This years eagerly awaited Cheltenham Festival kicked off on March 15th, and the first point of note was the ground. We were assured it was going to be soft, by the clerk of the course, some local trainers went further, suggesting it would be heavy. Imagine most people’s surprise then, when after a frost delayed start, the times on the opening day, suggested the ground was more like good to soft, with some suggesting the hurdles track might have been even better than that. It definitely resulted in a few of my bets having less chance than anticipated.

The Festival got off to a great start with a top notch renewal of the Supreme Novices, I have to be honest, I didn’t think Champagne Fever would be fast enough for this, but after a great ride from Ruby, were he judged the pace perfectly, he stayed on better than My Tent or Yours, after that one travelled much the best. If he’s going to fulfil his potential the 2nd will have to learn to settle better. He got a good even pace here, yet he still pulled. A flatter track would suit him, as he is all about speed, and the stamina test Cheltenham provides doesn’t suit him. If he settles it might be okay next year.

Next up was the Arkle, which lacked much depth to it. Overturn looked to have it all to do beforehand, and he’s very unlikely to win an Open Grade 1 over fences. He, along with Arvika Ligeonniere, disappointed on the day, neither with much obvious excuses either. Overturn made a mistake at the 3rd last, but looked beat before that. You’d think this would have led to a procession for Simonsig, but even though he won, he was disappointing in my eyes. A pretty much all out, 2 1/4l beating of Baily Green, wasn’t what many were expecting. Yes the 2nd is a decent horse, and probably preferred the better ground, but I was hopping Simonsig would emerge as a challenger to Sprinter Sacre, yet on this performance he’d get lapped.

He can do better though. He pulled to hard here, hardly surprising, since his trainer doesn’t seem to think the racecourse, is any place for racehorses these days. He can also jump much better than he did here, again not that great a surprise, that the fast pace caused some jumping errors, as his two runs this season, were effectively schooling sessions. It was reported afterwards that Simonsig didn’t scope 100%, so all told there is enough reasons to hope he can do much better than this.

I liked the move by Harry Fly, to put blinkers on Rock on Ruby, claim they weren’t going to make it, and then jump out to make all. It was clearly hopped they might sneak a few lengths at the start, and since you should only judge people’s decisions on how good they were when they made them, I quite like this one. The potential was there to catch the others by surprise and get a soft 5l lead. As it turned out it probably backfired, as Rock on Ruby ran a bit free, and ended up using the speed he showed to quicken clear last year, at a much earlier stage.

The winner Hurricane Fly, never looked comfortable through the first half of the race, and came off the bridle 4 out. If Rock on Ruby had settled better, he may well have beaten Hurricane Fly, and he would almost certainly have beaten the 3rd and 4th much easier. It has to be said Hurricane Fly looked set to beat Rock on Ruby, further than the 2 1/2l margin, on the run to the last, and it may be that he idled in front. I’d be wary of giving him much extra for that though, as he is a horse who regularly saunters clear of rivals. The two might meet again at Punchestown, and if it came up genuine good ground I’d fancy Rock on Ruby, with the one doubt, being the fact he ran very flat at Aintree last season, after a much easier race at Cheltenham. The horses finished very slowly at Cheltenham, having gone to fast, and in these circumstances, horses really have to go through the pain barrier, and as such have very hard races.

Quevega turned up to win her 5th successive Mares Hurdle, her connections showing about as much ambition, as someone who froze after getting a 3 in ‘Play Your Cards Right’. Unlike previous years she was made to work for victory this time. This doesn’t mean she’s deteriorated though, and although the pace was better this year, they were still tightly grouped, and she stumbled and lost her place at the top of the hill. That she still won is  a credit to her, and Willie Mullins deserves praise for getting her here in top form once again. That’s were my admiration ends though, and I find it very unsportsmanlike to continually refuse to take on challenges, that she would start favourite to achieve.

