It’s just 359 days to the start of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival! And for some the countdown has already began, with a few bookmakers having already opened books on next year’s major races.
I don’t know about you, but I find the few days after the end of festival hard to come to terms with. Suddenly you have that empty feeling, as last week’s top-class action gives way to the mediocre fare we can look forward to this week.
Oh well, at least the start of the Flat season isn’t too far away. This time next week the new Irish flat season will have begun, and at the end of next week Doncaster gets the British flat season underway with the Lincoln Meeting.
Given how the British weather has been of late, who would be surprised if Doncaster was cancelled due to snow. It’s spring after all!
Here’s my take on events from last week’s Cheltenham Festival. Some you will agree with, some you won’t, in fact you may well have a completely different list to me.
Blackmore, Kelly & Frost: It’s Ladies First
They sound like they should be a firm of solicitors. Instead they are three jockeys who lit-up Cheltenham last week.
Rachel Blackmore rode two winners and she’s still in with a chance of becoming the Irish Champion Jockey. If the horse is good enough, she’s good enough. I would put her in the top five jockeys in Ireland and she’s the best female jockey, either flat or National Hunt, produced in Britain or Ireland.
Lizzie Kelly enjoyed Cheltenham Festival success last year and she had another winner this year. Her ride on the bold jumping Siruh Du Lac to win the Festival Plate was as good as any over the four days. I think she’s a stronger and better jockey than Bryony Frost. I am just mystified why she doesn’t get more outside rides.
Bryony Frost become the first female jockey to win one of the Championship races at the Festival, as she and Frodon battled-on to win the Ryanair Chase. I don’t think I have seen a jockey who has such an affinity with a horse, as Bryony has with Frodon.
Her genuine enthusiasm for the sport comes through in every press interview she gives. She’s the perfect antidote to the ‘naysayers’ who say racing people don’t care about their horses. I can guarantee that Bryony cares more about the welfare of horses than the ‘swivel eyed’ loons on the extremities of the animal rights movement.
Andrew Gemmell: A story to warm the coldest heart
The human-interest story of last weeks’ Cheltenham Festival was of course that of Andrew Gemmell, the owner of Paisley Park.
Blind since birth Gemmell loves all sport and the pleasure he gets from horse racing just shines through in any interview he gives. Not only does he love sport, more importantly he loves life itself. So, you can imagine how long the party to celebrate Paisley Park’s victory in the Stayers Hurdle lasted.
Every sport needs it’s feel-good stories, non-more so than horse racing at present. So it was good that Andrew Gemmell’s story made the BBC 10 o’clock News. For once, a news item to portray horse racing in a positive light.
The tale of the former trade union official turned horse race owner is one only Hollywood could have scripted.
For every two good news stories there’s usually a sad one just waiting in the wings to enter the stage left.
Friday was a sad day for racing.
Sir Erec, the hot favourite for the Triumph Hurdle, had looked magnificent in the paddock before the race.
Seeing the coverage on ITV before the race, watching the horse having his shoe reshod. Seeing how relaxed he was having such a procedure taking place, at the world’s greatest racing festival, on the eve of his biggest race.
Inadvertently ITV had made the horse more than just a horse about to run in the Triumph Hurdle. In those minutes before the off he became an iconic equine figure. It all made the events that were to follow more tragic, as Sir Erec would break a leg in front of millions of TV viewers.
Sadder still was the news to follow in the Gold Cup, as Invitation Only came down on the first circuit with the fence bypassed next time around.
Many outside the sport jumps’ racing, will remember the Blue Riband race for the sight of a horse prostrate on the ground, not being able to move its hind legs, and not by the performance of the winner.
Both accidents were unavoidable, it’s the nature of the sport we love. But outside the racing bubble the perception that jumps racing is cruel to horses will have gained a few more adherents.
The retirement of Noel Fehily
It was sad to hear that Noel Fehily won’t be riding at the Cheltenham Festival again, as he announced that he would be retiring from the sport before the end of April.
Fehily was a very underrated jockey, who didn’t gain the recognition and success that his talent deserved due to litany of injuries that blighted his career.
The success he did gain came late in his career, and his rides on the likes of Silviniaco Conti, Rock On Ruby and Special Tiara should live long in the memory. He was indeed a true horseman.
He’s had a few health scares in recent months, so it’s probably not that surprising he’s decided to retire at this time. At least he’s ending his riding career at a time of his choosing, and after riding a final winner at the Cheltenham.
THE DOWNRIGHT UGLY
The National Hunt Chase
I am not going to go over old ground regarding whether the BHA were right to suspend three amateur jockeys after the National Hunt Chase. It’s a story which sees both sides of the issue having cogent arguments.
I would just add my two pennies worth; a Cheltenham Festival with a big field, over a marathon trip, for novice chasers, many of who hadn’t raced beyond 3 miles, ridden by amateur riders, is surely a recipe for carnage just waiting to happen.
I don’t have a problem with a 4m Chase at the festival or a big field for the race. What I do have issue is why the sport allows amateur jockeys to do the riding. People will say that amateur riders are part of the very fabric of Cheltenham festival history. I get that and that’s why we have the Foxhunters Chase and the Kim Muir Handicap Chase for the amateur riders.
If the National Hunt Chase is to stay in its present format, which I hope it does, then it’s time for the professional jockeys to be called in.
The end of the race was tough to watch and really didn’t portray horse racing in the right sort of light at all.
My recommendation would be to make the Cross-Country race one for the amateurs only and get the professionals in for the four-mile race. It really is that simple!
So, there you have it, my round-up of this year’s Cheltenham Festival. I have been conscious to collect more positives than negatives. The positives help reassure us that we are moving in the right direction. However, we also need to acknowledge the bad news, and those areas that need further improvement.
For those of you who like backing favourites, have you ever considered which trainers have a good record with favourites….
Which trainers can you trust when the money is down…
Well I have done a bit of research on it and the findings are interesting. Since the start of 2015 flat season, favourites have 31% of all races.
One trainer whose record with favourites is outstanding is Ian Williams.
46 winners from 102 runners 45% +64.61 A/E 1.67 72 placed 71%.
His favourites have not just been profitable to back, they are also being underestimated by the general betting public, performing 67% better than market expectations.
Which Trainer has an outstanding record with favourites returning with 14-days of their last run?
Malcolm Saunders – 17 winners from 36 runners 47% +13.77 A/E 1.48 27 placed 75% with such favourites.
Which trainer has an excellent record with favourites who had won their last start?
John Gosden can claim that accolade as he’s had – 97 winners from 194 runners 50% +49.54 A/E 1.21 133 placed 69%.
Trainer to Note: Evan Williams
Trainer Evan Williams has an excellent record with his runners in handicaps at the Exeter.
Since the start of 2015 he’s 13 winners from 39 runners 33% +49.13 A/E 2.34 17 placed 44%, including 9 winners from 25 runners 36% +40.88 A/E 2.51 12 placed 48% in handicap hurdles.
Good luck with this week’s punting.