It seems a long time ago but 2016 began with Faugheen producing an utterly dominant display in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Two months earlier, Nichols Canyon had inflicted a first ever defeat on his stablemate in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown. There would be no repeat at Leopardstown, Nichols Canyon eventually crossing the line in third after paying a heavy price for having the temerity to take on Faugheen. At the line, 15 lengths separated Faugheen from his nearest rival, Arctic Fire.
“Faugheen was explosive,” jockey Ruby Walsh said. “People have been moaning that he’s been getting it handy in front, well you saw what he did when they tried to take him on — he destroyed them altogether.”
Sadly, injury meant he didn’t get to return to Cheltenham to defend his Champion Hurdle crown.
However, his performance at Leopardstown on that January day will live long in the memory.
The manner in which the Cheltenham Festival dominates the National Hunt world can sometimes blind us to the fact that it’s not all about that one week in the middle of March.
Carlingford Lough is a case in point. Three times he has turned up at Prestbury Park on festival week; three times he has fallen short.
However, back home it’s a different story. In February, Carlingford Lough came from nowhere to claim a scarcely believable, but ultimately decisive, 12-length victory in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. John Kiely’s charge had also obliged in the same race 12 months previously.
Fast forward to April and Carlingford Lough was at it again, producing a trademark late burst to win the Punchestown Gold Cup.
“I’ve been coming to Punchestown since 1948, when I was a child, and this is a never-again experience in my life,” Dungarvan trainer Kiely said. “He’s the best I’ve trained and the best I will train. Today was undoubtedly the highlight with him.”
2016 is a year Mouse Morris won’t be forgetting.
On Easter Monday, Rogue Angel provided Morris with an emotional success in the Irish National. How do you top that?
By training the winner the Aintree Grand National, of course.
And 12 days later Morris did just that as Rule The World, a horse whose career had been undermined by injury and who had never previously won over fences, went and won the Aintree spectacular.
It was a staggering double for a man who began 2016 still coming to terms with the heartbreaking loss of his son Christopher, who died the previous June, aged just 30, of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning in his apartment in Argentina while touring South America.
“With half a mile to go I was going to be happy with third, but somebody was obviously looking down on us again,” Morris said after Rule The World’s win at Aintree.
Reflecting on his double last month, he added: “There’s no point in sleeping if you don’t dream.”
That was quite the dream.
You can’t fight fate. Just moments before Annie Power made a belated seasonal reappearance at Punchestown last February a bombshell was dropped: Faugheen, Annie Power’s stablemate, would miss the Cheltenham Festival. Annie Power cruised to an easy victory at Punchestown and suddenly a horse who had looked certain to run in the Mares’ Hurdle was favourite for the Champion Hurdle.
There were reasons to be wary. Annie Power’s disrupted campaign meant she went to Prestbury Park off the back of just one run, hardly ideal given the calibre of rivals she’d be meeting in the day one feature.
Then there was the fact she was zero from two at Cheltenham, having gone down to More Of That in the 2014 World Hurdle before falling at the final flight in the Mares’ Hurdle in 2015 with the race at her mercy.
However, cometh the hour, cometh the Power as Annie made all to make it third time lucky at Cheltenham.
No horse deserved a festival triumph more.
Everyone loves a comeback story and the Sprinter Sacre story was a true gem. For two glorious years Sprinter Sacre bestrode the racing world like a colossus. Then he suffered from a fibrillating heart in December 2013, a problem that left his career in jeopardy.
When he returned he looked a shadow of his former self and when he was pulled up in the 2015 Champion Chase his future looked bleak.
However, trainer Nicky Henderson refused to give in and Sprinter Sacre bounced back to form to win the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham and the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton at the backend of 2015.
Doubts remained, though, and Sprinter Sacre was sent off at odds of 5/1 to win this year’s Champion Chase. What followed was sporting drama at its best as Sprinter Sacre produced an astonishing display to beat Irish hotpot Un De Sceaux.
A month later he confirmed that form at Sandown in a race that would prove his last as injury forced his retirement last month.
His absence will be keenly felt come next March but his brilliance won’t ever be forgotten.
Don Cossack has always had a big reputation and 2016 was the year he delivered on the hype. There were doubts at the start of the year as Gordon Elliott’s charge had fallen in the King George just when it appeared he was going to mount a challenge.
