A Festival that promised plenty, and delivered in style. The main four championship events all produced exciting races as well as decisive and deserving winners. Hurricane Fly laid to rest the theory that he wouldn’t get up the hill and but for injury, it could well have been his third win at the meeting. The Festival hasn’t always been kind to Sizing Europe, he had the 2008 Champion Hurdle at his mercy before going wrong after two out but his last two visits have been much more rewarding as he added the Champion Chase to his 2010 Arkle win. Much of the focus of that race centred on Master Minded and Big Zeb but Sizing Europe showed all the hallmarks of a top-class two-mile chaser, going with bags of enthusiasm close up and jumping superbly.
A pedestrian pace couldn’t prevent the two best horses coming to the fore in the World Hurdle and despite Ruby Walsh dropping his whip, the reigning champion Big Buck’s proved too strong for the young pretender Grands Crus. A rematch at Aintree will be worth seeing but surely of more interest would be Big Buck’s dropping to two and a half miles to take on the likes of Peddlers Cross and Solwhit over two and a half miles. Looking beyond that, am I the only one that thinks Big Buck’s would be a natural for the Ascot Gold Cup? We know he isn’t reliant on testing ground, he has stamina in abundance but equally is certainly no plodder and there is nothing at all among the Flat stayers who would have anything like his natural ability. If Rite Of Passage can come from the Festival to win a Gold Cup, then I’m sure Big Buck’s can. Andy Stewart comes across as a sporting man and surely has very little to lose by having a crack. Though yet to have a Flat runner, I believe Paul Nicholls now has a dual-purpose licence. Come on guys, you know it makes sense. The campaign starts here!
It’s possible that Big Buck’s could switch back to chasing, but even if he does, it’s hard to imagine next year’s Gold Cup being any more thrilling than Friday’s renewal. The run to the third last was one of those moments in sport that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and was captured perfectly by Richard Hoiles, ‘Imperial Commander, Kauto Star and Denman – A Who’s Who of Gold Cup history.’ One by one the old guard dropped away to be overtaken by Long Run who has confirmed he is top dog amongst the staying ranks now. Sam Waley-Cohen has had to endure plenty of criticism, some of it from me, and not all of it deserved, but no-one can deny now that he’s fully entitled to continue his association with Long Run. His graciousness in victory, without the need for ‘I told you so’s’ is a lesson some others in the sport could learn from.
Kauto Star and Denman both vindicated Paul Nicholls’ decision to keep them on the go rather than retire them and it’s likely they will run again. I have to say were either of them mine, the temptation would be there for them to bow out now, very close to the top. Denman will surely prove vulnerable to fresher legs in the Hennessy again, and victory for Kauto Star at either Punchestown in May or Down Royal in November will add little to his legacy.
Whilst Paul Nicholls deserves plenty of credit for bringing them out for one last stand, the training performance of the week should go to Jonjo O’Neill for what he managed with Get Me Out Of Here. Okay the horse was narrowly beaten in the closest finish of the week, but to get him back in the condition he was in considering how he’d performed earlier in the season was nothing short of wondrous. He was transformed from the hard-pulling, weak-finishing horse that needed kidding home to find plenty up the hill, going down only on the nod. A fine advert for the use of a tongue strap and a breathing operation.
Those who have read this blog before will know I was quite critical of the way that the Festival dominates the jumps season and how horses have missed large parts of it to be kept fresh. Looking at how those horses got on raises the question again as to whether those that hadn’t run since the turn of the year gained any advantage. Over the four days, of 487 declared horses 60 of them hadn’t run (including Flat races and point-to-points) since 31st December (12.3%). Of the 92 places available from the 27 races, 9 filled one of those positions (9.8%). I’m sure those with a greater knowledge of statistics could pick holes in such methodology, but to me this suggests there was very little to be gained from keeping horses fresh. Hopefully it will prove just a fad rather than a trend.
The final thing I wanted to comment on refers to the non-runner no bet policy offered in the weeks leading up to the race by many bookmakers. I’ve come round to thinking that it’s a good idea to get involved in the handicaps where 10/1 the field races when they are priced up at the entry stage are inevitably 5/1 the field at declaration time. If you are well on top of the jumps form (I’m not) then there’s certainly value to be had by finding those that will shorten dramatically, but in the graded races, I’m just not sure it’s worthwhile. Throughout the week, there was excellent value to be had at best morning prices, with bookmakers desperate to compete for business. Horses like Cue Card and Time For Rupert which had been around the 9/4 mark for most of the six weeks before Cheltenham were suddenly knocked out to 3/1, there were even bigger prices about for horses like Master Minded and Grands Crus compared to what they had been at the non-runner no bet stage. The vast majority of the races were priced at less than 0.5% a runner and in many cases the books were overbroke.
Unsurprisingly this caused some issue with some people not being able to have as much as they wanted on these horses, but given that the prices were available in the shops in most cases, I think the majority of people were probably accommodated to satisfactory levels. These offers are well worth bearing in mind in twelve months time when mulling over whether to take short odds on your banker at the non-runner no bet stage.