There is surely no way Ireland can replicate what was achieved at Cheltenham a year ago.
It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, of course, considering we may well have the favourite in as many as 19 of the 28 races.
But last year literally everything went right and it is just stretching credulity to think we can blow the Brits away again to the same extent.
Those of us who made our way to the festival in the 80’s could hardly believe our eyes. Back then we returned home with a winner or two, if we were lucky, but Cheltenham 2017 emphasised just how much the power-base has changed so dramatically.
For Ireland to win 19 races was staggering and there was so much that was quite extraordinary within those figures.
We took four races the first day and then four more on the Wednesday and that represented a really good meeting for us.
But, astonishingly, our lads and lassies were merely warming up. I mean Thursday was a day of days, with Ireland taking the first six contests, on a seven-race programme.
We now had 14 safely tucked away and that had to be our lot! Not a chance and five more winged in our direction come Friday.
When it was done and dusted both Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins had six winners to their credit, with Jessica Harrington enjoying three successes.
Elliott emerged as the leading trainer, because he had three seconds, to Mullins’ two, but the real point was that two Irish trainers each saddled six winners and it just beggared belief.
That pair obviously dominated in their department, while it was spectacular as far as Irish jockeys were concerned also.
Ruby Walsh led the way one more time, with four winners, on the Thursday, in front of Robert Power with three. Eight of the ten leading jockeys were Irish.
Then there were the handicaps over the four days. Remember the butchering poor old Phil Smith, the BHA handicapper, got on the run-in to the festival?
Ten of the 28 races were handicaps and, if you listened to our Irish geniuses, who repeatedly battered the man, we were going to be lucky to win any of them.
But, as it turned out, the home-based Irish ‘handicappers’ hadn’t a clue what they were talking about and we won seven of the little beauties, leaving the entire British nation to scramble for the remaining three. The silence from some quarters was deafening.
Basically, out on the track we could do little or no wrong. Take the two-mile Champion Chase, for instance, which was expected to be a penalty kick, with no goalkeeper, for 2-9 shot, Douvan. He blew out completely, however, but we still won the race with Henry de Bromhead’s 11-1 chance, Special Tiara.
And how could anyone forecast so-many big-priced winners for the remarkable Willie Mullins? He more than did his bit for punters, producing three winning favourites in Yorkhill (6-4), Un De Sceaux (7-4) and Let’s Dance (11-8), but was also on the mark with Nichols Canyon (10-1), Arctic Fire (20-1) and Penhill (16-1).
It seems unlikely that things can go as smoothly for Ireland again, even if we do travel with a seriously powerful team.
I must admit this festival started badly for me when it was announced last Saturday afternoon that Cracking Smart had met with a setback and would miss the Albert Bartlett Hurdle.
He was going to start at maybe 5-1 or 6-1 and, in my experience, finding a decent priced winner such as that makes a massive difference to the punting.
Extending the meeting to four days has certainly diluted what is on offer overall and there will be plenty of short-priced market leaders next week. If one is lucky enough to find a good-priced winner then it is a major bonus and has the capacity to offset a number of short-priced failures, if that’s the way the ball bounces.
There are so many imponderables at this stage, with how the surface will ride of paramount importance.
The Ryanair Chase on Thursday, for instance, is a competitive renewal and the ground will be a key factor.
We know the admirable Un De Sceaux is the one they have to beat, but he will be vulnerable if the ground has dried out by them. Should it ride soft, or worse, I reckon they won’t see the way he goes.
Will hot-pot Samcro definitely turn up in Wednesday’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Gigginstown have been adamant this is the target and yet there have been tanks for the horse of late for Tuesday’s opener, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. On soft or heavy ground there is at least the possibility, you’d imagine, of a change of direction.
And what of Wednesday’s Champion Chase and Nicky Henderson’s Altior against the Mullins duo of Min and Douvan, the last named not seen since last year’s disaster?
Isn’t it gas that two of the best horses in training, Altior and Douvan, will arrive to the meeting with just one run this campaign between them.
One of my bankers for a while now has been Willie Mullins’ Footpad in Tuesday’s Arkle Chase, but the fact he was being hawked on the exchanges relatively recently was at least a minor worry.
There have been alarming drifts with Mullins horses of late and that has been well publicised. Three of them came at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown in early February, Carter McKay, Yorkhill and Melon.
At the time, I didn’t take a whole lot of notice of what was being said in the press, on the basis none of the three were good enough to win anyway.
Subsequent drifts, however, have made one at least take a little more notice. At Navan later in February Mullins’ Bapaume was very easy to back and performed accordingly.
Three days later, at Punchestown, there was yet another case, a French-import of Mullins’ called Defy De Mee.
He eased from 6-4 to a returned price of 7-2 and ran a shocker to finish a poor seventh behind Pat Fahy’s Call A Cab.
Anyway, come Tuesday, negativity will have to be cast aside as we go in on Footpad all guns blazing with so much hope in our hearts.
Finally, history tells us that having Ruby Walsh on your side at Cheltenham is a big help. He has 56 festival winners to his credit and the fact the next best is Barry Geraghty on 34 tells its own story.
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