CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL REVIEW: vintage week linked Coneygree and Willie Mullins with magical memories of Dawn Run

One of the most endearing assets of the Cheltenham Festival is that, as the years roll on, its feats and fables create a veritable treasure-trove of memories.

Thursday, 19th March 2015, 9:23 pm
PURE GOLD -- Coneygree fends of Djakadam (right) and Road To Riches to become the first novice to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup for 41 years (PHOTO BY: Nick Potts/PA Wire).
PURE GOLD -- Coneygree fends of Djakadam (right) and Road To Riches to become the first novice to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup for 41 years (PHOTO BY: Nick Potts/PA Wire).

Festival veterans will tell you that one of the most unforgettable days was Thursday 13th March 1986. Yes, it was the day ‘The Sun’ ran its most famous front-page headline, ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’. But the back pages were adorned by the mercurial mare Dawn Run, who became the first, and remains the only, horse to land the Gold Cup/Champion Hurdle double.

Even racing enthusiasts who weren’t there that day cannot fail to have been enchanted at some point in their lives by the sound, from the TV commentary vaults, of Peter O’Sullevan screaming: “And the mare’s gonna get up!.....”

Consequently, few at the 2015 Festival last week can be excused for recalling Dawn Run’s glory day 39 years ago. For in CONEYGREE, wonderful winner of the Betfred Gold Cup, we had a horse of similarly limited fencing experience and boasting similar, heart-on-sleeve attributes, pounding up the hill for a remarkable triumph. And in Willie Mullins, trainer of a record-breaking tally of eight winners, we had the eldest son of Dawn Run’s legendary trainer, the late Paddy Mullins, master of Doninga.

That Coneygree, first novice to win the blue riband event since 1974, and Mullins were the stars of the show in the Cotswolds last week, there can be no doubt.

The tumultuous success of the Bradstocks’ eight-year-old was a timely reminder to the cynics that the ‘small man’ can still defy the odds and bag the big prizes. There exists ridiculous resentment of the powerhouse operations in jumps racing. But the chilling last-flight fall of ANNIE POWER in the Mares’ Hurdle offered proof that competitive sport is not obliged to follow some money-laden script. And the Bradstocks’ achievement offered further proof that the dashing Corinthian attitude embodied by Coneygree’s inimitable breeder, Lord John Oaksey, the man who once made a hospital-bound stretcher wait while he filed a report on a Grand National he himself had fallen in, is far from dead.

Mullins’s exploits were confirmation that, in our midst, is one of the greatest trainers of all time. His 1-2-3 in the Champion Hurdle has to rank alongside the effort of Michael Dickinson, who saddled the first five home in the Gold Cup of 1983. And it was not only in the championship races that Mullins excelled. He bossed some of the handicaps too, accumulating more than £1 million in prize money as no fewer than 28 of his raiders finished in the first six. It was with open-mouthed irony that not one of the six horses he sent out to contest the Champion Bumper made it back in the first nine. But there was no escaping the all-encompassing Mullins clan because even his sister-in-law Mags conquered a Grade One, thanks to MARTELLO TOWER in the Albert Bartlett, collaring the brave MILSEAN, ridden by her son and Willie’s nephew, Danny Mullins!

Mind you, not all the limelight was hogged by tales of the Mullineses and of Coneygree and Co. After what can only be described as a vintage Festival, I have dug deep into my own personal treasure-trove and I am unable to recall a week of such quality, drama and raw emotion. From the emergence of the dazzling DOUVAN in the opening race of the week to the tear-jerking goodbyes of AP McCoy in the last, the week had the lot.

Those tears flowed not only for AP either as he returned to the Festival’s unsaddling enclosure for the final time after the Grand Annual. Maintaining the family theme of the week were the Scudamores, saluting their late patriarch Michael with the poignant victory in the contest of NEXT SENSATION.

It was one of many fitting stories that slotted conveniently into place as the Festival progressed. Even Frankie Dettori got in on the act, sharing the triumphant breeders’ podium with Lord Oaksey and sporting a smile as large as the over-sized trench coat his tailor had somehow tempted him with for the occasion after the crowning of DODGING BULLETS as the new Champion Chase hero.

The tone for the four days was set within minutes of the roar that launched the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. It is stretching the imagination to breaking point, but Douvan looks a horse capable of anything -- maybe even more than stablemates FAUGHEEN and VAUTOUR, who were the stand-out performers of the 2014 Festival and who gold-plated their reputations this time round.

The way in which Faugheen, in the Champion Hurdle, and Vautour, in the JLT Novices’ Chase, blew away high-class opposition was breathtaking. Their displays replicated the controlled exuberance we had seen from the awesome UN DE SCEAUX in the Arkle, and they all unveiled the front-running template for later in the piece when the likes of COLE HARDEN, in the World Hurdle, and, of course, Coneygree both also made all to impose a marked changing of the guard at the top table.

