THE TIMES, 18 March 2021
Unscripted theatre is one of racing’s greatest attractions. Of course the obvious will happen, but so too something as unexpected as the implacable Put The Kettle On out steaming Chacun Pour Soi in the Champion Chase, or the perfectly named Heaven Help Us running away with the Coral Cup at 33-1. Or even the supposedly spent Tiger Roll coming back to Cheltenham Festival Glory for an astonishing fifth time.
The obvious came in the first, Rachael Blackmore and Henry De Bromhead continuing where they left off as Bob Olinger took the Ballymore every bit as impressively as Honeysuckle had whizzed home for them in the Champion Hurdle. We first experimented with on-helmet cameras way back in the 70s and it has taken a while for both the idea and the technology to become acceptable but it has never paid a better dividend than the sight through Harry Cobden’s helmet eyeline of Rachael Blackmore’s hand hard on the rein as Bob Olinger’s neck appeared beside him with the last hurdle and the Cheltenham grandstand up ahead.
That’s the feel you want as you turn in and tilt for glory, that’s what all the pundits will promise you but does not necessarily deliver. Bob Olinger is named after the last sucker to get shot by Billy The Kid but from what we saw yesterday he will be taking plenty of victims of his own. He won his only point to point two years ago, his only bumper last season and this was his third hurdle victory in a row and from the look of him he could be even better over fences.
But we said this was unscripted and it only took one more race for Rachael Blackmore to find herself in the unhappiest of ad-libs as Eklat De Rire unceremoniously unseated her at the 12th fence something Balko Des Flos repeated for her in Tiger Roll’s cross country. Rachael has far too many credits for anyone to start doubts from this double and most will say that Monkfish’s uneasy moments on his way to six length victory ahead of the riderless Eklat De Rire can be excused for the continuation of his seven race and four chase winning streak. Nonetheless this was not the majestic, certain future Gold Cup winner that we had been promised and which his 1-4 starting price suggested.
Sure, Monkfish is a magnificent looking brute, a huge handsome chestnut with a large kind eye, long inquisitive ears and a simple snaffle bit as proof of his temperament. He walked round the paddock as calmly as a troop horse on ceremonial duty and loped along at the head of the field with a big rolling stride that made you envy Paul Townend in the saddle. We already knew Monkfish’s honesty from the way he battled back from to win the Albert Bartlett at last year’s Festival and there was much to admire from the way he finally put this to bed after the riderless Eklat De Rire forced him into a birch smashing mistake at the last. But if he got an “A” for effort there were moments no better than a “C” for jumping. Paul Townend put it pithily, “we didn’t seem to be on the same page at times.” They will need to get the script more clearly typed next season.
If Monkfish had made things a bit awkward for Townend and Willie Mullins, Chacun Pour Soi was a miscue. True there was absolutely no disgrace in his close and gallant third behind Put The Kettle On and Nube Negra but, even more than with Monkfish, this was as we had been assured by the experts. Chacun Pour Soi was that most coveted of things, an Irish banker of the equine not of the dodgy Celtic Tiger variety. It was St Patrick’s Day, Irish horse were set to win almost all the races, that’s why Chacun Pour Soi started at odds-on.
It’s not his fault that the pundits claimed defeat was out of the question. He too is a picture of power and moved smoothly through the race. But the Champion Chase is a place where no quarter is asked or given, particularly this year when the race was run three seconds slower than Shishkin’s Arkle on the previous day. It was not interference that caused his defeat, indeed it was he who tightened his rivals up against the rails as they came round the last turn. It was that he was not quite as good or as tough as the wonderful Cheltenham warrior that is Put The Kettle On.
They landed over the last together but the set of her neck, the tilt of her head told us that she was going to take him and in those final yards you could see tiredness clutching as Chacun Pour Soi wilted and the Spanish born Nube Negra came past to get to half a length at the line and would have been even closer but for stumbling after the last.
Yet for unscripted wonder nothing could compare with Heaven Help Us and Richie Condon’s all the way demolition of the 26 runner Coral Cup field to make Paul Hennessy the first man to double up training a Greyhound Derby winner with one at the Cheltenham Festival. Hennessy has far more greyhounds than horses, forty to two. Richie Condon has only ridden eight winners in his life and just two this season. But they knew what they were doing. Heaven Help Us set off as with “devil take the hindmost” and all us pundits had to eat humble pie.
Life is full of know-alls and naysayers. Don’t believe what they tell you. It and Cheltenham could be better than that.