Cheltenham Festival 2015 had something for everyone. Thrills, spills, improbable wins, new records set and some jaw-dropping displays of jumping.
What was your highlight?
Vautour jumping had to be one. Don Poli making himself the favourite for the 2016 Gold Cup another. The look of fear and panic on the faces of bookies on day one was a joy to behold. Once the first three Willie Mullins favourites won on Tuesday the bookies did the sums. How much would they stand to lose should Annie Power become Mullins winner number four?
Many a punter had put the Mullins horses in accumulator bets. Three had delivered and up next was the Mullins banker of the week. There was no way Annie Power could lose in the Mares’ Hurdle. No opponent could beat her. And they didn’t. The final fence did.
She took off too early and clipped the top of it. Even then I thought she was going to stay upright. But she fell on her face. Bookies tried to wipe the smile from their collective faces while punters far and wide covered theirs with their hands. How could this happen? After all, as Channel 4 commentator Simon Holt said at that fateful last fence: “She’s cruising along.”
Annie Power fell and the audible intake of breath was likely heard in space. But so too was the cheer when the mare got to her feet and looked none the worse for the slide to earth. That was for many the highlight of the week. Annie Power and fellow faller L’unique coming home safe and sound.
Annie Power making one mistake saved the bookies millions of pounds. Put simply, her tumble saved their bacon. Had she gone on to win, well, it would have been a Festival to forget for the men and women of the turf.
Willie Mullins set a new record across the week training a record eight horses to victory at the Festival. Ruby Walsh once again rode the most winners. However, had you seen his face when he was beaten into second in the Gold Cup, you wouldn’t have known it. As Ruby said after that race: “Second is nowhere.”
Whether he’s riding Don Poli or Vautor twelve months from now, I suspect Ruby will be aboard the winner of the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
I was very impressed by Don Poli but confess that Vautor left me open mouthed. A year ago Mullins and Walsh said Vautour was a better horse than Faugheen. Punters found that hard to believe. Both looked magic when winning this past week, but Vautour was so good his performance left the usually talkative Ruby Walsh speechless.
Vautour was the horse that impressed me the most at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival.
While the likes of Mullins, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson were, as always, walking into the winners’ enclosure more than once, I particularly enjoyed seeing what winning meant to those who run the less high profile stables.
You only had to watch trainer Warren Graetrex jumping for joy and crying as his Cole Harden won the World Hurdle to appreciate what such glory means to a family operation. So often we see and hear trainers speak in a matter of fact manner about winning a big race. It’s when someone like Graetrex delivers a Grade 1 winner that you fully understand what it means.
Warren Graetrex has much in common with another trainer who tasted big time success this past week.
I heard Mark Bradstock’s decision to enter Coneygree into the Gold Cup labelled as “madness” by some broadcasters and one jockey, a former winner of the Gold Cup, said Bradstock should have his licence taken away for entering a novice into the feature race of the week.
But the Bradstock stable – steeped as it is in racing history – believed the inexperienced but impressive Coneygree would have been beaten by one Mullins horse or another had they entered him into races earlier in the week.
By Friday, the rain came for Coneygree and he loved it. Watching him jump and lead from the front for so long, you could tell the horse was enjoying it. The favourite, Silviniaco Conti, clearly didn’t like how soft the ground was underfoot. Road to Riches and Djakadam pushed Coneygree all the way, but jockey Nico de Boinville drove Coneygree to a win I confess I thought unlikely.
The joy of that victory was twofold. Firstly, a small stable winning a big race. The Bradstocks do not have multi-millionaire owners forming a queue to ask them to train their Thoroughbreds. Perhaps they will now.
Secondly, Nico de Boinville is one of those jockeys who has spent years in the shadows. He has ridden out some of the best horses at the Nicky Henderson stables, including Sprinter Sacre. Nico is one of those lads at a stable who do all the hard work. They know the horses better than anyone. They ride them at home and are able to pass on to the trainer and race jockey how the horse is in him or herself. Boinville is one of the countless unsung people who get up early, go to bed late and care deeply for the horses they look after.
Now he is a Gold Cup winning jockey. You only had to see his expression when coming past the winning post to know what it meant to him.
And then there was a jockey who knows all about that feeling. I told members of VG TIPS how much I liked the horse Uxizandre. I have long been a big fan but the recent form had been patchy. No matter. Champion jockey AP McCoy would be in the saddle and the reitiring champ was sure to have at least one winner at the Festival.
I cheered horse and jockey home. I only wish I had been there to add my voice to the cheers that rang across Prestbury Park. The crowd knew they had witnessed a moment of history. McCoy was visibly moved by the reception he received from the Cheltenham faithful.
There will be many more great Festivals but there will never be another jockey like Anthony Peter McCoy. His win aboard Uxizandre was my memorable moment of a fantastic Festival.
If we could rerun the Mares’ Hurdle only this time with Annie Power staying on her feet at the last fence; well then it would have been a perfect week at the races. Especially for punters.