The racing spectacle that is Cheltenham is over for another year and fans, punters, race aficionados and pundits have had time to reflect on a packed four days of elite equine action. Here are five things that we learned from Cheltenham this year.
1. Be Wary Of Certainties!
Compared to the 2016 Festival, when one favourite after another obliged, this year Cheltenham proved to be a minefield for favourite-backers. Of the 28 favourites to set off at Prestbury Park, only six passed the winning post first and there were scares for two of those, with Altior eventually prevailing in the Arkle after Charbel fell at the second last and Might Bite nearly snatching defeat from victory in the RSA.
Of the beaten favourites, the most notable was Douvan, turned over at 2-9 in the Champion Chase. Limini in the Mares Hurdle, Yanworth in the Champion Hurdle, Neon Wolf in the Neptune and Unowhatimeanharry in the Stayers also all crashed and burned, underlining the fact that taking a short price in such competitive races can be a risky business.
2. Irish Dominance Strengthens
Back in 1989, when the Festival only included 18 races, Ireland failed to register a single winner, but the powerful reserves of talent purchased by Rich Ricci, Gigginstown and the continuing influence of JP McManus have been fuelling an Irish renaissance in recent years. Ireland averaged 13 winners per Festival over the last four years, but in 2017, that dominance increased significantly, with 19 winners out of 28.
This year, it was Gordon Elliott who led the way from Willie Mullins, but there was also a significant contribution from Ireland’s most successful woman trainer, Jessica Harrington. There is no question that the balance of power in jumps racing lies over the Irish Sea and this year Cheltenham reflected that dominance.
3. Don’t Write Off Willie Mullins
Much was made of Gigginstown’s decision to switch their horses from Willie Mullins to Gordon Elliott last year and the bad news continued all season for the Mullins yard, as they tragically lost Vautour to a freak accident and saw Annie Power and Faugheen ruled out of the Festival with injury. By Wednesday night, with no winners on the board, it seemed as though we could be looking at the end of an era.
Those writing off Willie Mullins should have known better. Thursday saw a spectacular four-timer for the reigning Irish Champion Trainer and though he may be eclipsed this year by Elliott, the wily campaigner will be back as strong as ever next season.
4. A Star Is Born
Teenager Jack Kennedy has been earning rave reviews all season and he showed no signs of being daunted on jump racing’s biggest occasion. The 17-year-old’s ride on the tricky Labaik in the Festival opener was a consummate display of skill and earned him a Cheltenham winner at his first attempt. It’s worth noting that neither Ruby Walsh nor Tony McCoy had recorded a winner at the same age and Kennedy seems set for stardom.
5. Small Is Sometimes Beautiful
Racing is bigger business than ever, thanks to the influence of high-spending owners and many punters have a tendency to look down on a horse from a smaller stable. But that can be a mistake. With the market increasingly dominated by the major stables and owners, there is value to be had elsewhere, as demonstrated by the success of Domesday Book, trained by Stuart Edmunds at a small yard in Newton Pagnell, who landed the Kim Muir at the healthy odds of 40/1.