Neither Homer, nor any of the other Ancient Greek classicists could have written a more compelling first chapter. With heart break and hard luck, starkly contrasting Herculean efforts that rewrote the records books, Day One of the Cheltenham Festival was rife with drama, glory and tragedy that even Odysseus could not carry on his shoulders.
Even with all of the headlines from the afternoon, special praise must be reserved for the wonder-mare Quevega, who triumphed in the OLBG Mares Hurdle for a sixth consecutive time. This isn’t just a good horse competing in an easy race and steam-rolling it once again, another walk over for a far superior creature. This is the stuff of legends that is deserving of the highest praise. To keep a horse sound and fit and to get them to the track 6 years in succession is in itself a minor miracle. To have them primed and ready to give their all, is again more impressive. But to overcome luck, or even to make your own luck, and to be there at the business end when it matters and to put your head in front and win, is what separate real legends, true heroes and heroines, for mere Champions. For the sixth year in a row Quevega, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh defied all in their path to forge an incredible bond and a record which will not be broken for many years. She surpasses the record of 5 Festival wins set by Golden Miller back in the 1930’s, and it’s quite conceivable we may have to wait another 80-odd years to see this record broken. If you ever have the pleasure of seeing Quevega in the flesh, please remember to bow or curtsey. She deserves every ounce of glory we can heap onto her.
That was not the only drama of the afternoon for the mighty team of Messers Mullins and Walsh. The deadly duo kicked the day off with a master class of tactics in a high quality Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Ruby conducting affairs from the front aboard Vantour, using Machiavellian control to ensure the race unfolded exactly how his charge required it. He quickened the pace, he took a pull, and he stormed up the hill with his competitors trailing in his wake. If ever we needed a wake up call to the ability of the Mullins/Walsh partnership and the calibre of their stable, they were kind enough to supply it early in the week when we have a chance to look, listen and learn. Vantour rolled in an impressive 7/2 joint favourite and got the meeting off to a great start. Irving, the fellow joint favourite who was so fancied in the morning, never got into the race to throw down a challenge. It is yet to be revealed what was amiss, but this was not a good day at the office for him.
The same partnership was in the spotlight in the Arkle, a race that appeared an unfathomable enigma before the tapes went up. Those who swiftly accepted the lessons from the first, to side with Mullins and Walsh, and employed them in the Arkle would have felt mighty proud coming to the last, with Champagne Fever looking the winner all over, a few lengths clear of the field. However it was a day when Western Warhorse had the wind in his sail, felt the power and surged up the hill. A foot perfect jump at the last meant he shot away from the obstacle with only Champagne Fever in his sights. He charged down his rival and got to him, desperately, in the final stride, sticking his head out to win by the slenderest of margins. Winning jockey Tom Scudamore timed his assault to perfection, as he attacked and passed Champagne Fever so late in the race that Ruby Walsh didn’t have a chance to react. Although a shock winner at 33/1, everyone likes to see an outsider belly his odds and Western Warhorse was a very impressive, and deserved victor. It added a further layer to the roller-coaster of an afternoon; Mullins and Walsh tasting glory and despair minutes apart, and a handsome dollop of drama thrown in for good measure.
And having already experienced a bounty of glory, drama and despair, the Stan James Champion Hurdle gave us tragedy. One of the strongest renewals in the recent years, and with all the top two mile hurdlers from England and Ireland pitting their wits, it was never going to be anything other than spectacular. Setting off at a break-neck speed the field attacked their hurdles like winged Pegasi, disappearing over the obstacles with grace and precision. In the back straight Our Conor sadly came to grief, falling when in the lead and impeding The New One. In a tragic hand of fate he was injured beyond repair and so sadly had to be put down. It again shows that when the stakes are so high, the competition so fierce, the risks are also terrible. It is because of this that the quality, ability and skill demonstrated is even more impressive.
In the episode The New One lost momentum, which in effect ruined his chances of winning, and the fight was left to three as they turned onto the home straight. Hurricane Fly, the reigning champ and old master gave his damnedest but the day was reserved for the new generation, and the JP McManus-owned pair of Jezki and My Tent Or Yours battled it out up the hill, the former victorious by just a neck. The New One regained his poise and momentum after the unlucky interruption and charged up the hill to earn an impressive third. Glory for McManus, Harrington and Geraghty and this should not be underestimated; they were the best horse on the day, made their own luck and deserve high praise. The race does emphasise the oh-so fine line between glory and tragedy, and make Quevega’s achievement appear even more remarkable.
The three handicaps were also fascinating affairs, with relatively short-priced fancied runners to the fore. No massive shocks were sprung and it appears that the solid form stood up.
In short, Day One was nothing short of spectacular. A microcosm to everything that makes the sport of horse racing so beautiful and so compelling. We have learnt not to underestimate Mullins/Walsh and to look for horses with form on undulating tracks. These clues are essential weapons in the coming three days. So, on to Day Two…
RACE 1: Neptune Investment Management Hurdle
The first race, off at 13:30, is the Neptune Investment Management Hurdle, a Grade One over two miles five furlongs. With great strength in depth across the 16 runners, Day Two gets off to an intriguing start. The horse of immediate interest is Faugheen, victorious over Josses Hill early in the season by 22 lengths (Josses Hill went on to be second in the Supreme Novices’ yesterday). That is rock solid form, as are his three further victories, and he is a worthy favourite at 7/4 that deserves all of our respect. He represents Messers Mullins and Walsh again, and we have already learnt the lesson from them through Vautour. David Pipe, already with a 2014 Festival winner, fancies Red Sherlock as his best chance of the week and at 4/1 he is going to be a tough opponent. He has won all 6 of his starts, including two around Cheltenham, form that must be respected, and he will be throwing down his challenge at the line. Those looking for a little more value would do well to side with Lieutenant Colonel who has rock solid form in Ireland and is an unexposed type who could be anything.
