Henrietta Knight on the highlights and controversies from the Cheltenham Festival

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  • Racehorse trainer-turned-author Henrietta Knight — who trained Best Mate to three consecutive Gold Cups — talks to H&H’s racing editor, Hannah Lemieux, about her favourite stories from the Festival, plus the current controversies within the sport.

    “You only have to be at the Cheltenham Festival for a short while before being swept along and mesmerised. Racegoers are hypnotised and the rest of the world forgotten. The feeling is indescribable. I defy anyone not to be emotionally affected when champion after champion is led back to the holy grail — that revered winner’s enclosure – created as it is like an amphitheatre, with the crowds rising high towards the sky on the steps of the semi-circle. To cap it all, the music that is played makes it all the more emotional. Well done Cheltenham racecourse — it is the best unsaddling area, you have created a masterpiece.

    “Lady jockeys were greatly to the fore at the 2019 Festival and Bryony Frost is undoubtedly the darling of the racing public. Her partnership with Frodon (winner of the Ryanair Chase) is warming. Both horse and rider seem to have a great understanding. Bryony is full of enthusiasm and extremely determined. She seems to impart these qualities to the horses she rides. Lizzie Kelly is another gifted rider and the bold front-running tactics that she employed on Siruh Du Lac in the 2m4½f handicap chase definitely paid off.

    “Ireland’s new sensation, Rachael Blackmore, is an outstanding rider — probably the best of all the lady jockeys riding at the moment. She is currently lying second in the Irish jockeys’ championship table to Paul Townend and she wins races on a variety of different horses. She is strong and stylish with a tactical brain. To emerge from the Festival with two winners — A Plus Tard (Close Brothers Novices’ Chase) and Minella Indo (Grade One Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle) — has put her in the history books.

    “On Thursday, 14 March, Emma Lavelle’s training of Paisley Park to win the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle further demonstrates the strong position that ladies now hold in the sport. It was a moving moment when the horse’s owner, Andrew Gemmell, received his trophy because he is blind from birth, however, he puts a huge deal into racing. For jockey Aidan Coleman it was a first ever Cheltenham Festival Grade One victory and he was visibly delighted.

    ‘A massive breakdown of trust’

    Despite this year’s Cheltenham Festival providing some outstanding results it was, nevertheless, unfortunate that the four-mile National Hunt Chase on day one caused such a stir.

    It is a well-established Festival race and has, over the years, produced some top-class chasers. It caters for novice horses, who are ridden by amateurs. If one looks back statistically, 2016 was a particularly good year for this race. Horses that ran in it have since won over 85 races and include Minella Rocco, Native River, Measure Of My Dreams, Noble Endeavour, Pleasant Company, Shantou Flyer, Vieux Lion Rouge, and Definitly Red.

    Admittedly, last week, the National Hunt Chase was not a pleasant spectacle and only four of the 18 starters completed. The runners were notably tired and there were some heavy falls. Critics of the race now say that the jockeys should not be amateurs, However, most of this year’s riders had plenty of experience and several of them are better than many of the professionals, including Jamie Codd, Derek O’Connor, Barry O’Neill, Patrick Mullins, Noel McParlan, Sam Waley Cohen, Will Biddick and Finian Maguire.

    However, it is hard to see why Declan Lavery was penalised for finishing third on Jerrysback. He was dished out a 10-day ban for not pulling up his mount before the last fence. Yet, the horse jumped the fence safely and carefully. Declan did not resort to his whip and nursed his partner up the run in. What more could have been done? The horse’s trainer, Philip Hobbs, reported that the horse was fine afterwards and was never seen by any of the racecourse vets.

    Over the past few months, there has been a massive breakdown of trust between the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and trainers. The latter work closely with their horses and with the jockeys. They are licensed by the BHA, however, there was a lot of displeasure concerning the action taken by the BHA-appointed stewards at Cheltenham after the National Hunt Chase. It is to be hoped that Declan is successful with his appeal.

    ‘Easy campaigns for Gold Cup runners’

    On a happier note, the four major championship races were outstanding spectacles. As well as Frodon’s victory and Altior in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, it was great to see the five-year-old Espoir D’Allen win the Champion Hurdle. He was the youngest horse in the race and his jockey, Mark Walsh — who won two races last week — is a talented rider.

    It is always good to see new names on the board and for handler Gavin Cromwell — who started off as top Irish trainer Gordon Elliott’s farrier — it was a fairytale result. Although, he is not new to British racing, having saddled Welsh National winner Raz De Maree a few years ago.

    Willie Mullins deservedly won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He had trained several placed horses in previous runnings of the race, but had never lifted the crown. He had become resigned to thinking that he would never win the blue riband of steeplechasing, and the champion Irish trainer’s delight was clearly apparent as he returned to the winner’s enclosure.

    Nowadays many of the Gold Cup contenders are given easy campaigns when building up to the big race, indeed this year’s winner only had one outing in January, when winning at Tramore in Co. Waterford. When Best Mate won three consecutive Gold Cups, he too was lightly raced prior to the Festival. We were much criticised for wrapping him up in cotton wool, but it is always a tough race and horses need to be feeling good when it matters most — they only have limited mileage in their careers.

    ‘A little terrier of a horse’

    Finally, no reflections of this year’s Festival can leave out Tiger Roll — a little terrier of a horse, who is only 15.3hh yet has the heart of a lion and unbelievable enthusiasm for racing. He loves Cheltenham and has now won four times at the Festival, beginning with the Triumph Hurdle and then, as a novice, winning the much-talked about National Hunt Chase, under Lisa O’Neill. This was before taking the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase two years running, with talented jockey Keith Donoghue.

    Watching Tiger Roll’s win this year brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. He is such a special horse and, after his victory in last year’s Grand National, one tentatively brackets him with Red Rum — who was another small ex-Flat horse who just loved jumping.

    He will hopefully continue to give pleasure to his many fans before, according to Gigginstown Stud’s Eddie O’Leary, doing retrained racehorse classes in his eventual retirement.

    Don’t miss our full report from the Cheltenham Festival and further comment from Henrietta Knight in this week’s issue of Horses & Hound — on sale tomorrow (Thursday, 21 March).

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