Andy Holding has reviewed the 2020 Cheltenham Festival and picked out some horses to keep on side for the future
Tuesday March 10th
Supreme Novices' Hurdle – Captain Guinness
Most of the column inches for the curtain-raiser have been written about Shishkin and, to a lesser degree, Abacadabras, but of those vanquished, Captain Guinness is the other who deserves to come heavily under the microscope.
Hugely impressive when landing a novice hurdle at Navan on his debut, Henry De Bromhead’s talented novice was thrust straight in to Grade 2 company at Punchestown on his next outing to see whether he was good enough to mix it at a higher level and, although he came out on the wrong side of a battle with Andy Dufresne, he left little doubt he had a very bright future. Very keen through the early stages of that contest, the main objective for Rachel Blackmore in the Supreme was to try and get her mount to settle and save as much energy as possible and, courtesy of a very strong gallop, the son of Arakan was more amenable to restraint.
Still travelling as well as anything on the run down the hill to the third last, the five-year-old was badly impeded by Asterion Forlonges jumping violently out to his right. He was also hampered when the wayward front-runner virtually knocked over Elixir D’Ainay at the very next hurdle, leaving him nowhere to go when brought down by Willie Mullins’ second string. How he would have figured in the final analysis is anyone’s guess but, given that he hadn’t been asked for maximum effort at the time, it is safe to draw the conclusion he would have been involved in the finish in some way. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see what route connections choose for the lightly-raced gelding next season because on this evidence he could easily make up into a live Champion Hurdle prospect if he continues to improve at his current rate.
Northern Trust Company Handicap Chase – Galvin
Laid out by connections for this race following three runs over fences pre-Christmas, Gordon Elliot’s gelding was unlucky to bump into a similarly well-handicapped novice on the day in the shape of Imperial Aura but, given that he still managed to finish some way clear of the rest, it strongly suggests compensation awaits in the not too distant future. Hampered at the first fence, the son of Gold Well wasn’t able to obtain the early position his jockey Davy Russell would have wished for and, as a result, he was always left to play catch up. The fact Galvin ended up being the only one of the horses ridden from the back of the field to make any discernible ground in the latter stages makes his performance even more meritorious and considering the ground wasn’t exactly ideal for him either, it suggests he still remains well treated even off his new rating of 147. The six-year-old would be an extremely interesting contender should connections target something like the Bet Victor Gold Cup back at Cheltenham in November.
Wednesday March 11
Ballymore Novices' Hurdle – The Big Getaway
Ultimately, Envoi Allen ended up being an extremely impressive winner of this Grade 1 event, but some of the plaudits should also be afforded to Willie Mullins’ gelding for making it such a stern test and ensuring the winner worked harder than his pre-race price suggested.
Arriving at the Festival following a victory at a fairly low level at Naas, it was difficult to gauge what the son of Getaway would be capable of achieving in a much tougher environment, but he rose to the challenge in spectacular fashion and he is very much one for the future. Although fading late on, his early fractions meant the race was run in one of the fastest furlong-per-furlong times of the entire week and considering this was achieved by a horse who ostensibly is a three-mile chaser in the making, his career path is definitely worth monitoring closely.
Coral Cup – Alfa Mix
One of the main surprises in a typically competitive renewal was to find Gavin Cromwell’s improving hurdler making the running given he had previously been an effective hold-up performer so, in the circumstances, he probably did well to hang tough as long as he did. Racing a little keener than his pilot was willing to allow in the early stages, it was noticeable the son of Fair Mix was still travelling powerfully jumping two out and, even when he was joined approaching the last, it still appeared he might have enough juice left in the tank to play a part in the finish. Unfortunately, this failed to materialise and he ended up fading into seventh place, however that shouldn’t subtract from the fact he exhibited a huge amount of natural flare and ability for nine tenths of the journey. Hopefully, the five-year-old will be allowed to return to his old run style in future and if so this lightly-raced sort can show he remains a very progressive handicapper.
Champion Bumper – Appreciate It
Sent off one of the warmest favourites for this contest in recent times, everything seemed to be going according to plan for the Willie Mullins-trained market leader until stablemate, Ferny Hollow, spoiled the party late on. That said, one of the abiding memories of day two was the way in which the son of Jeremy swept into the lead rounding the home turn to a chorus of cheers from the partisan crowd and it was only the superior turn of foot by the winner close home that made the difference in the final analysis. Long term, the strapping six-year-old looks a three-mile chase all day long but, as he is likely to have one more season over hurdles, next year’s Ballymore Novices' Hurdle already has his name written all over it and he could be worth a small interest at 16-1 even at this early stage.
Thursday March 12
Marsh Novices Chase – Mister Fisher
A race remembered for the terrific finish between the big Irish trio, Samcro, Melon and Faugheen, but it would be unwise not to pay homage to the effort by the fourth, Mister Fisher, who didn’t quite get the rub of the green in what turned out to be an extremely well-run affair.
