What we learned at Cheltenham: Ridiculously good, and getting better

To borrow from Brendan Behan, there are few situations in life ever made better by the arrival of a cliché - and one that never fails to get the teeth grinding is the awful ‘cheer up, there are only 51 weeks to go.’

Whether you are a child lamenting the passing of Christmas or a racing enthusiast disconsolate at the end of Cheltenham, it is exactly what you don’t need to hear. The pain is eased if you try to bank the lessons learned and by deciphering what they are telling you of times to come.

The overriding takeaway from the week is not a new one. Irish people are ridiculously good with horses and getting better all the time. That said, it would be rude not to pause and celebrate some of the excellence from the English side too. Nicky Henderson did brilliantly to get Altior well enough to win at the Festival for the third consecutive year and Buveur D’Air is a seriously good hurdler whose rise should now finally be decoupled from the deterioration of Faugheen. He joins a select list of multiple Champion Hurdle winners and does so completely on merit. Colin Tizzard’s judgment and skill to deliver Native River to win a compelling Gold Cup was a remarkable bookend to the meeting.

That said, it was an Irish week numerically, with massive performances by man and beast creating a wealth of memories and buckets of future expectations. All our winners have a story to choose from, three at random are Samcro, Footpad, and Penhill.

Samcro lived up to the hype and won his race far easier than it may have looked. Pray to the horse Gods that he stays hale and hearty. Unusually for a winner of the Arkle over two miles, Willie Mullins was quick to suggest that there may be a Gold Cup in the future for Footpad. Having been third in a Grade One Hurdle over three miles he should have enough stamina to win long-distance chases.

Penhill was yet another Mullins masterclass. He won the Albert Bartlett here last year but hasn’t been seen since running up at Punchestown a month later. If he can stay sound he should hoover up staying hurdles for several more years.

Like the horses, the human performances were equally impressive. Mullins, Elliott, Davy Russell, and Paul Townend were immense and had he not gone lame on Wednesday Ruby Walsh would have ridden plenty more winners. Poor Jack Kennedy must have ringing in his ears from the amount of times he hears himself described as the next Ruby or AP. Hopefully, his future lies only as the ‘first Jack’ but the talent, poise, and maturity of the Kerry teenager looks like he might be something unusual.

But the week had a wrinkle. The consolidation of resources with fewer trainers in Ireland inevitably leads to a small number of handlers attacking many of the races mob-handed. This creates a complex public relations battle that we are not winning and its beginning to drive the casual British racegoer to distraction.

Culturally Irish people seem to be able to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty much better than our neighbours, who struggle a little with the language of wink and elbow. On Thursday evening an aggravated press room punter, undoubtedly talking through his pocket, quoted a comment that Gordon Elliott made at a pre-Festival preview night. Elliott said of Shattered Love, an easy and well-backed winner of the JLT Chase earlier that day: “I love her. She is a good girl and I would love her to win, but in my heart of hearts she is not good enough.”

The trend towards consolidation is not going to abate anytime soon. Every winner that Willie Mullins trained this week was for a different owner, so even after Gigginstown emptied all those boxes the brightest light just attracted different moths. If our Cotswold hosts believe that the week amounts only to a national conspiracy to separate them from their hard-earned riches, then the long-cherished goodwill and rivalry could gradually dilute.

Between the Russians and Brexit, they are a little jumpy at the moment and ready to yell ‘conspiracy’ at the drop of a trilby. This issue will need some careful ‘out of the box’ thinking if things are to get back in balance. Oops! There goes another cliché.


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