The best week of the year is now over. It was as billed to be a surprising four days and as far a winners go it did not disappoint. I’m not one to be taken in by odds given by bookmakers but just glancing down at the winners just of the four premier races, with the exception of the Queen Mother champion chase, the prices alone can confirm that not many expected many of the results over the last week.
I was doing some reading on the social media sites on the Monday before kick off and someone had tweeted a picture of what they believed to be the main contenders of the most exciting Champion Hurdle in recent years. The picture showed Henderson’s My Tent or Yours, two time winner Hurricane Fly, Twiston Davies’ young the pretender the New One and the ill fated Our Conor. There was a comment underneath the picture from a user that asked: “Where is Jezki?” and the witty repose was: “Something people will be asking around 3.26pm tomorrow.” This puts a lot of weeks results in a nutshell. Surprise winners and therefore, I believe, exciting racing.
I have picked out my Top 5 favourite moments of the meeting.
5. Balthazar is king of the Cross Country:
This was undoubtedly one of the most impressive and popular performances of the week. As we have learnt from this festival especially it takes a great horse to come back to a festival let alone defend his crown. In the case of Balthazar King it wasn’t what he did, it was the manner in which he did it. Having lead most of the way through the twists and turns of Cheltenham’s famous cross country race, he was hard pressed by the fast finishing Any Currency but held on to beat him by a short head. Not only was this one of the most exciting finishes of the week it was a prime example of why Richard Johnson is the second most successful jockey in history. He has a way of hunting round, not panicking and let his horses approach a race naturally. Hopefully the National will be the next stop for this talented horse and if he does come round the Elbow in front it will be Johnsons first win in a race and you can’t help but think he deserves to win.
4. Jockeys, jockeys, jockeys
I wonder what the odds for Barry Geraghty having three winners at the Festival were? Pretty short I would imagine. Take Nicky Henderson out of that equation and I would think if there is a person out there who took that bet they are most likely sitting on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific having paid off the mortgage and all their children’s school fees. It was almost unbelievable. But what it exemplified was…Need someone for a big race? Barry’s your man. The rides he gave all three horses were exceptional. Especially on More of That. Coming up the hill Annie Power looked to be going the better of the two and but Geraghty’s strength in a finish is second to none. This week it also seemed he liked a nice spin round on a spare ride preferably a JP Mcmanus horse.
De Boinville vs AP?….De Boinville
We truly are in a Golden Age of jockeys. The list of top class riders is endless, AP McCoy head and shoulders above the rest? However young rider Nico de Boinville based at Nicky Henderson’s Lamborn yard is possibly most known for being the work rider for both Sprinter Sacre and Long Run. Now he will be most notable for riding his bosses sole winner of the 2014 Cheltenham Festival. It came in the Coral cup on Wednesday aboard the Dai Walters owned Whisper. This victory was sweet redemption for the young rider having been beaten a short head the day before but also because the man he beat into second was the magician in a finish, the man who many people believe has the capabilities to get a 15 year old donkey across the line in front. It was pure guts and determination and absolute joy to witness.
3. Nostalgia as Culloty is back in the winners enclosure.
It was nearly 10 years ago to the day that jockey Jim Culloty was in the winners enclosure at the festival, albeit in an entirely different outfit. Jockey aboard in all three of Best Mates Gold Cup runs, Jim Culloty must have found it hard to fight all sorts of emotions swirling around his head on Friday. Although Lord Windermere was possibly not the horse most people expected to see come into the enclosure with that rather apocalyptic music blasting from the rooftops, it was however a familiar and satisfying site to see Jim return to the very spot he had made his own for so many years.
He said after the race that his instructions to Davy Russell were to ride a patient race from the back, but half way round admitted to wanting to “sack the jockey” after he believed he had taken the instructions rather too far, as the horse lay right out the back for the best part of two and a half miles. It was the shock of the festival, but no one was more dumbfounded than the jockey himself. It goes to show that these animals can surprise anyone, even the pilot on board.
2. Sire de Grughy doing it for the family..
If there was a horse coming into the week with everything to prove, I believe unfairly, it was the Gary Moore trained Sire de Grugy. This horse had done everything right this season and with the absence of Sprinter Sacre in the 2 mile Champion Chase he deserved to go off favourite. Although the morning of the race he was about as weak as second hand teabag. There were horses who had to find a lot more than this horse, like Captain Conan who were vying for favouritism.
Coming up to the last fence in the Queen Mother there were, I’m sure, plenty of people hanging their heads in shame for ever doubting this progressive chaser when he hopped over the last fence and surged up the hill in front. It was an amazing win for Gary Moore, a trainer who does not get enough credit for the horses his produces for the big days and the way he has handled this horse is nothing short of genius. He has never been afraid to run him, to take on the big guns and always had absolute faith in the horse. It is something we should all admire him for.
There are not enough adjectives in the English dictionary to explain the enormity of what this mare has achieved. Her win at the Festival this year was her sixth triumph. To get a horse back for any race at the festival is a feat that not many can ever match, but to get a horse back six times and win all six of them is something I don’t believe will ever be matched again. Coming down the hill although Ruby was looking comfortable, there were also a host of horses which were looking as comfortable and for a second I was naive enough to think that the Queen’s crown was slowly slipping away.
But in usual style she stalked through the field and came up the hill, which incidentally she believes is flat, and produced her normal dominant performance that we as racegoers have rather begun to take for granted.
It is a true testament to Willie Mullins and his incredible team that she has kept her fit and healthy for this long and on Tuesday the heroine became a legend. It truly was the performance of a lifetime, something that will most likely never be repeated.
Away from the good stuff….
Although the week was one of exceptional sporting excellence, one must also not forget that our entertainment can come at a high price. There was a moment on Friday that exemplified no more clearly that elation can often come hand in hand with despair.
Daryl Jacob had been having, by his own and boss Paul Nicholls standards an average week, with no winners. To him Lac Fontana’s win in on the Friday must have had him breathing a heavy sigh of relief. But within 30 minutes of this he was being stretched off the course and on his way to hospital after a freak accident saw him thrown off his horse on the way down to the start.
It is the moments like this we must remember that not everything is about the money we may have lost on the horse. But that everyday these men and women out their health on the line for the benefit of the sport they love so much and sometimes this is repaid in the most unkind of ways.