Treasured memories from a Cheltenham Festival that belonged to the favourites

TWAS the morning after the Festival. As I dragged myself out of bed, the depressing realisation sank in that it was all over for another year.

DON AND DUSTED -- Don Cossack, ridden by Bryan Cooper, the winner of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup on the final day of another memorable Cheltenham Festival.
DON AND DUSTED -- Don Cossack, ridden by Bryan Cooper, the winner of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup on the final day of another memorable Cheltenham Festival.

Staring back at me in the mirror was the leathery-skinned, lived-in face that reflected a week of excitement and excess. And yet, mercifully, behind the Samsonite suitcases hanging beneath weary, reddened eyes, treasured images of another wonderful Cheltenham week remained fresh in the memory.

Images of the likes of THISTLECRACK, VAUTOUR, SPRINTER SACRE, DON COSSACK, ANNIE POWER, DOUVAN -- and in that order, I think. Not forgetting top-class youngsters such as ALTIOR, IVANOVICH GORBATOV, YORKHILL, BLACK HERCULES, BLAKLION and LIMINI.

It was quite a Festival for the record crowds of 260,579, basking in dry, if bitterly cold, weather and superb, new £45 million facilities at Prestbury Park.

It was also a Festival quite unlike the previous 31 I have been privileged to enjoy. One where the favourites danced on ten of the tables. All the short-priced ‘good things’, bar three, went in, with the exceptions (MIN, YANWORTH and UN DE SCEAUX) hardly disgracing themselves in second. Nothing left-field prevailed until SOLAR IMPULSE defied odds of 28/1 in the very last race, the Grand Annual. And an indication of how Irish raiders matched the home contingent at every turn to rack up a record-equalling tally of 14 winners was underlined by victories in four of the trickiest handicaps of the week, which is unheard of. Emerald Isle challengers pinched the Plate, courtesy of EMPIRE OF DIRT, for only the second time since 1951 and the Kim Muir, via CAUSE OF CAUSES, for only the second time in 34 years.

But while the Festival landscape appears to be changing in so many ways, its guarantee of high quality, rich drama and tear-jerking emotion remains a constant.

The tone was set within minutes of the Cheltenham Roar sending them away for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, which unravelled as the best renewal since 2011 when Al Ferof beat Sprinter Sacre and Cue Card. Min’s eclipse by Altior might have briefly threatened the widespread predictions of a Willie Mullins monopoly, but only for 80 minutes or so. Because by then, Douvan had trotted up in a weak Arkle Chase and the redoubtable Annie Power had landed the Champion Hurdle as FAUGHEEN’S able deputy under the kind of powerpacked positivity that makes Ruby Walsh the finest Festival jockey in history. The mare, racing’s new AP, made it third time lucky after getting chinned for stamina in the World Hurdle of 2014 and falling at the last with the Mares’ Hurdle at her mercy in 2015.

Mullins went on to saddle seven of the 28 winners, only one short of his record 12 months earlier, not to mention seven seconds and five thirds. And while he drew a rare blank on the final day, he still produced the second, third and fourth in the Triumph Hurdle and the second and third in the Gold Cup.

One that got away for the master of Closutton was Un De Sceaux, red-hot favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but below par on ground too lively. Instead the Festival gods bestowed upon us the kind of minor miracle for which they own the template -- the glorious return to the top of the podium by SPRINTER SACRE. A forlorn sight on the brink of retirement just a year earlier, the handsome ten-year-old kicked all his well-documented health problems into touch and then, floppy ears pricked, lapped up with aplomb the cheers from the crowds in winner’s enclosure scenes that left hardy Festival veterans weeping with joy.

Even the beaten Mullins had the grace to accept the result was “good for racing”. Not so good for racing was the 11th-hour decision to re-route his stable star Vautour from the Gold Cup after owner Rich Ricci had long insisted the race was his sole target. It was the right decision, based on the horse’s stamina limitations, but handled badly, and attempts to persuade us that it was based on the seven-year-old’s unconvincing homework did not tally with the imperious manner in which he dismissed the opposition in the Ryanair Chase.

Vautour’s performance gave another boost to a race that some, incredulously, still question the validity of. And yet, even more incredulously, it was surpassed only one contest later when Thistlecrack unveiled the kind of jaw-dropping, eye-popping triumph that the World Hurdle has never seen before. Not even in its guise as the Stayers’. Not even in the days of the all-conquering Big Buck’s.

Colin Tizzard’s charge opened up gaps of 30 and 40 lengths to rivals rated in the 160s. It doesn’t come better than that -- and who knows, the unlikely doyen of Dorset might well have added an even brighter feather to his cap if CUE CARD had not taken the first fall of his 29-race career at the third last in the week’s grand finale, the Gold Cup. It’s impossible to say whether or not the ten-year-old would have won, particularly as he was about to enter previously uncharted territory beyond 3m, but he would have undoubtedly enriched the finish of a Blue Riband event that, for a second successive year, was run at a brutal, no-holds-barred gallop.

Instead the spoils went to Don Cossack, whose own tumble had, ironically, presented the King George to Cue Card at Kempton over Christmas. Immaculately turned out, The Don proved what a much better horse he is on genuinely Good ground and allowed Gordon Elliott to re-ignite the kind of celebrations he’d been saving up since he sent out Silver Birch to win the 2007 Grand National in his debut season as a trainer.

Talking of the National, it’s little more than two weeks away, you know!