2019
These victories are all wonderful, but what is even more encouraging is the variety they display: Blackmore kept things simple on the hugely well in A Plus Tard on Tuesday before then judging the right moment to strike again on Minella Indo; Frost managed to get Frodon to give everything from the front, and Kelly also had the same judgement skills in the Plate, as seen in a brilliant driving finish here.
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) March 14, 2019
Those three jockeys have now risen to the top of the game, and are here to stay; Henry De Bromhead and Paul Nicholls, and their owners, have been rewarded for giving quality horses to Blackmore and Frost whilst Kelly too remains very useful for the Williams’ going forward.
There are plenty of female trainers at the highest level too, led by Jessica Harrington and Venetia Williams, even if they did not have Festival winners this week, and the future looks bright for those aforementioned.
This is a boon for racing’s PR image at a time when it is much needed. Frost has broken through to some national media, and is universally adored, but there’s time still for Blackmore to reach said heights, and the quality of her riding continues to impress. She comes across wonderfully in TG4’s Jump Girls, an excellent watch.
Incredible horse, rider and trainer performance!!! That interview Bryony Frost just gave is the best post race interview I’ve ever seen!!! pic.twitter.com/ye941kjUck
— Mick Livesey (@MickLivesey) March 14, 2019
The reaction on social media was also heartwarming to see:
What next? Rachael Blackmore is already second in the Irish Jockeys’ Championship with 84 winners – Fairyhouse and Punchestown can bring lots of success for her, and perhaps Aintree too. At 29, she’s in her prime and has plenty to offer.
Rachael Blackmore wins the Albert Bartlett on Minella Indo – a 50-1 outsider. What a week for women jockeys and trainers at Cheltenham
— Donald McRae (@donaldgmcrae) March 15, 2019
Frost has a number of excellent wins to her name aside from Frodon and perhaps, more importantly, the backing of Paul Nicholls. She has 49 winners this year at a 16% strike rate, impressive considering her serious injuries in the summer.
Be smart: You’d be in profit to the tune of £58 if you followed Bryony Frost blind, and +£13 for Lizzie Kelly.
- Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
Racing is a sport which frequently frustrates the greats: remember how long it took for Frankie Dettori to win his Derby? Or AP McCoy to ride a Grand National winner?
Willie Mullins is one of the great trainers of all time, but for a man who has dominated major festivals, the Gold Cup was one of the few gaps on his palmares. Before Friday, Mullins had won 64 Festival races without the Blue Riband, and he saddled four horses in this bid to change things.
— CheltenhamRacecourse (@CheltenhamRaces) March 15, 2019
There were good reasons to fancy any of Kemboy, Invitation Only, Bellshill or Al Boum Photo, but things did not start well with Kemboy unseating at the first, Bellshill smashing himself into the fifth and ending his chances, and when Invitation Only did the same at the tenth, that left Mullins with just one horse, Al Boum Photo, still in the race.
Come the home turn, however, he was cantering into contention and, despite grabbing the second last and stumbling over the last, he was too strong for the rest of the field, running out quite a convincing winner.
This ends a long wait for the winning most trainer at the Festival in its biggest event; he had tried and come so close with Florida Pearl in 2000 and then the legendary Hedgehunter, before four successive runners up in a row (Sir Des Champs, On His Own and Djakadam twice).
Anibale Fly was a fine second once again, making the best of his way home, and Bristol De Mai ran an excellent race in third; but this moment was all about Mullins and Paul Townsend, who had the greatest redemption after the farcical ending to the Growise Champion Novice Chase at the end of last season.
Trainer Willie Mullins had 60 horses – a third of his yard – moved to a rival
Jockey Paul Townend had his own matters to deal with
Al Boum Photo crashed out twice on the big stage
— Francis Keogh (@HonestFrank) March 17, 2019
The Big Three: Didn’t make the first three, although there are good reasons for their runs; Native River couldn’t lie up with the early pace according to connections and wasn’t quite at his best in finishing fourth, whilst Paul Nicholls said that Clan des Obeaux got outstayed, and that seems to check out given the extra distance here compared to Kempton for his King George win. Presenting Percy, who never got properly into the race, was found to be lame and is definitely better than he showed here.
