By 7.45 on Tuesday morning an independent-looking grey gelding with four RRs (refused to race) to his name had been among the 30-strong Gordon Elliott team already filing back to the Cheltenham stables after exercising on the track. The usually all-conquering Mullins squad would not show for another quarter hour. Eight hours later the bolshy brute had swept through and won the opener under teenage prodigy Jack Kennedy as the first in Ireland’s 19-victory sweep. Labaik’s success kick-started the week of the morning prophecy.
Even with two other Elliott winners on the opening day, the implications of what we were being told on those early pilgrimages were shrouded by the star British turns of David Pipe and Nicky Henderson. Un Temps Pour Tout’s short-head repeat victory in the Ultima under an inspired Tom Scudamore was happy proof that his and David’s generation is no soft imitation of their mouldbreaking fathers Martin and Peter, but Henderson’s heroics were something else. Can it really be 32 years since Henderson avoided See You Then’s flashing teeth to saddle the first of that horse’s three and his own six Champion Hurdle triumphs?
The ever-improving excellence of the Seven Barrows operation is abiding proof that however meticulous a stable’s daily activity, nothing is as important as the decisions from the top. No trainer can make a horse go faster, but a bad one can sure as hell mess it up. Simple efficiency can only get you so far, what sets the elite apart is judgement – and the years have only sharpened Henderson’s antennae, never blunted them. Horses like Altior and Buveur D’Air may be aces but it’s easy to get them trumped and it says something for the trainer’s status that Altior’s success in the Arkle was discussed more in terms of what might have been if Charbel hadn’t fallen than about the winner’s perfect jumping and six long lengths of victory on the day.
Good judgements need deep insight alongside them and Henderson’s greatest aide was standing serenely in the paddock as the Champion Hurdle runners cantered to the start. Corky Browne has seen three score years and ten, with the last 40 alongside the Lambourn trainer. On Tuesday he had a smart overcoat and an Irish voice so quiet that it was hard to pick the diamonds from the delivery. But he was telling how good Buveur D’Air could be and how My Tent Or Yours would be close yet again. We should have heeded. Henderson had.
Wednesday was the day when spring came to the Cotswolds. Henderson was at it again with Might Bite apparently throwing away the RSA before snatching it back from stablemate Whisper, but from early morning all the buzz had been about Douvan. Altior had not quite delivered the ‘wow’ factor that was wanted so here was the superstar the week was waiting for. The anticipation on the morning was so hyper that when the Mullins team came out on to the gallops you half expected something to have wings on its heels.
In reality what we saw was a handsome enough thoroughbred showing a lovely, long, floating stride as he hacked around the mid-course circle. But by the time the Champion Chase field appeared in front of the thousands the talk was such that you would have thought this was Pegasus, not the lean and rather tense-looking gelding who walked past our TV podium. Douvan may have won every one of his 14 races since failing to catch the leader on his first run in an otherwise unsung four-year-old hurdle at St Malo on May 13, 2014, but he would never have drilled down to the first at quite the tempo Special Tiara always takes them. He might be better than these – but racing can hurt.
How bitter that such unformed thoughts so quickly became stark, erratic reality as Douvan’s normally flawless and fearless jumping became a series of equally desperate and eccentric leaps leading to the despairing hope that Ruby Walsh would pull him up before the final turn. The pelvic fracture provides the explanation and, while it reminds us of the demands the game puts on its participants, let’s also remember what happened to Kauto Star. He broke a bone in his leg at Exeter in January 2005 only to reappear next winter and win two Gold Cups and five King Georges before bowing out at the festival of 2012. Let’s hear it for Douvan.
Unfortunately we had not guessed it that morning for Special Tiara, nor for the Coral Cup winner Supasundae or the Gordon Elliott/Jamie Codd pair Cross Country star Cause Of Causes and the Bumper winner Fayonagh. Such failures meant that when Thursday dawned we were so racked by doubt that we missed backing one of the finest training and riding sequences Cheltenham has ever seen. It was a cold and misty morning and when the Mullins team finally arrived they looked as if they needed something more sustaining than the bacon and egg baps so hungrily devoured by we watchers behind the rail. Two days without a winner and Douvan dethroned meant it was set and strained faces that were riding by. As ever David Casey was at the head of affairs on the chestnut Yorkhill and the other winners Un De Sceaux, Nichols Canyon and Let’s Dance were also among the posse – ignored by us, but what a transformation when morning turned to afternoon.
A year ago in this space I wrote that Walsh’s treble on the opening day confirmed him as the greatest festival rider the game has ever seen, so what to make of his four-timer this Thursday? Well it doesn’t matter what anyone says, what they should do is look. For in variation of skill, tactics and technique this was a master class that probably will never be matched in Cheltenham history.
