Cheltenham Festival Review -- 11 Things We Learned

GOLD CUP HEROES -- Bobs Worth returns to the winner's enclosure with jubilant jockey Barry Geraghty (PHOTO BY: David Davies/PA Wire).
GOLD CUP HEROES -- Bobs Worth returns to the winner's enclosure with jubilant jockey Barry Geraghty (PHOTO BY: David Davies/PA Wire).

As the dust settles on another magnificent Cheltenham Festival, our resident racing expert, Richard Silverwood (Scoop Racing) looks back and comes up with 11 things we learned from the meeting.

1. Cheltenham is as unforgiving as it is unforgettable

For most of us, Cheltenham was all about basking in a heady cocktail of quality racing and over-indulgent socialising. As always, it was unforgettable.

But the 2013 Festival also told us that the occasion can be equally, cruelly unforgiving.

As I write, Irish amateur jockey JT McNamara remains seriously ill in hospital after a fall from Galaxy Rock on the third day.

His plight cast a dark shadow not only over Gold Cup day 24 hours later but also the entire meeting. Only three weeks before the Grand National, it was a chilling reminder of the danger jockeys expose themselves to in the name of our entertainment.

It also put into perspective the disaster that befell another Irish amateur, Jane Mangan, who was unshipped within yards of the line when heading for victory on Oscar Delta in the Foxhunters’ Chase.

Mangan is a fine, up-and-coming pilot who will have another day. Let’s hope the same can be said for McNamara.

2. Nicky Henderson is a master of his trade

Who could have imagined a Festival in which the big-gun trainers of Paul Nicholls, David Pipe and Philip Hobbs would saddle only one winner among them?

Nicholls even had to wait until the penultimate race for that -- Salubrious in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle.

Hit horses did not run too badly on the whole. But the masterful performance of Nicky Henderson confirmed that he will usurp the Ditcheat chief as champion trainer this season.

Following up his amazing tally of seven winners at last season’s Festival, Henderson sent out four more, including the equine stars of the week, Sprinter Sacre and Bobs Worth, plus two seconds, two thirds, two fourths and nine other horses who finished in the first six.

3. Bobs Worth is tailor-made for the Gold Cup

Ever since he stepped on a racecourse, Bobs Worth has shown attributes that are tailor-made for the demands of trhe Cheltenham Gold Cup. Guts, grit, grind and a never-say-die attitude combined with deep reserves of stamina. Plus, of course, a touch of class.

Described memorably by Alastair Down, of the ‘Racing Post’, as a stealth bomber of a chaser, he defied fears that only one run outside novice company and none at all since November would scupper his chances.

OK, he was made favourite. But his achievement in becoming the first horse ever to win three different Grade One races at the Festival should not be under-estimated.

4. Sprinter Sacre is as good as it gets

Supporters of the likes of Flyingbolt and Badsworth Boy will relish comparison but for the current generation, the beauty of the beast, Sprinter Sacre, is as good as it gets.

At long last, the gorgeous-looking seven-year-old was given a true test as former champion, Sizing Europe, did his best to stretch the field in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

But Nicky Henderson’s charge swept by him as if he wasn’t there to sail 19 lengths clear and take more giant strides towards being crowned the greatest 2m chaser the Festival has ever seen.

5. Our Conor is surely a champion in the making

Vying with Sprinter Sacre (and maybe Cue Card) for the performance of the week was a juvenile hurdler sired by a winner (Jeremy) of the 7f Jersey Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Our Conor might not have fitted the mould of a standard Triumph Hurdle winner. And because it’s so rare for five-year-olds to win the race, he might not fit the trends bill in next season’s Champion Hurdle either.

But he is the real deal on the evidence of his imperious display to demolish a high-quality field and is surely a champion in the making.