Day two saw The New One show a very good turn of foot, to win a slowly run Neptune. His speed had been apparent before the race, from his previous 2nd to At Fishers Cross, and quite how Ruby Walsh, thought he was going to win a sprint from 3 out on Pont Alexandre, I’m not sure. Maybe he felt Pont Alexandre was never travelling for whatever reason, and couldn’t go faster. This race was the classic example of when an easy lead, is of little use. By the time they reached the 2nd last, having expended little energy, I was very confident my selection, The New One would win. There’s little point having a few lengths start at this point, if you’re much slower than the horses behind. That Pont Alexandre would prove too slow, in these circumstances was entirely predictable, and while Ruby Walsh deservedly gets a lot of praise, most of the time, he had a shocker here. Maybe he has an excuse for going so slow, but if so, I haven’t heard it.

Lord Windermere won a substandard RSA chase, and I wouldn’t expect him to threaten in the Gold Cup next season. One who’d have more chance is Boston Bob, who fell when looking the winner at the last. He seemed to be idling having made a move 4 wide on the bend, and I think he’d have found enough to win. It wasn’t a great ride, but in his jockeys defence, he briefly came off the bridle, and when he shook him up, the horse really picked up, and he probably couldn’t take a pull then.

Sprinter Sacre bolted up in the Champion Chase, beating former champion Sizing Europe by 19l. While he won easily, that margin flatters him somewhat, as the 2nd stumbled around the bend, costing him a few lengths, and also finished very tired, having tried to go with Sprinter Sacre. Had he been ridden a touch more conservatively, he probably would have got closer. I don’t think Sizing Europe is as good as he was though, and while Sprinter Sacre is undoubtedly a very good horse, he has yet to beat a very good horse, at the peak of their powers. He certainly hasn’t come up against the type of horse Moscow Flyer routinely beat. Hopefully Flemenstar recovers fully, and takes him on at Punchestown. I would be surprised if he didn’t give him much more of a race, than anything else has thus far.

Briar Hill won the bumper well, staying on very strongly to go clear. He isn’t as flashy as previous winners of this, indeed he mustn’t be flashy at home either, judged by his 25/1 SP. This years race didn’t look that high in quality, but the winner is sure to progress, and will probably make a very decent Staying Chaser in time.

Benefficient received a wonderful ride from Bryan Cooper in Thursday’s opener, The Jewson. After making the running, he was headed by the favourite Dynaste and Captain Conan 3 out. He didn’t however come off the bridle, and just tucked in behind that pair. When they faltered on the run to the last, he came back up the inside, and had enough in the tank to win by 3 1/4l. It seemed clear cut at the line, but I’m of the opinion, that had he tried to maintain his advantage when challenged, like most jockeys would have done, he too, would have finished weakly. It’s to his riders immense credit, that he chose to let the other two at it, and pick them off, when they shot their bolt. Ride of the meeting for me.

Cue Card set a decent pace in the Ryanair, and was hassled for a long way, by Champion Court, it’s to his credit that he kept going strongly from the home bend, while that one stopped to a walk on the run in. His trainer suggested Joe didn’t go fast, and managed to steady it up, the sectionals don’t back that up however, and while Cue Card won going away, he wasn’t picking up, rather staying on better than the rest. I thought beforehand that stamina might be an issue for him, but he clearly stays this trip well. The extra few furlongs of the King George, might still be to much though.

I’m not sure quite what to make of the World Hurdle. I’ve no idea how Richard Johnson though he was going to win it off an early crawl, yet he still didn’t seem to want to do anything about it. He was lucky Bryan Cooper decided to go on with Bog Warrior, which gave him some chance. Why a jockey on a horse that needs a true test at the trip to win, would stand still at the start, when nobody else looked like leading, I’ve no idea. As it turns out its possible Bog Warrior kicked for home a little soon, although its equally possible, his weak finish was related to an injury he suffered. Solwhit proved the trip was no problem, and got a good ride from Paul Carberry. Himself and the 2nd, were having their first start at 3 miles. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Big Bucks wouldn’t have had to overly extend himself, to have beaten both of them though.