Yorkhill, like that other Presenting-sired chestnut nutcase called Denman, was almost unrideable in his first season and has had his moments this term. But here Walsh had him anchored and jumping with sense as well as soaring power and then brought him up the inside to deliver what, to me, was the single most thrilling moment of the whole week. The festival needed something to sear itself into the retina and in one long, brilliant, stretching leap Yorkhill came through to take the lead and establish himself as the most exciting of all the prospects for next year’s Gold Cup.
Un De Sceaux is a different shape altogether and is about as spring-heeled a little jumper as any jockey ever sat on. But his brakes can be dicey and for a time on Thursday Walsh was little more than a passenger, albeit about as poised as anyone has ever been while being run away with at Cheltenham. He and Un De Sceaux put in leaps that brought a shake of the head and a smile to the face. Pundits could ask “whatever next?” Walsh came up with the answer – Nichols Canyon and Let’s Dance, both settled at the back of their fields and ridden with almost impossible patience to drive up and gut it out on the run-in.
To do this takes nerve and timing but above all requires the overall equine understanding that only experience can bring. In May Walsh will turn 38, but while for footballers and other athletes the mid-30s are the time when the mind makes appointments the body cannot reach, every race brings a jockey a fresh set of legs for which guidance rather than goading is the most important issue. Victories for Davy Russell, whose career goes way back to before the millennium, and for Noel Fehily, an evergreen 41, only emphasise the point. The way Fehily conserves his own and his horse’s energy through a race is an often pointed example to younger riders who, with whirling legs and flailing whip, often mistake activity for achievement.
Russell was the first jockey we met on Tuesday morning and Noel Meade the first trainer. Meade saddled his opening winner in 1970, but despite multiple championships had somehow never turned out a chase winner at the festival until Road To Respect on Thursday. These were lessons enough to demand the face of experience on Thursday and there are few more seasoned than that of Eamonn Leigh, who has been 40 years in the County Kildare yard of Jessica Harrington. We all got to know him when Moscow Flyer ruled the two-mile chasing scene but on Friday he was here with Sizing John for the Gold Cup.
Everyone remembers Sizing John as the perennial runner-up to Douvan, but he won over three miles last time and Leigh had two good, if rather contrasting, reasons for thinking he will stay the Gold Cup trip. The first was that his pedigree suggests he has the stamina and the second was that “Mouse Morris says he will win ‘because the rest are ‘effing Yaks’” Leigh’s quiet confidence is strengthened by the sight of Robbie Power upright and assured among the Harrington-trained trio hacking past. At 35 Power may not quite be of Fehily vintage but it’s ten years since he won the Grand National on Silver Birch and as the son of Irish showjumping legend Con Power there is little he doesn’t know about crossing an obstacle. Despite the almost tangible confidence emanating from the Mullins camp as Ruby cantered round on Djakadam, you felt that Leigh’s hopes were in good hands.
So it was to prove and so also, to my biased but close-positioned eyes, was the TV coverage throughout the week, and in particular around the Gold Cup. With Lizzie Kelly crashing out at the second and Paddy Brennan and Cue Card’s struggles ending at the very same fence but in very different circumstances as last year, it was an event with drama enough but it had commentary and analysis to match. AP McCoy and Mick Fitzgerald had both won Gold Cups and it showed as they spoke to us and to each other with an insight and an enthusiasm only a heart of stone would not appreciate. Broadcasting is about reaching out and welcoming in, and there were more than a few times when it seemed the viewers were being given as warm a hug as the wonderful Jessie Harrington received as she came up to the interview rostrum.
What’s more, under Ed Chamberlin’s skilful and engaging prompting, the humour as well as the expertise of the most successful jump jockey in history is beginning to bubble to the surface. Confronted by his splendid if rather pointy-headed likeness in bronze McCoy quipped “they say it gives better tips and is a lot more animated than I am”. Sitting with Martin Pipe discussing their great days together, the jockey dryly told his former mentor of the gamble landed by Unsinkable Boxer at the 1998 festival, “yes I think that was one of your better achievements”. A compulsory follow-up this summer must be McCoy and Aidan O’Brien teasing Jim Bolger about the days when McCoy was apprentice and O’Brien assistant. There is even a hint of a danger that the acolyte once told he “was not tough enough to be a jump jockey” might be beginning to enjoy this softer life.
One final thing. Cheltenham has done so well with its new stand and other efforts in recent years that it’s hard to think of many improvements beyond better traffic flow around the roads as well as the bars. But there is one trick they should borrow from the Breeders’ Cup in America. Out there every horse to be exercised on the track is given an emblazoned saddle cloth with its name on. It is no hassle to implement, it provides a coveted memento for connections and is utterly invaluable to bystanders and TV crews alike as they stare in bafflement at fairly identical-looking thoroughbreds and ask “which one’s that?”
Who knows, if we actually knew which was which of a morning, we might even turn the prophecies into profit.