Andy Gibson's Festival insights: Is Cheltenham's 'Golden Highway' the route to hurdle success
On the final day of the 2022 Cheltenham Festival, Willie Mullins had four runners in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. All four of them raced wide from the early stages. Sean O'Keefe was on the eventual winner The Nice Guy and he made a beeline for the outside rail after the second last hurdle. Likewise, Brian Cooper on Ramillies; unfortunately, they were both beaten to the punch by the other Willie Mullins finisher in the race, Minella Cocooner, who managed to grab the outside rail under the steering of the stable number one jockey, Paul Townend. Ramillies eventually dropped away leaving the other two Mullins horses to fight out the finish close to the outside rail. This grade one contest offered plenty of evidence to suggest that Willie Mullins was well in tune with what was needed to succeed on the final day of the festival.
Three from three
I am not sure that any further evidence was actually required as Willie Mullins had already won the first two races on the card, the Triumph Hurdle and the County Hurdle. The winners of those two races, Vauban and State Man both attacked widest of all and won with plenty to spare. Perhaps all three horses would have won wherever they made their challenges from, but the longer-term evidence suggests otherwise. Moreover, Willie Mullins is very likely to continue with this strategy on the final day of the Festival given his previous successes.
Clues from the 2020 Festival
The 2020 Festival is the last time the official going description was soft for the fourth and final day. As with last season, Willie Mullins enjoyed the first three winners of the day over hurdles. (He also won the Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo which was the fourth race on the card!) All three hurdle winners made their challenges whilst racing wide into the home straight. The strongest piece of evidence for the existence of this 'golden highway' however, came in the final race of the Festival, the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle for Conditional Jockeys. The Paul Webber-trained mare, Indefatigable, was in the middle of the course and going nowhere immediately after the second last hurdle. After searching for room her jockey eventually steered her to the outside rail just before the final hurdle and from thereon in she made up many lengths on the leader before getting up on the line. The Willie Mullins-trained Five O'Clock added further substance to the existence of a bias by making up many lengths from the last to the line to finish in seventh place whilst following Indefatigable through next to the outside rail. In essence, the outcome of all four hurdle races on the cards had been won by horses competing close to the outside from before the final hurdle.
What about this year's final day?
Willie Mullins holds plenty of entries for the four hurdle races on the final day of the 2023 Cheltenham Festival. He trains the first three in the betting for the Triumph Hurdle and has horses trading at single-figure odds in each of the other three hurdle races on the card. Whether his horses will be up to the task in those final three hurdle races is open to debate. However, based on the evidence of the previous three years there is a reasonable chance that Sharjah, Embassy Gardens and Spanish Harlem will benefit from the advantage of that 'golden highway' in the County, Albert Bartlett and Martin Pipe hurdle races respectively.
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