Five questions answered at the feelgood Festival
Exemplary performances in Cheltenham's championship races last week will remain in the memory for a long time to come
It already seems an eternity since last Tuesday, when the Cheltenham Festival opened with so many questions – including the five big ones asked in this newspaper that day. The answers would be found among a series of stirring performances and storylines, and together produced a Festival that will be remembered as one of the most satisfying of recent years.
1 Was Kauto Star over the hill?
Well, he didn't really come up the one at Cheltenham with quite the same power as in his prime – but Kauto Star's contribution to a vintage Gold Cup wholly vindicated Paul Nicholls in his indignant rejection of suggestions that the ageing champion should be retired after his odds-on defeat at Kempton in January. Nicholls believed he had found good reasons for a tepid performance that day, and Kauto Star certainly looked more like his old self at Cheltenham.
At the same time, his inability to match strides from the second last with a brilliant younger rival – never mind his fellow veteran, Denman – confirmed that the 11-year-old is no longer the force he was. Once again, however, Nicholls has quickly dismissed the idea that connections should now call it a day. Indeed, Kauto Star may run at Punchestown in May. Given the dividends we all shared on Friday, few will be in any hurry to question his trainer's judgement this time.
2 Where was the Irish banker?
Before the Festival, the lack of buzz about the raiders seemed a dispiriting token of broader travails in the Irish economy. In the event, it turned out that the only reason they had failed to identify one outstanding horse, to bear the standard, was that they simply had too many to choose from. On the first day, they produced arguably their best hurdler since Istabraq; on the second, astonishingly, they won the first six races and only surrendered the bumper, of all things. They finished up with 13 of the 27 races, smashing the record of ten set during the boom days of the Celtic Tiger. Willie Mullins, recommended here at 4-1, duly transposed his dominant standing at home to become the Festival's leading trainer.
But if all the gloomy portents proved too trite, then nor should anyone be deceived by what happened here. Jumpers mature slowly, and many of these were purchased when the going was good. The bumper winner, moreover, had recently been imported for big money out of a small Irish stable. Even so, the Irish can legitimately treat Cheltenham 2011 not just as a moment of succour, but also as an inspiration to keep faith with the skills that sustain one of their defining industries.
3 Did absence make the heart grow fonder?
Trainers increasingly concur that you must keep your big guns fresh for Cheltenham. As a result, the midwinter calendar has become so dull that the next person who recycles the myth about jump racing having a superior "narrative" to the Flat should be forced to spend Royal Ascot, Goodwood and York in Denman's stable. But how did the strategy pay off, strictly in terms of results?
In the first race of the meeting, Cue Card was sent off hot favourite after a three-month lay-off. The winner, Al Ferof, had in the meantime raced three times. In the next, Captain Chris won what was his sixth start of the campaign. True, there would follow many other winners who had been freshened up for the Festival. For others, however, the whole season has proved a non-event. And some must surely be asking themselves whether there might be more than one way to skin a cat.
4 Did Big Buck's finally meet his match?
No. And it's becoming difficult to see where he might do so, in this solar system at any rate. The emergence of Grands Crus had finally seemed to volunteer an authentic menace to the champion's immaculate record over hurdles. And, in fairness, the grey lasted longest on the bridle. But he never really threatened to get past, even though Ruby Walsh had dropped the whip on the idling favourite – just about the only blemish, incidentally, on a week that reiterated his status as the most accomplished Festival rider in history.
At eight, Big Buck's remains at the peak of his powers and perhaps the only way of discovering their limits – pending the inevitable erosion of the years – is to stretch them a different way. He could drop in trip, for instance, perhaps starting at Aintree next month. He could do something totally outlandish, like run in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot. Above all, however, he could go back and establish whether his original lack of aptitude over fences was temporary or chronic. Paul Nicholls has been saying how hard it will be to find a horse to tackle Long Run, now that his old warriors, Kauto Star and Denman, have been overtaken. But perhaps he already has one.
5 Could you have too much of a good thing?
Cheltenham officials admit that yet another new race is "odds-on" next year, unabashed by the fact that the one they introduced this time manifestly diluted the quality that is supposed to define the meeting. For it was only at the 11th hour that Philip Hobbs switched Captain Chris from the new novice chase, over two and a half miles, to the established one, over two. He proceeded to win the Arkle but would never have lined up, but for the coincidence that connections decided they should rely, in the new race, on Wishfull Thinking alone.
That quibble aside, Cheltenham's team must be congratulated on a real "feelgood" Festival, crowned by the Corinthian success of Sam Waley-Cohen. Through a mixture of luck and judgement, they produced an exemplary racing surface, and were rewarded by exceptional championship races.
To those whose appetite has been sated, moreover, the racing calendar is about to refresh the palate with a new Flat season. And the booking of Jamie Spencer for Cape Blanco in the Dubai World Cup on Saturday – his biggest opportunity for Ballydoyle since that unhappy stint as stable jockey – shows that even Cheltenham could never exhaust the Turf's capacity for fascinating new questions.
Rio's Girl (5.20 Wolverhampton)
Progressed well for her previous stable and indicated on her debut for Kevin Ryan round here that she may have more to give, contributing to an excessive gallop but still able to lead into the straight before flattening out, lack of a recent run another possible factor.
Lake Chini (2.20 Wolverhampton)
Leniently treated on the all-weather and looked ready to take advantage on his return from a break over course and distance last time, failing only in a photo after giving the winner a start.
One to watch
Lockantanks (Michael Appleby) has been in good form for his new stable and travelled strongly before getting stuck in traffic when fourth at Lingfield on Saturday.
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