Tuesday, 19 November 2019

The Long & the Short of it: Cheltenham ‘Championship’ Races

The four main ‘championship’ races at the Cheltenham Festival – the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Stayers’ Hurdle – represent the pinnacle of achievement in each division of National Hunt racing. They have often been won by the out-and-out champions of the sport, who were ‘expected’ to win, and did so, at correspondingly short odds. Every now and again, though, they throw up highly unlikely winners, who defy monstrous odds to have their names carved on one of the hallowed trophies.

Legendary Irish steeplechaser Arkle, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in a row, in 1964, 1965 and 1966, has the distinction of being the shortest-priced winner of the most prestigious race at the Cheltenham Festival. On his third, and final, attempt, in 1966, such was his apparent superiority over his three rivals that he was sent off at eyewateringly prohibitive odds of 1/10.

By contrast, in 1990, Norton’s Coin, one of just three horses trained by Carmarthen permit holder Sirrell Griffiths, was the longest-priced winner in the history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. ‘More a candidate for last than first’, at least according to the official Cheltenham racecard on the day, the nine-year-old defied odds of 100/1 to beat Toby Tobias and defending champion Desert by three-quarters of a length and four lengths, breaking the course record in the process.

In 1954, Sir Ken, trained by Willie Stephenson, became only the second horse – after Hatton’s Grace – to win the Champion Hurdle three times a row. He started favourite on all three occasions but, in 1953, he was sent off at 2/5, making him the shortest-priced winner in the history of the race. At the other end of the scale, Kirriemuir, trained by Fulke Walwyn, popped up at 50/1 in 1965, as did Beech Road, trained by Toby Balding, in 1989; they share the spoils as the joint-longest-priced winners.

In the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the supremely gifted Flyingbolt, a stable companion of Arkle, was returned at odds of 1/5 after putting five rivals to the word in 1966. In 1980, Chinrullah was first past the post, but later controversially disqualified after failing a post-race urine test, in favour of Another Dolly, trained by Fred Rimmell. Returned at 33/1, Another Dolly is officially the longest-priced winner of the race.

The Stayers’ Hurdle – or ‘World Hurdle’, as it was known for a while – was first run, in its current guise, in 1972. Since then, Big Buck’s, who won the race four consecutive times, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, was twice returned at odds of 5/6, in 2010 and 2012, making him the shortest-priced winner of the modern era. In 1983, BBC pundit announced that he would ‘eat his hat’ if A Kinsman, trained by Cumbrian farmer John Brockbank, won the Stayers’ Hurdle. Nevertheless, A Kinsman duly obliged, at 50/1, to become the longest-priced winner in the history of the race.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Best Cheltenham Festival Ride Ever?

At the time of his retirement, in April, 2015, Sir Anthony Peter ‘A.P.’ McCoy had ridden 4,348 winners under National Hunt rules, including 31 at the Cheltenham Festival. His Festival haul included the Champion Hurdle three times, the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice and the Queen Mother Champion. However, the former 20-time Champion Jockey believes, and few would argue, that he enjoyed his finest hour in the Festival Trophy Handicap Chase – at that time, run as the William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase – on March 10, 2009.

The race was run, as it is today, over 3 miles and 80 yards on the Old Course at Prestbury Park and Mcoy rode Wichita Lineman, a 7-year-old owned by John Patrick ‘J.P.’ McManus and trained by Jonjo O’Neill. Although having just his fourth start over fences, Wichita Lineman was sent off 5/1 favourite on his handicap debut; he was hardly an unlikely winner, at least not according to the betting market, but it was the manner of his victory, from a nigh on impossible position, for which McCoy earned deserved plaudits.

After a false start, Wichita Lineman raced in mid-division, on the inside, before making a mistake at the ninth fence, and another at the tenth, which led to a reminder from McCoy heading out onto the second circuit. Only tenth or eleventh when hitting the fifteenth fence, Witchita Lineman was still making little or impression on the leaders when hitting the third last fence. However, coming down the hill, the horse rallied, under maximum pressure and, turning into the home straight, had reached sixth place.

