Seven things we learned from the Cheltenham Festival 2014

PRAISE THE LORD -- Lord Windermere (right), ridden by Davy Russell and trained by Jim Culloty, pips On His Own to victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup (PHOTO BY: David Davies/PA Wire)
PRAISE THE LORD -- Lord Windermere (right), ridden by Davy Russell and trained by Jim Culloty, pips On His Own to victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup (PHOTO BY: David Davies/PA Wire)

Now the dust has settled on another magnificent, dramatic Cheltenham Festival, here is the verdict of our resident racing expert RICHARD SILVERWOOD, who was there for all four days of the meeting.

1. Channel 4 is right to brand Jumps racing as the “original extreme sport”

Viewing figures continue to decline alarmingly since Channel 4 gained exclusive rights to TV coverage of racing.

But the channel’s controversial branding of the Jumps as “the original extreme sport” was justified by the brutal, near-to-the-knuckle action served up at Cheltenham this year.

Races run at a hurtling pace did not only yield a string of pulsating finishes but also severe injuries to top jockeys such as Ruby Walsh, Daryl Jacob and Bryan Cooper, coupled with the sad and tragic deaths of four horses.

Cooper’s broken leg was described by one doctor as the worst lower-limb injury he had ever seen. It directly led to one of the equine fatalities because the fall he sustained on CLARCAM in the Fred Winter brought down the ill-fated AKDAM.

Jacob’s freakish ejection from PORT MELON as he was going down to the start for the Albert Bartlett came only a couple of hours after his stirrup leather had broken in the closing stages of the Triumph, robbing him of possible victory on CALIPTO.

Walsh had broken his arm earlier in that same Triumph in a fall almost as horrific as the one later in the day that claimed the life of Alan King’s chaser, RAYA STAR.

And with no disrespect to STACK THE DECK, who had to be put down after going lame during the Bumper, last year’s runaway Triumph winner, OUR CONOR, was the highest-profile casualty of the week, marring one of the most eagerly anticipated Champion Hurdles for many moons.

The accident was hardly what owner Barry Connell deserved after he had donated the brilliant five-year-old’s winnings from the previous year to charity. Ironically, that charity supports stricken jockeys.

Whether Jumps racing is pleased with its “extreme sport” tag is a matter for debate. The casualty-list at Cheltenham underlines how it must tiptoe through the minefield of health and safety in the coming years.

As Davy Russell said after riding LORD WINDERMERE to victory in the Gold Cup: “Getting injured is only a stride away. That’s the line we live on.”

Distinguishing between equine suffering and human suffering is a dangerous business, however. As Ruby Walsh found out after his comments about the death of Our Conor on the opening day of the Festival.

Like father Ted, who was hired by Channel 4 to try and boost its ratings last week, Ruby is refreshingly open and honest. But suggesting that horses, unlike humans, can be easily replaced, did not go down well.

No doubt, his views were uttered with the memory still fresh in his mind of the catastrophic fall at last year’s Festival of fellow Irish rider JT McNamara, who was left paralysed.

However, they were unnecessary at best, crass and insensitive at worst, and always likely to be misconstrued by non-racing people.

Extreme sport or not, the day racing gives the general public the impression that racehorses are dispensable is the day it is gone at the game.

2. Prestbury Park punting was at its most perilous

The general consensus among serious punters was that the 2014 Cheltenham Festival was one of the toughest of recent times.

Record-breaking mare QUEVEGA was the only favourite to be sent off odds-on. And although two of Willie Mullins’s novice hurdlers, the seriously impressive VAUTOUR and FAUGHEEN, delivered the goods, several other strong fancies bit the dust, most notably ANNIE POWER, HURRICANE FLY, CHAMPAGNE FEVER, IRVING, BRIAR HILL and BOBS WORTH.

It is also worth noting that many of the much-trumpeted trends attached to some of the races failed to stand up.

Mind you, if you failed to make the Festival pay, you were in good company because the Racing Post’s celebrated tipster, Tom Segal, endured what can only be described as a disaster. Of 26 selections he made during the week, not one won. And of 13 ante-post tips he had advised, just one went in. More Cheerless Pricewise than Peerless Pricewise.

I am sure one of the reasons it was so hard to find winners was the state of the ground, which rode far quicker than expected and bore no resemblance to that encountered for most of the winter.

From a personal perspective, I am not quite sure how I managed to skimp, scrape and salvage a tiny profit from the meeting after four days of rollercoaster results.

