Prior to Festival action commencing I was accused of still banging on about the Seven Barrows squadron. In a Festival preview, trainer Fergal O’Brien and jockey Alain Cawley accused me and Andrew Tinkler of continually playing Nicky Henderson’s potential greatest hits.
At the halfway stage it seems that our prediction is proving accurate, as Nicky is firing his guns with Zaytsev-like accuracy.
Sprinter Sacre was simply scintillating and hyperbolic adjectives to assign to this ultimate athlete will never do him justice.
In the Supreme Novices’ the tough and more battle-hardened Cinders And Ashes made dust of his rivals with an impressive display. Trainer Donald McCain has been very bullish about his chances, and what a way to be proved correct. While excuses in defeat are not always warranted, enormous credit must be given to Darlan after his horror fall in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. In addition, he only made his racecourse debut on 23 April last year at Haydock.
The Champion Hurdle produced a surprise winner (for some, anyway) in Rock On Ruby, and Sadler’s Wells’ legacy is still evident as his sons or grandsons sired the first four home. His sons also sired four of the seven winners on Tuesday.
Rock On Ruby was notable in many ways. Firstly for the part played by Paul Nicholls’ pupil assistant Harry Fry, and secondly for Noel Fehily’s long overdue first championship race victory.
Quevega has as usual been conspicuous by her absence all season and annihilated her “rivals”, while Hunt Ball proved the expected handicap good thing.
Hunt Ball has been the most improved horse of this, or perhaps any, season. First-season trainer Keiran Burke lost his stable star Sparky May to injury, but has quickly unearthed another. Admirable owner Anthony Knott is an added and very entertaining bonus; the epitome of a National Hunt owner.
Wednesday produced a first festival winner for Rebecca Curtis with Teaforthree and it was business as usual with J T McNamara proving a very able amateur rider. Business as usual continued with Willie Mullins winning the Weatherbys Champion Bumper with the very exciting Champagne Fever – certainly an aptly named winner.
Michael Buckley has had a year to forget in many respects and Finian’s Rainbow gave him his biggest ever victory. He is a man who adores his horses, and particularly this galloping machine. An emotionally draining year for him indeed, but it now has the ultimate silver lining.
Simonsig is going to prove another Henderson chaser of seemingly limitless potential with scope in spades.
Meanwhile, Bobs Worth has not been such an obvious candidate for star of the show, but the humble horse has certainly exalted himself. A hard knocking; an honest and hearty horse whose enthusiastic owners – The Not Afraid Partnership – are a great bunch of friends who love to celebrate their little horse with the huge heart.
I am enjoying Cheltenham from a very leisurely perspective as we have no runners until Saturday. We could end up with six runners and while others endure the Festival fatigue, I hope we may be able to appropriate a race or two.
Our last runner – Prince Buster – performed well at Sandown. With Sanctuaire streaking off in front, Denis O’Regan took his time and jumped him round for third place. I was concerned about the stern jumping test that Sandown provides, but Buster jumped well and confirmed that he also needs two and a half miles. He is also settling much better.
I am looking forward to the Oscar Whisky/Big Buck’s clash and, of course, the decider between Kauto Star and Long Run.
After Finan’s Rainbow won today surely Somersby must have a great chance in the Ryanair on Victor Chandler Chase form.
With none of last year’s champions reaffirming their authority so far, it could be a very different firmament of stars next season, but that is of course after the hurly burly is done and the battle lost or won – I just hope that along the way no other equine warriors are lost in action.