The new order necessitated the sad eclipse of former champions such as SPRINTER SACRE and HURRICANE FLY. Who would have thought that conditional jockey Nico De Boinville could grab more headlines than the majestic ex-champion chaser he was once work-rider for? De Boinville might even have upstaged AP himself had not The Champ pocketed a thrilling farewell win on UXIZANDRE in the Ryanair Chase. Alan King’s charge also made all and had CHAMPAGNE FEVER not been forced to miss the Queen Mother Champion Chase after being bitten on the lip by stablemate UN ATOUT on the way over to Britain, we may well have witnessed an unprecedented clean sweep of pillar-to-post victories in the showpiece contests.

Quite why such a front-running phenomenon reared its head, I am not too sure. Cheltenham has never been previously identified as a track that favours any type of ride, and we were still treated to contrastingly patient masterpieces from the likes of Nina Carberry on ON THE FRINGE (Foxhunters’ Chase) , Luke Dempsey on KILLULTAGH VIC (Martin Pipe), Davy Russell on RIVAGE D’OR (Cross-Country Chase), Jamie Codd on CAUSE OF CAUSES (Kim Muir) and the brilliant Paul Townend on WICKLOW BRAVE (County Hurdle) and IRISH CAVALIER (Novice Handicap Chase).

The curious bias certainly cannot be attributed to the ground, which was prepared and managed as expertly as ever by Simon Claisse and his team, despite a shortage of rain in the weeks leading up to the Festival and annoyingly erratic weather forecasts during it.

The rain finally arrived in the nick of time on Thursday night into Friday as the surface leaned towards fast. And probably a bit too much fell to provide the level playing-field we wanted for a the Gold Cup. But we were still treated to a compelling race in which the performance of DJAKADAM, as a mere six-year-old, deserves as much praise as the winner, who is two years older.

Djakadam was the fifth Gold Cup runner-up for Willie Mullins in one of the few major contests that continues to elude him. He must go on the shortlist for next year’s renewal. The problem for him is that the shortlist is actually a very long list. If they all turn up, imagine this for a cast: Coneygree v Djakadam v Vautour v Don Poli v Road To Riches v Holywell v Saphir Du Rheu.

In a race that always demands copper-bottomed stamina, the claims of DON POLI are obvious after his taking win in an albeit sub-standard RSA Novices’ Chase. The six-year-old was one of the few highlights of the week for young jockey Bryan Cooper, who endured a second successive Festival to forget after breaking his leg last year. Cooper amassed 17 days of whip bans in three separate suspensions and was openly accused by the BHA of “disregarding the rules”.

The 22-year-old clearly has a lot to learn while the decks are cleared to make way for AP’s successor as the sport’s number one ambassador in the saddle. Indeed it wasn’t a good week either for the pilot most assume will automatically succeed AP as champion jockey. From 14 rides, Richard Johnson failed to make the first two, which reflected a poor Festival for his boss, Philip Hobbs, who returned only £14,000 in prize money. It rendered their deadly deeds on this same track at the Open Meeting only five months earlier, when Johnson rode seven of the 19 winners and Hobbs saddled six, a distant memory.

Donald McCain (less than £4,000 in prize money) was another big gun to flop and although the likes of Warren Greatrex (Cole Harden) and Neil Mulholland (THE DRUIDS NEPHEW) advertised their wares successfully, the rise of young trainers such as Harry Fry and Dan Skelton stalled temporarily.

Of course, notable failures sit alongside notable successes in underlining the searingly competitive nature of the Festival. It is such competitiveness that adds huge merit to the performance of Willie Mullins, who spearheaded yet another prolific raid by Irish horses (13 of the 27 winners to follow hauls of 12 in 2014 and a best-ever 14 in 2013).

For once, the Closutton maestro put top UK counterparts Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson in the shade. But Nicholls, with his treble on the second day, and Henderson, with his 1-2-3 in a top-class Triumph Hurdle on the fourth day, still found time to remind us that their skills are more than capable of countering the Mullins battalions, fuelled by the ownership power-bases of Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie and Gigginstown Stud. What a horse for the future Nicholls has in Coral Cup winner AUX PTITS SOINS. What a job he has done in transforming Dodging Bullets. What prospects Henderson has in Triumph trio PEACE AND CO, TOP NOTCH and HARGAM. And what a coincidence it is most definitely not that of all the winning rides during the week, three of them were produced by so-called underling jockeys based at the veteran Lambourn trainer’s yard, namely David Bass, Andrew Tinkler and the aforementioned De Boinville.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again, jumps racing is in the middle of a golden era for trainers. It is their ability that encourages the high-spending, high rollers to trust them with their investments. And it is their ability that nurtures a production-line of equine talent and quality which is the reason behind the massive crowds that continue to flock to Cheltenham.

The fact that last week’s Festival was blessed with record numbers at a time when redevelopment of the track is taking place is enormous testament to an event that has grown into a modern-day freak.

The signs are that the £45 million redevelopment, plus the much-needed addition of a 28th race (surely a mares’ novice hurdle), will only enhance the Cheltenham Festival experience. Certainly none of the 248,000 revellers who basked in Festival Fever last week would bet against it. The opinion of the annual pilgrims is that their beloved garden is as rosy as it was on the day the mare got up.