Richard Johnson: Cheltenham impressions and frustrations [H&H VIP]

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  • As was feared going into Cheltenham, Willie Mullins proved hard to beat.

    I thought Faugheen was outstanding and for Mullins to have a one-two-three in the Champion Hurdle was an incredible training feat.

    Vautour was also extremely impressive in the JLT Novices’ Chase and I think there’s more to come in future. His travelling and jumping was breathtaking — I think even Ruby was pleasantly surprised. You rarely see a horse jump like that.

    Whether he’ll go to the Ryanair or Gold Cup next year, he’ll have lots of options.

    In the mares’ race everyone was looking forward to seeing Annie Power. She was travelling well until she fell at the last, and I’m glad to hear she’s fine after what looked a nasty fall. But for Mullins to have the winner anyway with his second string, Glen’s Melody, shows what strength in depth he has.

    The new guard

    Coneygree put in an amazing performance to win the Gold Cup. He was the first novice to win in 41 years and it was a brave shout by the Bradstocks to take that route and run him in the race. I rode him when he won the Denman Chase at Newbury last month and thought he was very good. As luck would have it the rain came, which suited him, and I was taken aback by his performance.

    It is very impressive for any horse to make all in a Gold Cup, especially a novice. Nico [De Boinville] gave him a lovely ride.

    For a big horse he was very neat. The Bradstocks’ son Alfie [a young showjumper] schools him at home and you can see the effect. It was a big team effort and is a remarkable achievement for a small yard. Sara’s father, the late Lord Oaksey, bred the horse, so it was a bit of a fairytale — a great story for the sport.

    He’s only eight and is lightly raced, so there is plenty to look forward to in the future.

    While a lot of the older stars were there, it was the younger generation taking the headlines. In the Champion Chase Dodging Bullets was the younger horse coming through. There was a real changing of the guard this year.

    Taking nothing away from Dodging Bullets, but Sprinter Sacre didn’t look the horse he was a couple of years ago [he pulled up]. They will have him examined by the vet and I’m sure whatever they do will be the best for the horse.

    There’s no reason why Sire De Grugy [last year’s winner] won’t come back and be better for that run though, so I wouldn’t rule him out.

    It was nice to see Warren Greatrex and Gavin Sheehan securing their first Festival wins, landing the World Hurdle with Cole Harden. There’s always a lot of pressure when you start out and that first winner under your belt is a confidence boost.

    Final Festival joy for McCoy

    For AP McCoy to have a winner at his last Festival was fantastic, too. The atmosphere all week was great and he has such a following. It is disappointing to get beaten, whether you’re AP or anyone else, so it meant a lot to him to have a winner.

    It was a shame to see Bryan Cooper suspended [for overuse of the whip] as it looks as though he’ll be out for the English and Irish Grand Nationals. Rules are in place for a reason, but in the heat of the moment — especially in a Gold Cup — it’s hard to keep numbers in mind. I see both sides, but I think 17 days is harsh.

    Unfortunately it was a disappointing week for me. I had some good each-way chances, but things didn’t work out and it’s a long week if things aren’t going your way.

    You can’t knock the horses as every race is competitive. It was frustrating but I’m now looking forward to Aintree and Punchestown.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 19 March 2015