There have been some stellar performances during the first three days of the Cheltenham Festival. Appreciate It, Shishkin and Honeysuckle were superb on the opening afternoon on Tuesday, Bob Olinger looked a superstar in the making on Wednesday, while Allaho produced an awesome display in the Ryanair Chase on day three. Rachel Blackmore, who partnered three of those, has been the star of the week with 5 winners and still one day to go.
Not surprisingly, the Irish horses have completely outclassed their British counterparts winning 9 of the 11 Grade 1 events during the first three days. That trend looks set to continue on the final afternoon, too. Honeysuckle was brilliant in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday extending her unbeaten record to 12 races. The daughter of Sulamani quickened after the second last to take charge before bounding clear to win by six and a half lengths. With the exception of Goshen, who was hanging throughout and failing to handle the track, there were no excuses in behind. Epatante held every chance but never looked like retaining her crown.
Predictably, the Arkle Trophy was run to suit Shishkin with Allmankind and Captain Guinness playing into the hands of Nicky Henderson's top chaser chaser. The front running pair had shot their bolts by the time Nico De Boinville's mount jumped to the front at the third last. Stretching clear in the homestraight, the winning margin was a dozen lengths. The seven year old has the option of going to Aintree for the Maghull Novices' Chase but it wouldn't be a surprise if he is put away for the summer.
Bob Olinger had looked a top notch novice when landing the Grade 1 Lawlor's of Naas Novice Hurdle in early January and he looked even better in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle on Wednesday. With two other Grade 1 winners in opposition, namely Bravemansgame and Gaillard Du Mesnil, it looked his stiffest test to date but Henry De Bromhead's former pointer treated the pair with disdain and readily sauntered clear on the home turn before pulling away. Chasing will surely be on his agenda next Autumn and he could go to the very top over fences.
As far as Thursday was concerned, it was disappointing to see Envoi Allen lose his unbeaten record when an early casualty in the Marsh Novices' Chase. Transferred to Henry De Bromhead earlier this month, the dual Festival winner looked on edge beforehand and made an uncharacteristic mistake at the fourth fence and paid the price. Subscribers to the Cheltenham Festival Update (page 22) will be aware that I passed on news that the former Gordon Elliott trained gelding hadn't settle in too well to his new surroundings and the seven year old certainly didn't look at ease beforehand. It will be interesting to see if he heads to Aintree next month to gain compensation.
The performance of the day came from Allaho who claimed his first Grade 1 victory at the sixth attempt in the Ryanair Chase. Placed at the Festival twice, the ex-French gelding had won at Thurles last time but he produced a career best here and by some margin. Given a no nonsense ride by Rachel Blackmore, he jumped superbly and maintained a breakneck gallop to destroy his ten opponents by upwards of a dozen lengths. Considering the speed he went from the outset, it was an unbelievable performance which had so many of his rivals in trouble a long way from home.
The Top 40 Prospects in One Jump Ahead have had an excellent week with 4 winners, Shishkin, Bob Olinger, Sir Gerhard and Chantry House (9/1). I was delighted to see Sir Gerhard win in the bumper on Wednesday. Once again, it was wise words of Irish expert Declan Phelan who steered me in the direction of the gelded son of Jeremy. Declan has put us on to the likes of Champagne Fever, Envoi Allen, Ferny Hollow and now Sir Gerhard (all four won the Festival bumper) in recent years. I know a lot of clients backed Sir Gerhard at fancy prices in the Autumn. Rachel Blackmore rode a brilliant race dictating from the outset.
Two horses who ran well in defeat included Happygolucky who had the misfortune to bump into a revitalised Vintage Clouds in the Ultima Handicap Chase on Tuesday. Kim Bailey's charge ran a cracker but made a few mistakes at crucial times, which may have been the difference between winning and losing. Still lightly raced, he can win something similar next season.
Ultimately, The Big Breakaway was no match for Monkfish in the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase but he jumped much better and was still a threat at the top of the hill. I assume the Tizzard's felt the gelding wasn't clicking with Robbie Power hence the giant six year old was partnered by Harry Cobden for the first time. Racing prominently throughout, he went toe to toe with Willie Mullins' dual Festival winner for much of the contest until a mistake at the third last finished him off. Fair play to his connections for trying to win the race but such tactics probably cost him second place, which ironically went to stablemate Fiddlerontheroof, who was ridden by Power.
As far as the Update is concerned, we have 5 winners on the board. There were plenty of near misses on Tuesday, including Saint Sam in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. Thursday was a poor day though with all the selections well held by the time the runners got to the final obstacle. Fury Road appeared to get unsettled by an early mistake in the Stayers' Hurdle and never got involved, Champagne Platinum ran creditably in the Pertemps Final but over raced and didn't stay the trip. Imperial Alcazar jumped poorly and let us down for the second time this season, while Sully D'Oc AA ran well for a long way in the Paddy Power Plate until his stamina gave way. In the same event, Caribean Boy wasn't done any favours by the shambolic false starts. Traditionally, I never seem to do well on the Thursday of the Festival but never learn my lesson. Fingers crossed we can end of the week on a high on Friday.
One final thought from the first three days, not only have the Irish horses outclassed their British counterparts but that also applies to the jockeys. Yes, the riders need the right horse underneath them but some of the UK jockey's haven't helped themselves with some of the rides they have given their partners this week. The gulf in both departments is huge.
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