He got back to winning ways at Thurles in January before arriving at Prestbury Park for his date with destiny in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
And there, on the biggest stage of all, he delivered a stellar display, powering the victory under Bryan Cooper.
Admittedly, his cause was helped by Cue Card’s fall, just as the big English hopeful was mounting his challenge. This though was Don Cossack’s day, the afternoon in which he proved he was the real deal.
“I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” Elliott admitted. “It means so much to win this.”
Injury has meant Don Cossack hasn’t run since but whether he makes it back to defend his title or not, his legacy is secure.
There was a time when Gavin Cromwell’s main claim to fame would have been that he’s Don Cossack’s farrier. However, 2016 saw the emergence of Cromwell as a trainer of note, mainly thanks to the exploits of Jer’s Girl.
The filly skipped the Cheltenham Festival, a decision that was emphatically vindicated when Jer’s Girl cruised to a 13-length success in the Grade One Irish Stallion Farms European Breeders Fund Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final at Fairyhouse on Easter Sunday.
“That’s fantastic,” Cromwell said. “I couldn’t believe how well she did it.”
A month later, she repeated the trick in the Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown, powering to another Grade One success by 10 lengths. Cromwell has quite the star on his hands.
Cheltenham can be a cruel place, a reality veteran trainer Andrew Lynch knows better than most. Last March, the Meath trainer brought Zabana, the undoubted star of his small stable, to the festival for the JLT Novices’ Chase.
Hopes were high but Lynch’s dream swiftly turned into a nightmare. After an initial false start, Zabana was side-on as the tape was raised and, following a collision with Outlander, he unseated Davy Russell as he whipped round. Race over. Heartbreak.
However, the Punchestown Festival provided a measure of consolation. There was drama there too, Zabana surviving a blunder at the very first obstacle before getting another scare four out when a loose horse threatened to wreak havoc. But Zabana would not be thwarted this time, crossing the line two lengths clear in the Grade One Growise Champion Novice Chase.
“My heart just sunk at Cheltenham,” admitted Lynch. “I never brought a horse to a race in such form. Cheltenham was his day but it didn’t happen. You’d love to do it there but it’s good to do it here too.”
Rarely was a victory more deserved.
There are very few boxes that Ruby Walsh hasn’t ticked in his remarkable career. The Galway Hurdle was one but the jockey put that right in specular fashion in July, steering Clondaw Warrior to an improbable victory in Ballybrit.
Clondaw Warrior is owned by the Act D Wagg syndicate, a group which includes Ruby’s wife, Gillian. As a consequence, victory was extra sweet. Sustained late support saw Clondaw Warrior go off the 9/2 favourite but the gamble looked ill-advised with Willie Mullins’ charge nearer last than first for much of the race. Walsh, though, kept niggling and gradually Clondaw Warrior warmed to the task en route to a spectacular success. Mullins described Walsh’s ride as “a Houdini act”.
No-one who saw it could disagree.
Scenes of wild jubilation are rare events at the Curragh but there was a frenzied atmosphere in the winner’s enclosure at the Kildare venue in May when Awtaad delivered for veteran trainer Paddy Prendergast in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.
British raider Galileo Gold had won the English version of the race at the end of the month and was heavily backed to complete the Guineas double. However, he had no answer when Chris Hayes said go on Awtaad, the 9/2 winner galloping all the way to the line.
Prendergast had won the race courtesy of Northern Treasure in 1976 but had to wait 40 long years for a second success. When it finally arrived, it meant plenty.
“It’s great, the best thing to happen to me for years,” Prendergast said. “Forty years is a long time ago, a lot of fellas weren’t born then!
Hayes said: “It’s my second Classic but my first for the boss. It means the world to me. I came up to the boss when I was 15 and he welcomed me in with open arms. He’s been very good to me so it was nice to repay him.”
Just 24 hours after Awtaad’s 2,000 Guineas triumph there was another upset, and another fairytale story. The Aidan O’Brien-trained Minding was the warmest of favourites to land the Irish 1,000 Guineas having sauntered to victory in the Newmarket edition.
However, she came off second best after a stirring duel with the Adrian Keatley-trained Jet Setting. Just a head separated them at the line, the duo pulling 10 lengths clear of the third.
