Matt Tombs / Monday 16th March 2015 / 16:54
The Festival kicked off on a glorious spring afternoon and the ground had dried out after the course had missed the rain over the previous few days. It was described by leading jockeys as on the dead side of good, and the times varied. Every race was run in a slower time than on the good, quick ground of 2014, implying the jockeys’ description was right.
It looked a cracking Champion Hurdle beforehand and didn’t disappoint. I can’t ever recall a horse turning up in the Champion Hurdle that was not only unbeaten, but had never even been a battle. Faugheen had threatened to be something exceptional and he dominated a crack field beating Arctic Fire by 1½l with the rest well beaten off.
We’ve seen any number of brilliant front running rides from Ruby Walsh in recent years but this was arguably the best. With his main opponents dependent on an end-to-end gallop Ruby set uneven fractions and then sprinted away between the final 2 hurdles. (The tactics looked similar to those Conor O’Dwyer used on outsider Hardy Eustace to dethrone Rooster Booster in 2004.)
He showed an electric turn of foot here and the suspicion is that had there been a faster gallop he might have won further. I can’t ever recall a Champion Hurdle winner who started in a point and he looks freakishly good. Whilst he isn’t a really fluent hurdler, he lands with momentum, so it doesn’t really matter. It would be no surprise to see him build the sort of record to earn comparison with the great Istabraq over the next couple of seasons – he really looks that good. 6/4 to retain his crown is about right.
Only Arctic Fire put up any real resistance and he would unquestionably have preferred a faster gallop to quicken off, (Willie Mullins suggested he was still short of peak fitness here.) He’s developing into the top class horse Willie has always thought he would be and it would be fascinating to see how he’d get on against Faugheen off an end-to-end gallop. My guess is that the result would be the same, and I was happy enough with the 33/1 each-way return.
The other horse that benefitted from the steady gallop was Hurricane Fly, who excels at sprinting off a crawl. Whilst there was more juice in the ground than last year, it was still quicker than he likes and he put a sound effort to be beaten 6½l. His good, but not spectacular record in the Champion, (two wins, two 3rds and a 4th,) shouldn’t distract from his overall profile as a genuinely great horse.
I was glad I resisted the temptation to back the ‘each-way bet to nothing’ Jezki as connections looked to get the tactics badly wrong again. Given he needs such a strong gallop, it was inexplicable that they didn’t even try to use a pacemaker, (Plinth was unable to go quick enough in the Irish Champion.) He was predictably too keen and then had to try and sprint too early to keep tabs on Faugheen, which in AP McCoy’s point of view cost him 2nd. He made all to beat Hurricane Fly at Punchestown last season, and that might be an option to try and beat Faugheen this time.
The New One had had 4 races against modest opposition this season because of the paucity of good 2m hurdlers in Britain. It’s therefore still not easy to assess how good he is. Those who thought he got done for toe coming down the hill last season look to be vindicated here. Perhaps an excuse will emerge but it looks as if he’s just below the best of a strong generation. He’s a medium sized horse, but ought to have the scope to jump a fence – that might be the best route for him next season.
The day kicked off with a small field of 12 in the Supreme and it looked a weak renewal in terms of depth. Two horses stood out but L’Ami Serge never travelled according to Barry Geraghty. He also got hampered when Seedling fell and suffered traffic problems later, but this was disappointing. His form is all on soft ground, though his breeding doesn’t suggest he needs it. He apparently steps up to 2m4f at Aintree next and the jury’s out for now.
That left Douvan with an obvious chance and he obliged in good style. He’d won 2 races on the bridle in Ireland and had been talked up hugely by connections, (Ruby saying he has more gears than Vautour). As is often the case, the Mullins yard vibes were right and he won easily by 4½l. His breeding suggests he might want soft ground and it was encouraging that he handled conditions so well, recording the best time of the day off a strong gallop.
