The turf

The British shone at Cheltenham

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

For Barbara and Alick Richmond, Living Legend’s game 12-1 victory in Kempton’s 1m 2f Magnolia Stakes last Saturday was their first in a Listed race and it showed. Living Legend had been driven to the front two furlongs out and held on bravely to prevail by a nose. ‘Come here you,’ said Barbara to the treasured Joe Fanning, the veteran jockey who had judged his finish perfectly, and enveloped him in a huge affectionate hug. You felt that if she could she would have picked him up, tucked him under an arm and carted him home to sit on the mantelpiece as a trophy. Of Living Legend, a lightly raced six-year-old who has had injury problems since running in the Dee Stakes at three, she declared proudly: ‘What more could you ask for in a racehorse? He just kept going – he wasn’t going to lose. He’s a real gentleman and he hates horses passing him.’

Kempton’s all-weather track is a far cry from the Cheltenham Festival but I was immediately reminded of my favourite Festival winner, Evan Williams’s 2m 4f chaser Coole Cody who took the Craft Irish Whiskey Plate handicap chase despite being baulked on the final corner. Said jockey Adam Wedge: ‘He’s an absolute warrior. He got cut up on the bend. For a moment I thought: “That’s me done,” but I pulled him out, gave him a crack and I could feel the fire in his belly. He’s an angry horse but that made him angrier.’ Anthropomorphism in both cases? Maybe. But horses can’t talk and if we can’t indulge in a bit of anthropomorphism there’s no point in writing about our glorious sport.

It was wonderful to see the crowds back at the Festival and despite fears that the 23-5 drubbing of British-trained horses by the Irish contingent last year could be repeated, the result was a more respectable 18-10 in favour of the Irish. Look a little more deeply into the figures, though, and the home side should not overdo the optimism. Willie Mullins alone, with ten victories, provided as many winners as all the English-, Welsh- and Scottish-based trainers combined and it would have been 11 for him if Galopin Des Champs had not lost his landing gear at the final fence when a street clear of the field. Henry de Bromhead won the Champion Hurdle again with Honeysuckle and for a second year running trained the first two home in the Gold Cup. The Irish won the other two big championship races too – the Champion Chase with Energumene and the Stayers’ Hurdle for a second time with Flooring Porter on whom Danny Mullins provided the ride of the Festival. On the final day of the Festival, the Irish won all seven races.

We did, though, see a significant difference in the handicaps. The previous year Irish-trained horses had won seven of those with English-based horses successful in only two: this year the score was 5-4 to the English, at least in part because English handicappers have sensibly revised their approach. British horses running in smaller fields had been acquiring inflated handicap ratings. As Hughie Morrison, one of the successful English-based trainers this year, noted: ‘With 22 runners in virtually every handicap in Ireland you could be dropped 3lb for finishing fifth while in the equivalent race in Britain you could end up finishing second in a small field and going up 3lb.’

Numbers alone don’t always prevail. Like Willie Mullins, the multi-horsepower Gordon Elliott sent over a squad of 60 runners but he went home with only two winners and tragically without the talented Ginto who suffered a life-ending injury between obstacles when clearly coming to win his race. What does give pause for thought, though, is that Willie Mullins’s ten winners involved nine owners, seven of whom are based in the UK.

Though Champion Chase favourite Shishkin had a bad hair day, Nicky Henderson once again showed that no one can time a Festival preparation better. As well as winning the Supreme with the new star Constitution Hill and the Mares’ Hurdle with the revitalised Marie’s Rock, he ran second with Jonbon, Epatante, Mister Coffey, Ahorsewithnoname and First Street. But for me the star trainer at the Festival was not Willie Mullins but England’s Venetia Williams. She didn’t send 60 horses to compete – just ten. One was a faller but she won the Brown Advisory with L’Homme Presse. Funambule Sivola was second in the Champion Chase, Frero Banbou was third in the Grand Annual and Fanion d’Estruval fourth in the Ryanair. Pink Legend was second in the Paddy Power Mares’ Chase and in multiple runner events her Christopher Wood was sixth of 23 in the Coral Cup and Green Book fifth of 16 in the Albert Bartlett. Her Royal Pagaille, one of this column’s Twelve to Follow, was only just run out of third in the Gold Cup and she won the Kim Muir with the 40-1 Chambard, coolly ridden by Lucy Turner, while Didero Vallis was third at 66-1. Having been on both each way, I’m always going to remember those two.

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