The rain came on Friday, and although it got worse throughout the card, the official Good to Soft, Good in places description before the first race, was likely never correct. Our Conor turned that race, the Triumph Hurdle into a procession, sitting 2nd from the start, off what was a decent gallop, and quickened clear after the 2nd last, for a very impressive victory. Quite what he beat remains to be seen, but he must have a decent chance of turning into a real Champion Hurdle contender next season. He jumps super, and a better race, run at a proper gallop should suit him even more.

The rain that came probably suited At Fishers Cross, in what looked a decent Albert Bartlett. The pace was very steady, and I suspect had it been faster, he would have won by a good deal further. It remains to be seen if he’ll be as good on better ground, but he has now twice showed strong form, in steadily run races, despite looking like he’d be even better with a proper gallop.

The Gold Cup looked a much better race this year, than last. Indeed unlike this year, when it looked like the 2nd seasons chasers would dominate, I would expect the first two this season, to be the two to beat again next year. Sam Waley Cohen did the right thing on Long Run, by making the running. He looks a pretty slow horse these days, and was unlikely to win a slowly run affair. I didn’t think Sir Des Champs ever travelled at all. AP always seemed to be niggling a bit, a slap down the neck, here and there too. He did get some good jumps out of him, but unlike when he jumped out of his jockeys hands, last season on better ground, it was only due to his jockey really asking for them, that he did it, this time. I got the impression if AP had just sat on him, the horse would have slowed into the fences, like he did at Leopardstown over Christmas. On better ground next year, he should have a real chance.

It’s impossible to know where Silviniaco Conti would have finished, had he not falling 3 out, he was still travelling fine. He sightly hampered Bobs Worth when he fell, but that one stayed on very strongly from that point. On previous form, better ground would also suit Bob’s Worth, but he is more dependant on a strong pace, and could get caught out, in a slower run affair. I also wouldn’t fancy him in a King George. The trip would be a bit short, and he does seem better left handed.

If there was one horse I’d take from the meeting from a betting point of view, it was Make Your Mark, who came 4th in the Martin Pipe Conditional. That morning I really strongly fancied him. I thought he was thrown in off 133, and mentioned he could easily be a 150 horse. Unfortunately he needs decent ground, and the rain ruined his chance. I clearly wasn’t the only one who thought he was well handicapped  as he was a well backed 8/1 shot, even though the ground was probably heavy by the race. The winner of the race, won with more in hand than the margin, having idled, but had the ground come up like the official description before racing, I think Make Your Mark would have gone off 4/1, and bolted up. Quite an assumption, but everything he did in the race suggests we’re dealing with a very well handicapped horse. He travelled really well, and just couldn’t pick up in that ground, before finishing quite tired. I hope he goes to Aintree, as I don’t expect he’ll be as well handicapped in Ireland. I think he’s also 133 in Ireland, and was leniently treated by the UK handicapper, who normally adds about 8lb, on to the Irish rating. I did notice the Irish horses did seem to have less added on than usual this year though. My research in Hit or Myth – Are Irish Trained Horses Badly Hcp in UK suggest a 7lb rise, for Irish Hurdlers would be fair. It would be slightly less at the 130 rating range, but would still suggest he’d be better off 133 in the UK, than Ireland.

No review of Cheltenham 2013 would be complete, without acknowledging the risks jockeys take on a daily basis, for our enjoyment, and its on that note that I wish JT McNamara, a full and speedy recovery, from the injuries he sustained at the Festival. Good news emerged today that he has no brain injury, and while the extent of his other injuries is not yet known, it is safe bet, that whatever they are, he will take them on, with the same determination to succeed, that he applies to his life in the saddle. Good Luck JT.


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