Win: Faugheen, 7/4 EW: Lieutenant Colonel, 12/1
RACE 2: RSA Chase
Up next, the second race on the card is the RSA Chase, an event that has been the spring board to glorious careers for many chasing stars. This is a very competitive renewal and the market reflects that with little to split the field. Smad Place was a high class hurdler and has translated his form to the larger obstacles. Sam Winner and Le Bec have both won over fences around Cheltenham, something to take very seriously, and the latter in particular looks to have a particularly good each way chance. Ballycasey is a talented operator, however, after a fall whilst schooling at the racecourse recently, question marks hang over his jumping and confidence, and therefore in an event where there is no room for error, the 5/1 favourite is worth taking on. An intriguing runner is Morning Assembly, who has very solid form lines and has run against the best in Ireland. He is yet to encounter good ground, but he appears to have the profile of an RSA winner and could go on to big things.
Win: Morning Assembly, 7/1 EW: Le Bec, 14/1
RACE 3: Coral Cup
The third race of the day is the Coral Cup, an ultra competitive handicap consisting of 28 runners. To win such an event one will need a huge degree of luck in running to be in the right place at the right time. A couple of horses with interesting profiles are Whisper from the Nicky Henderson yard, ridden by Nico de Boinville who will take a valuable 5lb of his back. He has winning form at Cheltenham and run close in defeat and should be there or thereabouts at the finish. Also Cotton Mill could run a big race, putting in a blinder in 2012 in the Neptune before unseating the jockey late on. He could run a nice race at an attractive price.
EW: Whisper, 18/1 EW: Cotton Mill, 16/1
RACE 4: Queen Mother Champion Chase
At 15:20 we have the championship race of the day, the Queen Mother Champion Chase over 2 miles. A highlight of the Festival, it is fast and furious with no room for error. Sadly this year is shadowed by the absence of the wonderful Sprinter Sacre, the highest rated chaser in training and victor in the last two renewals. As a result of SS not being with us, we have a more competitive affair, even if the quality is not so high. Sire de Grugy has been an able deputy all season, winning Grade One steeplechases in emphatic style, but many seem to think he is best when able to get his toe in and question his ability to handle the better going. A 3/1, he has drifted markedly in recent weeks and the bookies are doing their best to entice you. Alternatively Captain Conan for Nicky Henderson is a top class chaser who has beaten Sire de Grugy this season, has for round Cheltenham and is a solid option at 5/1. However Kid Cassidy is cited as a further alternative with better value at 11/1. Although a tricky customer, he has beaten Sire de Grugy over course and distance and the champion jockey, AP McCoy, knows how to get the very best out of him.
Win: Captain Conan, 5/1 EW: Kid Cassidy, 11/1
RACE 5: Cross Country Chase
An entertaining race greets us at 16:00, with the Cross Country Chase over walls, hedges, ditches and all other obstacles the ground staff can find to throw at the horses. Enda Bolger has an unrivalled reputation in this unique discipline, largely through his supreme Spot Thedifference who won multiple runnings. Big Shu is general 9/2 favourite and deservedly so, having won many similar events already this season. Bolger’s Star Neuville is a good alternative though for respected connections at 7/1 with little weight on his back.
Win: Big Shu, 9/2 EW: Star Neuville, 7/1
RACE 6: Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle
The Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle is the sixth race of the day, a hurdle over 2 miles. Run at a frenetic gallop, this is a handicap for the youngest hurdlers all vying to make a name for themselves. It is not unusual to find a rough gem somewhere, an unexposed sort who has not had his ground or trip and will deliver his best on the big day. Dawalan has strong form for Henderson and Geraghty who have historically held a strong hand with these types, however there may be more value elsewhere and it may be worth taking on the 6/1 favourite. The form of Clarcam, hailing from the Gordon Elliott yard who was successful last in this race last year, has solid form against top horses and looks to be a good option at 14/1. Elsewhere and at a bigger price, Handiwork will appreciate the better ground and has recorded a couple of decent hurdle victories this season already. At 33/1 he could offer great value, with pilot Sam Twiston Davies looking to gain vengeance for his hard luck in Tuesdays Champion Hurdle.
EW: Clarcam, 14/1 EW: Handiwork, 33/1
RACE 7: Weatherby’s Champion Bumper
The final race is the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, a 2 mile ‘flat race’ for young horses who are new to the game, aiming to give experience to the top-draw talents. Willie Mullins has a mightily impressive record in the race with multiple victories in recent years, and he is represented by three charges this year. His horses are almost inseparable in the market, with two at 7/1 and one at 8/1, and no one, including the master himself, will probably be able to tell who is superior until they turn for home. In the past son Patrick Mullins has picked the correct horse and again we will trust his judgement, with Black Hercules. Elsewhere, more value and something more to build dreams on could be found in Definitely Red for the home side, under champion jockey AP McCoy, a dual winner at a sumptuous 20/1.
Win: Black Hercules, 7/1 EW: Definitely Red, 20/1
I think it is fair to say that Day One was victory for the bookmakers. With Irving, Champagne Fever, The New One and Hurricane Fly all being turned over punters had a torrid time. Although all we could ever have demanded in drama and intrigue arrived in a mere 5 hours of racing, we have the pleasure, nay the privilege, to a further 3 days and 15 hours of stirring spectacle. We weren’t far away with our selections yesterday, the method is working. Keep faith, knuckle down and go forth. Today will be a great day, and the glory of the star horses will be mirrored with us, mere punters, in our field of combat, the betting ring. Good luck on Day Two and enjoy the feast of riches in this wonderful sport.
by The Ferret
All odds supplied by http://www.paddypower.com. For more details on the festival, please check here: