A week ago Irish horse racing was in a dark place. Rocked to its core by scandal it looked as if Cheltenham would only compound this misery with a hollow Festival devoid of atmosphere and crowds.
The stain of Gordon’s faux pas was so deeply ingrained in the fabric of Cheltenham that further damage to the sport seemed inevitable.
Six wins across the four days for former Elliott trained horses should have provided more than enough ammunition for the critics to land their knockout blows to a sport already on the ropes.
Instead, a sport stripped right back to its component parts proved why it is literally the Sport of Kings. Horses and riders produced a spectacle like no other. Outstanding performance after outstanding performance breathing much needed oxygen into a sport gasping for air.
Over the course of four days Irish horse racing went from languishing in the gutter to regaining its place at the pinnacle of all things thoroughbred.
23 Irish trained winners of the 28 contests is unprecedented. Those of my vintage and older can clearly recall years where 1 Irish winner was something to be savoured. The year’s record haul has sparked talk of a crisis in British racing and calls for a root and branch review of their National Hunt programme. Few tears will be shed on this side of the Irish sea as we were long enough on the receiving end of similar drubbings.
Picking one star above all others from across the four days should be difficult, but it isn’t. Rachael Blackmore was on a different level to everyone else.
The casual observer saw a female jockey competing on equal terms with her male counterparts and winning six races. Meritorious as that may be, I saw something different. I saw a jockey produce some of the finest performances in a saddle I can remember.
Think Ruby Walsh in his absolute pomp and then move it up a notch.
The subtle nuances were sublime. The moment she squeezed Bob Olinger to avoid a potential threat on her outer approaching the home turn. The way she then put that race to bed in a matter of strides. The way she closed the door on Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup. Her tactical masterpiece on Sir Gerhard in the Bumper, and then there was the ride on Allaho.
Whenever a punter backs a horse that has a clear advantage coming to the final obstacle in a race there is always that sharp-intake-of-breath-moment when you pray the partnership remains intact on the other side. Somehow, Rachael has an ability to impart an air of calm and confidence, not only to the horse, but also to the punter. At no moment approaching the last jump in the Ryanair did I feel there was the slightest chance of mishap. No Annie Power jitters, just able to sit back an enjoy a master at work.
To think, at one stage, she had doubted her own ability to turn professional and only did so when at the relatively late age of 25, it gives hope to us all.
The ensemble cast that supported Rachael’s starring role at Cheltenham added to a truly awesome week. Jack Kennedy, already nearing the veteran stage at just 21, is as laid-back as he is talented. His Gold Cup triumph was richly deserved. Jordan Gainford won’t be long about rising through the ranks with a winner and two seconds from five rides on his maiden visit to the Cotswolds.
And what a week it was for Henry de Bromhead. A softly-spoken genuinely nice guy who’s handling of Sizing Europe in the mid-2000’s marked him out as someone with real potential, but potential alone is never enough. Through hard work and consistency, he has steadily built a quality set up over the intervening years. His horses are always so well-prepped in advance of their races and jump better than most. That thorough approach certainly paid rich dividends this last week with the Champion Hurdle — Champion Chase — Gold Cup Hat-trick. Something one would have only thought Willie Mullins was capable of achieving.
Mullins himself came away with the Leading Trainer title yet again. His haul of 6 winners, 7 seconds and 5 thirds was impressive, if slightly under-whelming in the context of the Irish dominance. A sentiment that could be echoed for his stable jockey Paul Townend who rode three winners and did little wrong all week but when you come away with twice as many seconds as winners you’re never going to be completely satisfied.
The victory for Paul Nolan and Bryan Cooper was particularly sweet. It’s been longer than expected between drinks for the pair but again shows that perseverance mixed with talent is a winning formula.
Then there were the horses. Numerous exceptional performances from start to finish. The aforementioned Allaho was one of my particular favourites. It was a delight to see him finally produce on the track what everyone in Closutton knew he was capable of.
Honeysuckle produced yet another top-drawer performance. Her superiority was far greater than her sex allowance and at only seven is just about the most exciting horse in training.
Appreciate It, Bob Olinger, Sir Gerhard, Kilcruit, Vanillier, Minella Indo and A plus Tard all showed themselves to be high class individuals and their futures look exceedingly bright.
The training performance of the week must go to Gordon Elliott (aka Sneezy Foster) for Tiger Roll. As the saying goes - you don’t fatten a pig the day before market.
I had myself convinced after Navan that the horse was gone. He ran OK to a point in the Boyne Hurdle, but eventually trailed home a double-distance behind the winner. Added to that, he hadn’t won a race since 2019 at Aintree and was pulled up a long way from home over the Cross Country Course back in November. I’d have been impressed if he made the frame on Wednesday. To rout the opposition by 18 lengths was awesome. It’s a pity his owner dug his heels in over his handicap mark for the Grand National. All of a sudden it’s beginning to look like he was thrown-in.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses at Cheltenham. There was the obvious disappointment that Envoi Allen lost his unbeaten record in such an unsatisfactory manner, but on a broader level the lack of true competition in many of the Championship races is a persistent problem that is only getting worse.
It’s like going to a party where they’re watering down the beer. You might have a great time, but you still know you’re getting ripped-off.
Small fields and odds-on favourites are not what Cheltenham should be about. From a competition point of view a return to three days makes perfect sense but not necessarily financial sense.