I was reasonably happy with my published pre-meeting analysis of the action. But too many of my main bets failed to go in, particularly in the big races, and I was reduced to picking up scraps from elsewhere.

Gold Cup Day was carnage for most, with the final race, the Grand Annual, summing up my fortunes. Of the quartet who jumped the last in with a chance, I had backed three each/way. The other one, SAVELLO, got to the line first.

Such are the fine margins between winning and losing at the Festival. Had he jumped the last flight properly, I am sure our selection, MY TENT OR YOURS, would have won the Champion Hurdle. Similarly, had KATGARY not been hampered from the second last, I am sure he’d have won the Fred Winter. Instead both were two of a string of seconds I had to endure through gritted teeth.

Incidentally, one or two of you have been kind enough to remind me that WESTERN WARHORSE, the shock 33/1 winner of the Arkle, was actually one of my horses to follow at the start of the season. Fat lot of good it did me!

3. How difficult it is to retain or regain the championship crowns

It is crystal clear that the reigns of Best Mate, Istabraq and Kauto Star flattered us. For the 2014 Festival reverted to historical type and emphasised how difficult it is to retain, or regain, the championship crowns.

Injury and illness had already robbed SPRINTER SACRE and CUE CARD of the chance of doubling up in the Champion Chase and Ryanair Chase respectively.

While HURRICANE FLY, BIG BUCK’S and BOBS WORTH were thwarted in their bids for repeat glory.

The onset of age offsetting speed was almost certainly the key factor in the eclipse of the legends trained by Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls. But the demise of Nicky Henderson’s Gold Cup holder, on ground expected to suit and on a track where he has never been beaten, was not as easy to explain.

A curious race threw up a most unlikely 1-2-3, and it comes as no surprise to hear of talk at Timeform that LORD WINDERMERE will be the lowest rated winner since Master Smudge way back in 1980. Notwithstanding the fact that he loves genuinely Good ground, Jim Culloty’s eight-year-old had been well beaten by most of his rivals in three previous starts this term.

Turning in to the home straight, it looked nailed on that the contest would fall to one of the two market leaders. But my theory is that Bobs Worth put so much effort into getting past SILVINIACO CONTI, and that the latter put so much into fending him off (connections no doubt terrified of the stat that once Henderson’s horse hits the front, he always wins) that they ended up sacrificing each other’s chances and both curled up on the run-in up the hill.

4. The big guns didn’t have it all their own way

Given that the powerhouse yards of Willie Mullins, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson were expected to dominate the meeting, their combined return of only six winners does not leap off the page.

OK, Mullins ended up leading trainer again with his four victories complemented by no fewer than six seconds, two thirds and seven fourths.

While both Nicholls (16) and Henderson (15) also saddled plenty who came home in the first six.

But there was lots of room at the top table for other protagonists, underlining the rich competitiveness of the Festival.

David Pipe and Jonjo O’Neill proved how important it is to plot specific Festival targets by celebrating three winners apiece. In contrast, Venetia Williams, who has been making hay in the mud all winter, mustered a measly £2,010 in prize money from one sixth place, while Jim Culloty, who had not trained a single winner for more than six months, suddenly bagged two, including the biggest prize of all, the Gold Cup!

It could be argued that the monopoly on prize money was more noticeable among the high-roller owners, with JP McManus, Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud, Rich Ricci and Graham Wylie filling four of the six top slots.

But given the amount of financial investment this quartet pump into racing, who could justifiably deny them their Cheltenham glory?

The admirable JP celebrated no fewer than 11 horses in the first three, while O’Leary masterminded an unprecedented four-timer on Gold Cup Day.

Mind you, neither could match fellow Irish owner Dr Ronan Lambe. The diminutive, rotund veteran sent three horses to the meeting -- and all returned home winners.

One of those winners, Gold Cup hero LORD WINDERMERE, formed part of another treble -- for jockey Davy Russell.

Russell was one of four riders who booted home three winners at the meeting. But Ruby Walsh landed the top jockey title again,even though he ended up in hospital.

Nine of Walsh’s 15 mounts finished in the top four, confirming his status as the best jockey of his generation. Mind you, only a whisker behind is Barry Geraghty, whose magnificent horsemanship throughout the week was a pleasure to witness, never more so than on Champion Hurdler JEZKI, with whom he now has a flawless record of five from five.

5. It’s not only the Grand National that produces heartwarming stories

The Grand National has, for too long, held the template for producing amazing, heartwarming personal stories attached to the winner.