Because the gallop was so solid, particularly on the final circuit (significantly faster than Min in the Ryanair), accurate jumping and track position were essential to stay in touch with the pace-setters (first three home filled those positions throughout) and although Nicky Henderson’s inmate wasn’t especially scruffy over his fences, there were just one or two mistakes here and there (most noticeably the fifth and the first ditch) that meant Nico De Boinville couldn’t quite get his mount into the box seat just behind the speed. The son of Jeremy did, however, travel with his usual sense of purpose throughout and he stayed on with enough spring in his step up the hill to suggest he probably ran close to a career high. Whether he ends up staying in this lane or dropping back to two miles remains to be seen (connections were toying with the Arkle on Day One), but either way, the six-year-old has to be a consideration for all the big Grade 1 contests when conditions are in his favour.
Pertemps Final – Relegate and Third Wind
One of the ante-post gambles of the race, unfortunately, Colm Murphy’s mare never had a chance to land the punt due to her run-style and in accordance to how the race panned out. Without being break-neck, the tempo was honest throughout the early stages, but on the final circuit, that’s when the gas was really turned on and it meant those who were held up towards the rear of the field were at a distinct disadvantage. Only one behind her at the top of the hill, she somehow managed to work herself into a challenging position on the run down to the last, but unfortunately, the laws of physics took over and that lung-bursting effort she put in took its toll up the hill and she could only plug on at the one-pace for fifth. That said, even in getting beaten eight lengths, her final circuit sectionals still came out miles better than those posted by Lisnagar Oscar and Co in the Grade 1 Stayers Hurdle an hour later and that strongly suggests that the seven-year-old ran about as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Probably better served by ground even softer than she encountered at Prestbury Park, she still has time, as well as low-mileage, on her side to recover the losses at some stage down the line.
Third Wind is another who’s afforded great credit with his fourth-placed effort and considering he came out with his head held high in a race totally dominated by the Irish contingent, he’s worth noting when UK racing finally returns. Kept fresh since landing a qualifier at Wincanton back in December, Hughie Morrison’s inmate was one of the few to make any sort of inroads from the back of the field and it was a performance that strongly lent itself to the notion that he also remains on a very workable mark of 141.
Friday March 13
County Hurdle – Embittered and Buildmeupbuttercup
As we know, it can be an awful long way home for those on the sharp end of a strong pace on the New Course at Cheltenham, so a special mention goes out to the former of the pair highlighted in this viciously-competitive heat.
Always handy, Joseph O’Brien’s gelding tugged his way to the front going well on the approach to two out and although he still held every chance at the last, his early exertions unsurprisingly took effect on the long run to the line and he ended up just about clinging on for third. Just to put in to context his performance, however, it’s worth pointing out that the other pair that jousted for the early lead, Pakens Rock and Le Ligerien both dropped out the back of the TV to finish 20th and 23rd respectively, so the mere fact that he managed to hang tough as long as he did is testimony to his sheer ability. Raised just 2lb for this sterling effort, when the facts suggest he could, and perhaps should, have been pushed up even higher, the six-year-old has plenty of time on his hands to make hay in similar handicaps at a future date.
Buildmeupbuttercup travelled as well as anything going down to the last, but not for the first time she didn’t find as much as anticipated and she ended up just keeping on at the one-pace for fourth. Clearly talented but at the same time a little frustrating, Willie Mullins’ mare, however, has too much ability to ever be considered as a disappointing sort, it’s just a question of connections working out the right tactics to employ in order to get the best out of her in future.
Grand Annual – Chosen Mate and Éclair De Beaufeu
Gordon Elliot enjoyed an unbelievable week at this year’s Festival and his dominance was never more optimised by his one-two in this ultra-competitive handicap chase.
Whether it was rolling-on money in the offices or punters’ just playing up their winnings and going with the Co Meath handler blind, everyone seemed to know what was about to happen prior to this usually tricky-to-solve puzzle and in the end, the seismic gamble was landed in some style by a horse who was difficult to assess in many respects having only had three starts over fences prior to shipping up at the Festival. The way the son of Well Chosen seemingly just jumped into the action travelling like the proverbial mustang two out was the feature of the race, and although he made a proper Horlicks of the last, he had that much in hand it didn’t really matter. Bumped up to a rating of 156 by the assessor subsequently, whether the seven-year-old has what it takes to drag himself out of handicap company and compete at a higher level remains to be seen, but at least he has time on his side, and given his current rate of improvement, it wouldn’t come as the biggest shock in the world if that were to end up being the case.
In any normal year, the runner-up would have ended up a seriously impressive winner in his own right, so you’d have to mark up the Monitor Closely gelding quite significantly on this performance. He too, travelled and jumped throughout the contest like a well-handicapped horse and although he stayed on just as stronger as the winner on the run-in, his momentary lack of a gear change when his stable mate dive-bombed him two out ultimately cost him dear. A consistent and honest type who landed a big pot on his previous start at Leopardstown’s Dublin Festival meeting, the six-year-old is gathering up a body of work which makes for impressive reading, and its shame Aintree’s Grand National meeting has been cancelled as he looked tailor made for the Red Rum Chase around the sharp turns of the Liverpool-based venue. Alternatively, he may be one for the big two-mile handicap at Punchestown if that meeting gets the green light