Although Hurricane Fly deserves huge credit for becoming the first horse since 1975 to regain his crown, he will be ten years old come the 2014 renewal, while none of this season’s other protagonists look capable of upping their games. Our Conor’s strongest opponents could well be My Tent Or Yours, expensive but gallant failure in the Supreme Novices, and The New One, impressive winner of the Neptune.

6. First Lieutenant and Dynaste contested the wrong races

Unlike many fellow Tweeters, I don’t make a habit of telling trainers how to do their jobs. But surely the connections of First Lieutenant and Dynaste made the wrong decisions in switching their fancies to races over shorter trips.

Until the final day, the ground was nowhere near as testing as predicted. So First Lieutenant should have run in the Gold Cup, where on all known form, particularly at the Festival last year, he must have gone close, and Dynaste should have run in the RSA Chase, in which he boasted a crystal-clear favourite’s chance.

Instead the former went for the Ryanair because the owners had Sir Des Champs in the Blue Riband event, while the latter went for the Jewson because connections had cold feet after the flop of stablemate Grands Crus in last year’s RSA.

Not surprisingly, both were outpaced and both ended up second.

7. Many good, young jockeys are emerging fast

As someone who feels that the established ‘second tier’ of jockeys, containing the likes of Richard Johnson, Robert Thornton and Tom Scudamore, is wildly over-rated, I found it uplifting to note a host of up-and-coming riders enjoying success at the 2013 Festival.

You will have to travel to many meetings and watch umpteen races to witness a worse ride than that given by Johnson on Reve De Sivola in the World Hurdle. On a horse that revels in stamina tests, he chose to restrain him in second off a modest gallop on drying ground. As a result, Nick Williams’s stable star was hopelessly outspeeded from some way out.

In contrast, the likes of Bryan Cooper, Sam Twiston-Davies, Brendan Powell, Harry Derham, Wayne Hutchinson, Ryan Hatch, Richie McLernon and Liam Treadwell gave peaches of rides to winners during the week.

Walsh, McCoy and Geraghty remain the elite trio. But behind them, a changing of the guard is looming.

8. The quality of Irish jumps racing cannot be ignored

Having never been advertised or promoted as a team competition, it was somewhat galling to see the Festival branded a victory for the Irish because they sent out more winners (14 to 13) than the UK.

But it’s a synthetic scorecard that is worth heeding. If only to underline the quality of the jumps racing on offer in Ireland.

We constantly hear moans that Sunday racing in this country is not strong enough. They forget that Sunday belongs to Ireland where their meetings can no longer be ignored by any serious punters.

9. The Non-Runner-No-Bet window is the best thing since sliced bread

The array of offers for punters from the big bookies during the 2013 Festival was mindblowing.

But none matched that old chestnut, the non-runner-no-bet window, in the days leading up to the meeting.

It enabled punters to ride carte blanche through the multiple-declaration confusion and pile in on as many bets, at meaty odds, as was financially feasible.

Of the major firms, only Hills refused to join in the shindig. Let’s hope they don’t start a trend.

10. All hail the frost covers!

There were some justified grumblings when the prediction by clerk of the course Simon Claisse that the meeting would start and end on Soft ground proved unfounded.

Until it rained on Gold Cup day, both visual impressions and official times suggested Prestbury Park was riding nearer to Good.

However, all criticism was safely countered by the management of Claisse and his team of the ropey weather.

Without doubt, as recently as five years ago, the first three days of the meeting would have been abandoned because of the severe overnight frosts, thus costing the industry millions.

But Cheltenham got every call spot-on in their efforts to protect the track. All hail the frost covers!

10. The Festival handicaps are booming

Post-Festival, it has amused me how those who struggled to find winners have lambasted the Festival handicaps as impossible to solve.

Tom Segal, Pricewise of the ‘Racing Post’, went so far as to label them “equine bingo” and reverted to his mardiest of modes to try and explain away his sub-standard tipping performance.

Personally, I find the handicaps fascinating. Richly competitive and vibrant, they are head-scratching puzzles, yes. But that’s how it should be. This is Cheltenham.