One of the principle reasons that National Hunt racing is more popular than the flat is that you build relationships with horses that can sustain for years and this was proved again and again this week. Altior planted yet another heavy hoof in racing folklore when winning the Champion Chase for the second time on Wednesday, his fourth festival triumph and he was joined in that achievement in the very next race by the remarkable little Tiger Roll who won the cross-country chase in a hack canter. His owner wouldn’t commit him to a defence of his Grand National, complaining about his 9Lb penalty for winning last year. Hopefully Michael is just in ‘wind up’ mode.
Paul Nicholls is a man wears his heart on his sleeve. Victory is joyously celebrated, and defeat etches disappointment deeply into his face. If he had trained a half dozen winners this week it would not have come as a surprise, but he had to settle for only two. He drew a blank on Tuesday but won two Grade 1s on Wednesday and Thursday with Topofthegame and Frodon. It looked for a while that his Pololtique would be the first horse to beat Altior over jumps tool before The Great One woke up after the last and squashed that particular fantasy. He’d have been disappointed with Clan Des Obeaux in yesterday’s Gold Cup who didn’t stay on from a prominent position with Frodon and Topofthegame already look like serious contenders for next year’s Gold Cup
The quirky Waterford track should consider a rebranding initiative. ‘The place where Champions are made’ sounds about right. When Willie Mullins had at last captured the Gold Cup after a half-dozen second places it became a point of interest that Al Boum Photo had his prep race for the Gold Cup at Tramore when he won a listed chase there on New Year’s Day beating Total Recall and Invitation no less. The weather was to blame, said Mullins, as it was one of the few tracks in Ireland that had the word ‘soft’ in the going in the middle of winter. Both Mullins and the winning rider, Paul Townend were effusive in their recognition of the Donnelly family who own the winner. Townend was on board when he infamously steered the Al Boum through the wing of the last fence when coming to win the Champion Novice Chase at the Punchestown festival last year. Despite costing then 60 grand he had a call from the owner the following reassuring him that they didn’t have a problem and to get on with it.
Apparently, there were some shenanigans ongoing in the House of Commons this week. Rumours filtered through to the course that it had something to do with Brexit and all the madness surrounding it. Nobody paid any attention. That’s the joy of the festival – it’s a four-hour race meeting that takes sixteen hours to attend between travel, study, spectating, betting and evening revelry. There were twenty-eight races to puzzle this week most of which made the withdrawal agreement look as simple as a child’s jigsaw and there really is no head space for anything else. Any tone-deaf miscreant who happened to raise the topic would be dismissive given the Rhett Butler, ‘Gone with the Wind’ response. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
There is increasing anxiety in the industry on the performance of the British Horseracing Authority and many are asking openly if the current structure and leadership is fit for purpose to safeguard the sport during times of significant change. Concerns were already lurking long before this week that they seem to be obsessed with fighting then wrong battles, but the decision to ban amateur jockeys for their decisions to nurture horses to a place was particularly inexplicable. Attacks on their credibility have moved from social media to the real world and when an opinion former like Tony McCoy loses the plot with them publicly the message is pretty clear. Enough of the own goals please.
The big race on Tuesday was probably the most eagerly anticipated contest of the week. Buveur D’air was always going to take part, but when it emerged that both Apples Jade and Laurina would also go to post the anticipation levels went off the charts. The excitement didn’t last too long once the tapes went up. Buveur fell at the third, Apples was well stewed by the top of the hill and Laurina went out like a light between the last two hurdles. The sense of disappointment deflected from the great achievements of Gavin Cromwell and Espoir D’allen who won by a record margin and this new champion might reign for a while.
When the Cheltenham management suggested that they would move Wednesday’s card to Saturday if high winds forced a postponement of that day’s racing some cynical souls suggested that their real intent was to surreptitiously trial a five-day meeting. This daft idea just won’t go away and die, unfortunately. The new races added to fill four days are still problematic and it would have been a disaster for the Champion Hurdle if Apples Jade and Laurina had been routed to the Mare’s Hurdle, for instance. Any attempt to add more races that create options for trainers outside the traditional programme would seriously dilute an already diluted programme.