Douvan doesn’t yet look the finished article either physically or in his racing style, (keen early on,) and there should be plenty of improvement to come. He’s a chaser in the making and if Faugheen stays sound, you’d imagine Douvan will be aimed at the Arkle next year. He looks a cracking prospect but 4/1 isn’t a betting proposition.
The field was more than usually full of horses that looked more about next year, including Willie Mullins 3 other runners. Shaneshill had been held up since his defeat over 2m4f by No More Heroes in December and ran a blinder in the circumstances to be 4½l 2nd. He’ll presumably stay hurdling and it’ll be interesting to see what trip he’s campaigned over next season.
Willie had been talking about Tell Us More in the same breath as Douvan earlier in the season, but he was turned over at odds-on in a Grade 1 at Naas and reportedly hadn’t sparkled at home since. He jumped and travelled but found little. He’ll stay further and will presumably try and get back on track over fences next season. He’s one to be open-minded about.
Alvisio Ville is a big shell of a horse and having been far too keen in the Deloitte last time, this looked an opportunity to educate him with the future in mind. He clearly has lots of ability and is another who will come into his own as a novice chaser, though whether that is next season might depend on how he does physically over the summer.
Sizing John had won what became a weak Grade 1 at Christmas after Nichols Canyon tipped up, and was unfancied here, but ran a sound race to be 7l 3rd, looking to enjoy the better ground. He’s another who is likely to be chasing sooner rather than later.
I’d expected watching my main bet of the week, Un De Sceaux in the Arkle, to be a white-knuckle ride – but in the end it was all plain sailing. Whilst he sweated up, the occasion didn’t look to get to him as much as many feared. He was still a bit keen, but he measured his fences really well and set a quick pace but not a throat-cutter. He never looked like tipping up as he outclassed the field, making virtually all and quickening clear on the run in to win easily by 6l.
He looked to have loads more in the tank and it was very much a question of Ruby Walsh minimising the chances of anything going wrong. Contrary to popular belief, I think being ridden prominently is an advantage in 2m chases, and 7/4 for the Champion Chase looks fair – he’s a cut above any 2m chaser around. He’s a great advert for watching racing and I can’t wait to see him again.
God's Own brought a high level of form from his Haldon win off 155. He doesn’t look to like the winter and bounced back here, despite again giving the impression he’d prefer to go right-handed. He stays further and the Ryanair looks more his race for next season, though it’ll be interesting to see if the King George comes under consideration.
Josses Hill had shown a real engine in his 3 previous chases, which were blighted by deliberate jumping. He was better here but he still didn’t look a natural. It’ll be interesting to see which way he goes. Vibrato Valtat tried to put it up to the winner and paid the price, fading up the hill. It might be that a test of speed on a flat track will suit him best, but it’s hard to see him as a Champion Chase contender.
The 4 miler used to be my lucky race at the Festival and it was nice to finally get the winner again with Cause Of Causes. Jockey bookings are so crucial in these amateur races and on this occasion I remembered that. Jamie Codd gave him a typical classy ride, allowing him to creep into the race and show his relative turn of foot late on.
The Mares Hurdle looked like it might provide Armageddon for the bookmakers when Annie Power burst clear approaching the final flight. The Mullins/Walsh 4 timer that was in so many accumulators came to grief when she stood off at the last and came down. If you were one of the many that backed it, you were really unlucky. Fortunately, she emerged unscathed – lets hope she’s back for a championship race, not this, next season. Glens Melody picked up the pieces.
In the open 3m1f handicap chase The Druid’s Nephew had looked a different horse since joining Neil Mulholland this season. He ran out a good winner off 146 and looks to get further. He heads for the National, and whilst I’m normally against horses who’ve had a hard race at Cheltenham there, he looked to win with a bit in hand.
The novices handicap chase, (2m4½f,) was won by Irish Cavalier off 137. He’s more of a stayer than the typical winner of this and might be one for the Hennessy next season.