The 2014 Festival proved that Cheltenham also has plenty stored among the hills that envelop the famous track.

Davy Russell’s is the obvious one. He rode a treble on Gold Cup Day only a year after puncturing his lung at the same meeting and only weeks after losing his job as the number one rider for the Gigginstown House Stud. Had he not been sacked, he would have been riding LAST INSTALMENT in the big race, instead of LORD WINDERMERE.

Fellow Irish pilot Robbie McNamara conjured up similar joy from the depths of adversity. For he won the very race, the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir, in which his cousin, JT McNamara, was so devastatingly injured 12 months ago.

And let’s not forget Jim Culloty, who became only the fourth person in history to have ridden and trained a Gold Cup winner -- at a time when racing is still mourning the death of Terry Biddlecombe, the man who played such a huge role in the success of his Blue Riband mount, Best Mate?

However, few back-stories can beat that surrounding TAMMYS HILL, brilliant winner of the Foxhunters.

Right up to the 11th hour, connections were adamant the nine-year-old was not coming over from Ireland to Cheltenham because he suffers badly from travel sickness.

But buoyed no doubt by the fact that he boasted just about the best form in the race, they changed their minds and embarked on a marathon journey. First by ferry and then by road, taking in stops every couple of hours to keep the horse calm and hydrated.

Most of the stops were at service stations, but one was an impromptu diversion into a farmer’s field where Tammys pinched a bit of grass. To quell the farmer’s anger, they had to tell him the horse would win at Cheltenham.

Not only did he do just that, he also provided amateur jockey James Smyth with victory on his first ride at the course and trainer Liam Lennon with a memorable triumph almost ten years to the day since he rode Tammys Hill’s dam, Hillside Lass, to victory in a point at Dundalk!

You couldn’t make it up!

6. Cheltenham quality could expand to a fifth day

This was surely the Festival that nailed, once and for all, the myth that the addition of a fourth day in 2009 has diluted the quality of the meeting.

With the possible exception of the Kim Muir for amateur riders, quality oozed from every orifice of every race.

For example, the Martin Pipe, one of the new contests introduced five years ago, was as good a 2m4f/5f handicap hurdle as you will find anywhere in the UK or Ireland all season.

Much has been made of creating another race to give the Thursday its full quota of seven. But I would not be averse to creating another day and reducing the quota for each to six -- once the course’s much-needed redevelopment has bedded in.

As things stand, the meeting is a heaving, headlong, non-stop rush, before, during and after racing. Distilling the action would make each day more manageable and more relaxing without damaging the fare on offer.

The need to find three new races would not be too difficult. A 2m4f championship event for hurdlers is long overdue and would certainly have nipped in the bud the long-running speculation surrounding ANNIE POWER’s target last week.

A novice handicap hurdle would replicate the success of the Fred Winter for juveniles, while a second Bumper would make sense to accommodate the rapidly increasing programme for mares.

The only drawback might be that this trio of races would be stepping on the toes of Sandown’s meeting immediately before Cheltenham and Aintree’s three weeks after.

7. Nostalgia came a close second to Sire De Grugy

My highlight of the whole week was SIRE DE GRUGY’S victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Not just because it invoked universal acclaim for the Moore family, who are the nearest UK equivalent to the racing dynasties of Mullins, Walsh and Carberry in Ireland. But also because it represented complete vindication of supporting the horse in the teeth of ludicrous assertions that he doesn’t handle Cheltenham or perform left-handed. Considering he had already racked up a hat-trick of top-class victories this term and was at the peak of his game, his SP of 11/4 in an ordinary renewal was truly extraordinary.

However, finishing a close second to SDG was the inspired decision by Cheltenham to dip into the public’s love of nostalgia by relaying on the course’s TV screens big Festival races from years gone by as part of the build-up each day.

Racegoers revelled in memories of greats such as Desert Orchid, Dawn Run, Sea Pigeon, Badsworth Boy, Istabraq, Alderbrook, L’Escargot, Burrough Hill Lad, Wayward Lad, Galmoy, Master Minded and Bregawn. The whole of the Arkle Bar was transfixed on Gold Cup Day as Peter O’Sullevan told us one more time that “The mare’s going get up!” and “Dessie has done it!”.

To top off the nostalgiafest, a recording of Arkle’s 1964 triumph over Mill House was shown to the crowd moments before the Gold Cup itself. It marked the 50th anniversary of the performance many attribute to the subsequent growth in popularity of the Festival to the sporting behemoth it is today.

Here’s to the next 50!