Switched to the wide outside, he was still only third jumping the final fence, but made relentless progress up the famous Cheltenham hill, collaring Maljimar, who had led from the second last fence, in the final two strides to win by a neck. Sadly, the story does not have a happy ending; Wichita Lineman was killed in a fall at the first fence on his very next start, in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse the following month, but he will always be remembered as the subject of possibly the best ride ever seen at the Cheltenham Festival.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Cheltenham Festival - ‘Championship’ Races 2019

The so-called ‘championship’ races at the Cheltenham Festival are, of course, the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup, each of which is considered the apex of its discipline.

Champion Hurdle

In 2019, the betting for the Champion Hurdle was dominated by the defending champion, Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade and Laurina, but Buveur D’Air was an early casualty, falling at the third flight, and neither Apple’s Jade nor Laurina troubled the judge. Victory went to the previously unheralded Espoir D’Allen, trained by Gavin Cromwell and owned, like Buveur D’Air, by John P. McManus. Despite having won seven of his previous eight starts over hurdles, Espoir D’Allen started 16/1 for his second attempt at the highest level, but belied his generous starting price by drawing right away in the closing stages for an impressive, 15-length win. Melon, who had been beaten a neck by Buveur D’Air in the 2018 renewal, finished second, so there appears little or no reason to doubt the value of the form.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

The Queen Mother Champion Chase was really all about defending champion Altior, who was sent off at prohibitive odds of 4/11 to record his eighteenth consecutive victory, despite racing on unfavourable soft going. Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old justified favouritism, but had to be kept up to his work from the final fence by jockey Nico De Boinville and crossed the line just 1¾ lengths ahead of his nearest pursuer, Politologue, who held every chance until the final hundred yards or so.

Stayers’ Hurdle

Trained by Emma Lavelle and owned by Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth, Paisley Park was sent off 11/8 favourite to cap a season in which he had improved, by leaps and bounds, by winning the three-mile hurdling championship. Already the winner of four races, including the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, all under Aidan Coleman, the stoutly-bred gelding briefly looked in trouble as the field turned for home, but responded well to pressure and drew away in the closing stages to beat Sam Spinner by 2¾ lengths.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

Co. Carlow trainer Willie Mullins saddled four in the Cheltenham Gold Cup as he attempted to win the ‘Blue Riband’ event for the first time. He looked as if he might be out of luck again when Kemboy, the shortest-priced of the quartet, landed awkwardly and unseated his rider after the first fence, but it was left to 12/1 chance Al Boum Photo, ridden by Paul Townend, to lift the spoil and, finally, lay Mullins’ Gold Cup ‘hoodoo’ to rest.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Cheltenham Festival – ‘Championship’ Races 2018

2018 cheltenham gold cup
Champion Hurdle

Reigning champion Buveir D’Air, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Barry Geraghty, started 4/6 favourite to retain his title, but had to work hard to do so, eventually edging out Melon by a neck in a driving finish. Mick Jazz, a 25/1 outsider, finished third beaten a further 3 lengths, but 2015 winner, and 4/1 second favourite, Faugheen, faded between the last two flights to finish sixth of the nine finishers.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Altior, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Nico de Boinville, was sent off even money favourite to win his thirteenth race in a row and did so in no uncertain terms, forging clear for an impressive 7-length win over Min. God’s Own, a 40/1 outsider, rallied to take third, a further 11 lengths away. Douvan, third favourite at 9/2, was still travelling well when falling at the fourth last fence.

Stayers’ Hurdle

Penhill, trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Paul Townend was returning from a 323-day break, but that didn’t stop the 12/1 chance from winning by 2 lengths, going. Compatriot Supersundae finished second, while Wholestone fared best of the domestic contenders, staying on to take third, 3 lengths further behind. Favourite Sam Spinner could only keep on at one pace to finish fifth, 6¼ lengths behind the winner.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

The 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup had long been billed as a match between King George VI Chase winner, Might Bite, and the previous year’s third, Native River, although late support for Our Duke forced Native River out to 5/1 third favourite at the off. Native River and Might Bite did, indeed, dominate proceedings, with the former making all the running and outstaying the 4/1 favourite in the closing stages to win by 4½ lengths. Anibale Fly, unconsidered at 33/1, plugged on into a never-threatening third, a further 4 lengths away. Our Duke was never travelling after making two mistakes in mid-race and was pulled up at the top of the hill on the final circuit.