- Going Too Far
Apart from the Grand National, racing’s welfare standards are never under the spotlight more than during Festival week, and it’s in that context that the National Hunt Chase finds itself under the most extreme scrutiny.
This year’s edition, run in deep ground once again, was particularly tough; only four horses finished and there were 47 lengths between runner up Discorama and third-placed Jerrysback.
There was the grim sight of screens at both the last two fences and one right in front of the Best Mate enclosure, where we sadly lost Ballyward. Many runners were pulled up due to exhaustion, or worse, falling for the same reason.
It was an ugly spectacle and not one that you would show to a first-time watcher of the sport, but what is to be done?
Whatever your views on the BHA, rewatching the National Hunt Chase does not make for comfortable viewing. I don’t agree with Lavery‘s ban but seeing several horses on the ground after tired falls isn’t pleasant. #LuckOnSunday
— Kitty Trice (@KittyTrice) March 17, 2019
Many have suggested cancelling the race, which might be an understandable, if visceral reaction, but doing so would surely call into question the existence of every long distance race: the Midlands National took place on ground that was just as testing on Saturday. Moreover, in many years we have seen single figures in terms of finishers for the Grand National – and certainly for the Irish equivalent.
Getting rid of the National Hunt Chase at the Festival would be a shame. It’s great those lads and lasses get to ride at Prestbury Park in March. Maybe the conditions of the race needs changing. Say, at least three runs over fences, at least one over 3m and must be rated 135+.
— Declan Rix (@HawkWing2002) March 17, 2019
Some have suggested a change in conditions, but the amateur riders navigate the Kim Muir and Foxhunters at the end of the week with less controversy than this, and the majority of the horses entered had staying credentials of some kind.
Could a change to the conditions of the National Hunt Chase prevent yesterday’s scenes being repeated? How about a minimum rating or only allowing horses to run who have placed in a 3m(+) race/chase? This year’s contest seems to be an anomaly – the race has produced superstars
— Maddy P (@mp_horseracing) March 13, 2019
Pulling the race distance back is also not an option without consequence, as there are three other targets at staying distances for novices during the Festival.
Something has to change, however; So what about reducing the weight carried? In a graded race there’s no need for a welter burden and it is possible for amateurs to do less than 11-6; Jamie Codd’s lowest weight in the last 12 months is 11-0 dead, and if that were to be the universal rule then that would make a difference here – assuming that the jockeys can all make it.
Any other suggestions?
- Stars Of The Festival
There have been many stars this week, and not all of them can have the spotlight they so deserve. Here are a personal few, some obvious, some not so much…
- Mark Walsh, who so cruelly suffered a fracture when presented with a fine book of rides here two seasons ago but bounced back with wins in the Champion Hurdle (Espoir D’Allen) And Ballymore Hurdle (City Island)
- Lydia Hislop,tireless from the start to the finish of an incredible week, and who interviewed Willie Mullins and Paul Townend with such class in the midst of the Gold Cup
- Andrew Gemmell, the owner of Paisley Park, who, blind from birth, experienced one of the most heart-warming successes all week
- Henry De Bromhead, who supplied Rachael Blackmore with two fine winners and a selection of excellent rides this week
- The entire team at ITV Racing, who had a marked lift on ratings compared to last year and who have tried very hard to appeal to casual fans
- Pacha du Polder, the two-time winner of the Foxhunters’ Chase who was retired after this fourth run in the race
And last but never least, some eye-catchers. Everyone loves an eye-catcher!
- Aramon, who travelled beautifully into the Supreme, but then faded on ground much softer than preferred late on
- Big River,who never jumped a fence in the Ultima but took fourth near the finish
- Brio Conti looked like the best horse in the Coral Cup before just flattening out up the hill
- Ciel De Neige ran a fine race on debut for Willie Mullins in the Fred Winter
- Abracadabras was done for speed in the Champion Bumper but will be happier up in trip and has the look of a promising staying chaser
- Cuneo didn’t quite see out his huge move in the Pertemps but absolutely has a race of this sort in him
- No Comment made some eye-catching late progress in the Kim Muir
- Éclair de Beaufeu went miles too soon in the County before unseating and will surely be better suited by Punchestown
- Cartwright didn’t get any sort of run in the Martin Pipe late on
– William Kedjanyi