It was Cheltenham again yesterday, with autumn colours on Cleeve Hill, horses thundering, jockeys striving, fences crashing and divots flying.
Jump racing is back and all that Westminster disgrace seemed so far away. How fitting, then, that the star race was won by a horse called Pied Piper. The handsome chestnut was bred by our late Queen and won two races on the flat in the royal silks before being bought by Irish trainer Gordon Elliott to run over hurdles in the red-and-white colours of Andrew Brown’s Caldwell Construction.
He was a winner here in January, a good third to Vauban in the Triumph Hurdle and, by the look of him, has really thrived during his summer break.
Yesterday’s race was run so slowly that Jack Kennedy had one or two uneasy moments getting Pied Piper to settle early on before joining in a dramatic four-way sprint to the last. Pied Piper dived a stride early at the hurdle and, for a heart-stopping moment, you feared he might capsize on landing. But all was well and he had far too much pace up the hill for his old rival, Knight Salute, and the ex-French mare, Bella Scintilla.
The win raised the idea of returning here for the Champion Hurdle, but Elliott was sanguine about his chances of really threatening Vauban and Constitution Hill in March. “He’s a lot stronger this season,” the trainer said. “And we’re going to dream for a while, but it’s a hot division and he’ll have to keep improving.”
It was the first of five winners for the Irish, a sequence completed by Dads Lad, Shoot First, Chemical Energy and Encanto Bruno.
Cheltenham victories are run of the mill for both Elliott, who also trains Chemical Energy, and Dads Lad’s trainer Willie Mullins. But Dads Lad was a first win at the track for 33-year-old Brian Hayes, the partner of the briefly sidelined Rachael Blackmore. “You never know, it may be my last,” he joked afterwards. “It has certainly been long enough because I had my first ride here as a conditional and that was more than a dozen years ago.”
Hayes’s riding belied this self-effacement as he was the model of calm efficiency, closing up and then finally outpunching the front- running Effernock Fizz, and he has established himself as an integral part of the all-conquering Mullins team. Dads Lad will be back here for the Festival if a race can be found for him, as surely will the remarkable Effernock Fizz, who was having the 71st race of her career. Further afield, thoughts were stretching all the way to Epsom Downs next June. Up at Doncaster, Derby favourite Auguste Rodin was a decisive winner of the Vertem Futurity Trophy, whilst over in France, and in even heavier going, Dubai Mile and Arrest slugged out a head-to-head duel in the Critérium de Saint-Cloud.
Auguste Rodin’s Derby price was cut to as short as 4-1, while Dubai Mile is available at 25-1. However, it is not just because I have known him as a foal that I think the best bet is Arrest, the least mature of the three, who is priced at 33-1. You read it here first.
But Epsom can wait. This was an afternoon to celebrate the thrill of seeing lean young jockeys and their hugely athletic horses test themselves on this anvil of dreams. Long may the gallop last.