Cheltenham Festival 2017: Five things we learned and five highlights

Marcus Armytage
There were no certainties at Cheltenham but Festival excitement was at a premium - Copyright (c) 2017 Rex Features. No use without permission.

There is no such thing as a racing certainty

Last year all the big favourites and bankers won, which added to punter over-confidence. This time only six favourites came in. We should have been warned when Altior was being given a run for his money until Charbel fell at the second last in the Arkle. At 2-9 Douvan became the shortest priced favourite to ever taste defeat at a Cheltenham Festival when he finished seventh in the Champion Chase. Horses are not machines and, as Might Bite proved in the RSA Chase,  in a horse race it is never over until it’s over.

Might Bite won the RSA Novices' Steeple Chase

Do not write off Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh 

The obituaries were being written after he had drawn a blank by the half way stage – usually most of his winning has been done by then – but he bounced back with four-timer on Thursday thanks to Yorkhill, the irrepressible Un De Sceaux, Nichols Canyon and Let’s Dance. On Friday, those who follow him blindly were rewarded through Arctic Fire (20-1) and Penhill (16-1). How Arctic Fire, runner-up in the Champion Hurdle two years ago, was allowed to start at that price will forever remain a mystery.

Nicky Henderson remains Mr Cheltenham 

He saddled three winners to take his tally to 58. One of the best sights of the week was Henderson being asked to pose with punters for selfies. He looked completely mystified about what he is supposed to do and could, perhaps, do with a few lessons from the more extrovert John McCririck, an old hand.

Trainer Nicky Henderson with jockey Noel Fehily 

Balance of power in National Hunt world is unquestionably with Ireland 

That is mainly because of the influence of Gigginstown and Rich Ricci, who keep their horses there and J P McManus, who keeps half his string there. The score was 9-19 to the visitors. These things tend to be cyclical. Back in 1989, when it was 18 races, Ireland could not raise a single winner.  This has been coming for a while, though, with Ireland winning 14, 12, 13 and 14 in the last four years.

And finally...

Not so much ‘what we learnt this week’ but a question: Is this the most successful owner who has never paid a training fee? 

The chancer was removed from the paddock by security but somehow found his way back in to lead in the Gold Cup winner Sizing John. 

He was also photographed leading in Frankel after his final race at Ascot in 2012. “We’ve already got a photograph of him on the kitchen wall leading in Moscow Flyer,” said Jessica Harrington’s daughter, Emma, on Saturday. “He’s nothing to do with either horse!” Even the great AP McCoy has not been on the front page of the Racing Post as much as this man.      

Sizing John on his way to scooping the Gold Cup

Five highlights from the festival

  1. For the pure unadulterated drama of it, the RSA won and lost and won again by Might Bite. Nicky Henderson’s chaser is by Scorpion, whose progeny have a reputation for quirks and, my goodness, has this one has got a few of those up his sleeve. Having tried to duck out back up the chute to the paddock, he surrendered a 12-length lead to stable companion, Whisper, but got going again to get back up in the shadow of the post. Extremely talented, watching Might Bite next season will be exciting – riding him even more so.
  2. There were some scintillating performances but few better than Un de Sceaux winning the Ryanair Chase. He is full on. If you have Ruby Walsh, the best jockey of all time in my book, riding for you, most horses would be inclined to let him be the boss, but not Un de Sceaux. He carted Walsh to the front after half a mile and did it his way. The sight of him, ears back, head down and doing it with terrier-like etermination winging his fences was a joy.
  3. The Champion Chase was meant to be the coronation of Douvan and as much as it provided one of the lows of the meeting when he capitulated with an injury, it also provided one of the highs when Special Tiara just hung on from Fox Norton to give Henry de Bromhead a second win in the race. On Special Tiara’s fourth attempt, it all came together for him and will partly assuage the disappointment Irishman De Bromhead will have felt having bought and trained Sizing John until last September when he was switched to Jessica Harrington’s yard.
  4. The Gold Cup proved a better race than people were giving it credit for beforehand and was won by the one unexposed horse in the field, Sizing John, trained by the most successful female trainer Ireland has ever known, Jessica Harrington, and ridden by a consummate horseman, Robbie Power. With three winners apiece this week, the dynamic Irish duo have hardly put a foot wrong.
  5. The big battalions naturally dominated with Irish heavyweights Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins winning a dozen of the 28 races between them. However, the small man with not many horses and owners without the resources of Rich Ricci, Michael O’Leary or JP McManus, still pops up. That was no better demonstrated than on Thursday when Stuart Edmunds, who has worked in the Newton Pagnell yard he now trains from since he left school at 17, won the Kim Muir with Domesday Book.   

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