Like a Sunday lunch that takes hours to cook and is demolished in a matter of moments, the Cheltenham Festival seems to have gone in the blink of an eye in comparison to how long we were all looking forward to its arrival.
2019 feels like a year in which plenty of things threatened to happen but none of them did; from the equine flu crisis that seemed as thought it might cause Cheltenham to be cancelled through to the drones that we were led to believe would be invading the course via the wind that might have seen Wednesday’s racing called off altogether, it was a Festival that was nearly threatened but ultimately survived.
Thank goodness it did, too. It seems as though a Festival barely goes by without something noteworthy happening and this year was no exception. Altior’s incredible run continued, though trainer Nicky Henderson might have been mildly concerned when he saw Sceau Royal jump the last ahead of him in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Henderson’s good natured rivalry with Willie Mullins also saw the pair go tit-for-tit when it came to winners, with the latter keeping ahead of the former by a nose but seeing one of his horses win the big race of the Festival for the first time.
It was a marvellous week of racing, doing its utmost to live up to the hype yet again.
Doing It For The Girls
Normally when you think of women and the Cheltenham Festival the first thing that pops into your head is Ladies Day on the Wednesday, and it’s true that this year it was a day worth talking about.
There was an inspection at 7 in the morning to make sure that the wind had died down sufficiently to allow racing to go ahead, with the celebrations when it got the go-ahead turned to surprise when 8/1 City Island beat the favourite to victory in the day’s first race. Yet the women were in the headlines for entirely different reasons than just their sense of fashion this time around, thanks in no small part to the success of three female jockeys in particular.
Rachael Blackmore got things rolling for the girls on Day 1, romping home in the day’s only Listed race when she won the Novices’ Handicap Chase on the back of A Plus Tard. It was the start of another good week for female jockeys, With Blackmore winning her second race thanks to Minella Indo’s win in the Spa Novices’ Hurdle on Gold Cup Day. Lizzie Kelly won with Siruh Du Lac in the Pertemps on St. Patrick’s Day, but it was Bryony Frost who took the headlines by being the first female jockey to win a Grade 1 race at Cheltenham when Frodon crossed the line first in the Ryanair Chase. Add to that the success of the likes of Emma Lavelle as a trainer and you can see why it’s the women that many are talking about in the wake of this year’s Festival.
Mullins Finally Gets A Gold Cup
Willie Mullins is no stranger to success at the Cheltenham Festival, heading into this year’s event with the most wins of any trainer ever thanks to his 61 victories compared to Nicky Henderson’s 60.
He got his first win in 1995 and didn’t have to wait too long for his 62nd, watching Klassical Dream pip Thomas Darby to the post in day’s opening race. If that wasn’t enough, Mullins did an opening day double when he followed up his Supreme win with victory in the Arkle thanks to Duc Des Genievres. Having seen Henderson win 2 for himself, Mullins then had to wait until the penultimate race on St. Patrick’s Day before he could move back to being 2 ahead of his rival.
Remarkably, despite Mullins’ incredible record at the Cheltenham Festival, the only race he’d never been able to step onto the winner’s podium for was the biggest of them all, the Gold Cup. He wasn’t taking any chances this year, therefore, with 4 horses trained by his yard entered into the race, with 2 of them ridden by family members and the others by top jockeys in Ruby Walsh on Bellshill and Paul Townend on Al Boum Photo. It was the latter who finally provided the Irish trainer with a winner in the biggest race of them all, finally bringing an end to what must have felt like a curse for him. He’d seen a horse of his finish second six times before this year, so he’ll be delighted to finally have that monkey off his back.
Safety Improved This Year
Another of the big discussions in the build-up to this year’s Festival was the safety of the Cheltenham course. There was controversy at the start of the year when Paul and Clare Rooney told their trainers not to enter any of their horses into races at the Festival because of their concerns over the safety of runners.
The Rooneys had had to put down their horse Melrose Boy because of injuries he’d sustained at the meeting last March, meaning that 7 horses died that year. That followed on from 4 horse deaths in 2017 and 7 the year before. The deaths led to an investigation by the British Horseracing Authority, which published recommendations of how it felt the Prestbury Park course could make certainly changes to improve safety.
Cheltenham Racecourse took those recommendations on board and made a number of changes ahead of the Festival this year. The reward was an overall improvement in equine safety, though the BHA’s Director of Equine Health and Welfare, David Sykes, did an interview with ITV and confirmed that it was close to impossible to stop some ‘catastrophic injuries’ from happening. One such incident happened to Sir Eric, who had to be re-shoed ahead of the Triumph Hurdle but needed to be euthanised after suffering an injury early in the race.
Those that are concerned about the state of equine safety at Cheltenham will hardly be appeased by the statement that ‘only’ 3 horses died this year, but the BHA and the racecourse itself will feel as though there’s only a certain amount that can be done. Horse racing is an inherently risky sport, with the risk at a jump meeting even higher than its flat racing equivalent.
Sir Eric had been given a full set of x-rays a couple of days before the race and was given a clean bill of health by the on-course vets, but if a horse damages a leg then they need to be put down because they can’t carry their own weight on the other 3 legs. The debate will rage on, but Cheltenham’s organisers and the BHA will feel that they did everything they could this year.
Emotions Ran High Throughout The Week
The Cheltenham Festival always seems to bring out the best in the world of horse racing and this year lived up to that expectation. The first race of the week provided its first emotional moment when Jo Coleman, the owner of Klassical Dream revealed that she had brought her husband’s ashes along to the meeting in her handbag. John Coleman died last summer when he lost his fight with bone marrow cancer, but his widow was determined to ensure that he got to fulfil his dream of seeing one of his horses win a race at Prestbury Park’s March meeting when his horse won the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. After not missing a Festival for more than 20 years, it was a fitting moment.
Another moment filled with emotion occurred when Paisley Park ran home as the winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle. The horse had once been so ill that it wasn’t expected to leave the vets, but eventually he recovered and trainer Emma Lavelle was able to get him back on the racecourse. His owner, Andrew Gemmell, has to get updates on how the horse is doing from friends and the on-course commentary team because he’s been blind since birth, so he won’t have felt all that confident when his horse was 8 lengths away from the leader as they headed into the straight. In the end he won by nearly 3 lengths, ensuring there was barely a dry eye in the house.
The Battle With The Bookies & Other Trivia
In the battle between bookies and punters the bookies just about won, thanks to a number of favourites failing to live up to their expectations.
Days 2 and 3 looked as though they might favour the bettors, but in the end the scales swung in the favour of the bookmakers, with 5 of the 7 winners on the final day coming home with double-digit odds.
It always strikes me as slightly counter-intuitive that bookies want the horses with the longer odds to win, but whilst they might have to pay out more to a select few that have opted for a 50 or 60 to 1 horse it will still be less than if a 7/2 favourite that everyone has backed comes home.
For those that like pool betting the exciting story of the week was the lucku punter who won just shy of £190,000 on a £2 bet when his Tote Placepot selection come home. They can count themselves lucky that more punters didn’t pull off something similar when you consider that this year saw a record Festival attendance. The numbers for each day as well as their corresponding number from last year can be seen here:
|Day||Attendance 2019||Attendance 2018||Difference|
|St. Patrick’s Day||67,821||66,382||1,439|
|Gold Cup Day||71,816||70,684||1,132|
Information taken from the Jockey Club.