For Keatley, victory was a dream come through. He was only in his second full season with a licence and had moved his string to a stable by the Curragh as recently as February. “It’s a dream, really,” Keatley said. “Miracles happen.”
Minding’s subsequent successes only served to illustrate just how big an achievement it was to take her scalp.
Dermot Weld is one of the great trainers of this, or any, generation but, until this year, one race — the Epsom Derby — had eluded him. His prospects of breaking his duck looked bleak Derby day morning as Harzand, his 2016 hope, spread a plate en route to Epsom.
Consequentially, his participation was in doubt up until an hour before the big race. The rest, as they say, is history. Harzand was given a peach of a ride by Pat Smullen and crossed the line a length and a half clear of US Army Ranger.
“It’s wonderful to do it,” Weld said. “We had a huge worry this morning as he spread a plate travelling over and he was a very doubtful runner up to about an hour ago. But with the tremendous help of all my colleagues and my team, we made it.”
Three weeks later, Harzand completed a Derby double, digging deep to get the better of Idaho after a terrific battle in the Irish version at the Curragh.
The Qipco Irish Champion Stakes was billed as possibly the greatest Flat race ever run in this country and it certainly lived up to the hype. Victory went to the brilliant Almanzor, the 7/1 shot becoming the first French-trained horse to take this prize since Suave Dancer obliged in 1991.
He showed a blistering turn of foot to get the better of subsequent Prix de I’Arc de Triomphe heroine Found with Minding, who went on to win the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, back in third.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that this was a race of rare depth came in the fact that dual Derby winner Harzand could only finish eighth of 12. One place ahead of him was Highland Reel, a horse who went on to finish second in the Arc before winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita.
For his part, Almanzor went on to confirm the form by beating Found in the British version of the Champion Stakes and will be aimed at the Arc in 2017. It’ll take a good one to lower his colours.
Irish Champions Weekend provided one of the most extraordinary sports stories of 2016 as Intricately, trained by Joseph O’Brien, got up on the line to thwart Hydrangea, trained by his father Aidan, by a short head in the Group 1 Moyglare Stud Stakes. This truly was a family affair as Intricately was bred by Annmarie O’Brien and ridden to victory by Donnacha, her 18-year-old son.
“The respect those two lads showed me in the last race,” Aidan said with a smile later that day. “It was unbelievable, I can’t describe the feeling really — it was the most unbelievable day.”
So unbelievable that Aidan, the very definition of a relentless winner, found himself thinking thoughts he’d surely never had before as he awaited the judge’s verdict.
“Honestly, I was only hoping our filly wouldn’t put her head in front to tell the truth. I shouldn’t be saying that but it’s the reality. It’s so hard to win a Group 1 and I couldn’t believe that Joseph, at 23, could win a Group 1.”
2016 was another phenomenal year for Ballydoyle and 2017 looks likely to provide more of the same.
Churchill looks likely to be their leading light in 2017 after a stellar campaign in 2016. The son of Galileo was beaten into third on his debut in May but won all five subsequent starts. The last two of those wins came at the highest level and he was particularly impressive when landing the National Stakes at the Curragh on Irish Champions Weekend.
“I love him, I love everything about him,” Aidan O’Brien said after that success. “He’s sleepy, he’s lazy but he loves to be battling. He was snookered today, cornered between two so he had every chance to quit and all he did was shrug them off and away he went.”
There may be a question mark about him getting the Derby trip but, even now, the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket looks at his mercy.
It has been another extraordinary year for Irish racing. The first three home in the Cheltenham Gold Cup were Irish trained. As were the first three in the Epsom Derby. But nothing could top Aidan O’Brien’s achievement in saddling the first three home in the Prix de I’Arc de Triomphe.
Found had had a frustrating season until that point, finishing second in five successive Groups but O’Brien was open about the fact she was being trained with just one day in mind — the first Sunday in October. When her date with destiny in Chantilly arrived she duly delivered under Ryan Moore.
That alone would have been a splendid training achievement but it got better for O’Brien as Found’s closest pursuers proved to her stablemate’s Highland Reel and Order Of St George.
O’Brien is always keen to downplay his achievements but even he admitted this achievement was special.
“It’s a great feeling to saddle the first three home in an Arc, there’s not much to beat it.” Coming from a man who has won it all, that says it all.