Cheltenham Festival 2017 Review: Sizing John takes Gold for Ireland

Ruby WalshThe Cheltenham Festival 2017 saw an array of thrills and spills, but for the first time in a while it proved a profitable one for the layers with fancied horses beaten in both Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup. The bookies got their best payday when odds-on Douvan, partnered Ruby Walsh, sank some big-hitting bets in the Champion Chase.

It was certainly a great meeting and one at which the Irish trainers dominated, including victory in the Gold Cup for veteran trainer Jessica Harrington with her first runner in the race. Here is our review of all four days’ racing:

Day 1 Tuesday: Buveur D’Air lands Champion Hurdle

The first day of the Cheltenham Festival is traditionally dominated by Willie Mullins-trained favourites but in 2017 only one market leader came in. It was Gordon Elliott who took three races for Ireland whilst Mullins failed to score.

In the opener on Tuesday, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, a dramatic late surge from Elliott’s talented but quirky 25/1 outsider Labaik beat Mullins’ 3/1 joint favourite Melon into second. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ equally fancied Ballyandy encountered all sorts of problems in running and did well to finish fourth.

The shortest-priced favourite of the day, Nicky Henderson’s Altior at 1/4, got the job done under Nico de Boinville in unspectacular fashion in the Arkle. The punter who had reportedly put £100K on him must have sweated heavily. Altior was not moving as effortlessly as usual and was a length behind the strong travelling Charbel (9/1) two from home. Fortunately for Altior and said punter Charbel fell under David Bass leaving many wondering what would have happened if Charbel had remained on his feet.

The loss of Faugheen and Annie Power to injury, both trained by Mullins for the Riccis, made the 2017 Champion Hurdle the most open renewal for years. For once there was a British-trained favourite, Alan King’s Yanworth at 2/1. Owned by JP McManus, he failed to fire allowing Henderson’s Buveur D’Air (5/1) to triumph under Noel Fehily with his ten-year-old stablemate My Tent Or Yours (16/1) running a blinder to take second. It was a one-two for Henderson and McManus, albeit not with the horses McManus expected. McManus thought that Yanworth had ruined his chances by getting very hot in the preliminaries, he finished seventh.

Mullins saddled the 6/4 favourite Limini as well as Vroum Vroum Mag (11/4) for the Riccis in the Mares’ Hurdle, the fourth Grade 1 of the day but it was their former stablemate, Apple’s Jade (7/2) who won. Owned by Michael O’Leary (aka Gigginstown Stud), Apple’s Jade had been moved to Elliott when O’Leary decided to call it a day with Mullins, she beat Vroum Vroum Mag one and a half lengths under Bryan Cooper wearing a tongue tie for the first time. Limini did not help herself by hitting the last under Ruby Walsh and finished a nose behind her stablemate.

Elliott saddled a longer term resident at his yard Tiger Roll (16/1) for O’Leary in the National Hunt Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase. Tiger Roll made plenty of jumping errors but stayed every yard of the four mile trip to win under Lisa O’Neill who pre-trains for Elliott, providing him with a memorable hat-trick.

Day 2 Wednesday: Odds-on Douvan flops in Champion Chase

Wednesday was another good day for the bookies. The Ben Pauling-trained Willoughby Court (14/1) beat the heavily supported 2/1 favourite Neon Wolf a head in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle under David Bass. It was some consolation for him as he was convinced that he could have given Altior a race if Charbel had not tipped up.

Henderson again saddled the only winning favourite of the day, Might Bite (7/2) in the RSA Novices’ Chase. The errant Might Bite provided the most dramatic finish of the entire festival. He looked to have the race won after the last but decided to take a dramatic detour on the run-in allowing his stablemate Whisper (9/2) to close but prevailed by a head. Nico de Boinville admitted that he would have lost the race on Might Bite if not for the intervention of a loose horse who fortunately ran straight and put his mount back on track.

The ups and downs of racing were demonstrated in the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle. Elliott saddled the 7/2 favourite Tombstone who never looked likely to challenge and finished with only one of the 23 finishers behind him. It was Jessie Harrington’s 16/1 shot Supasundae owned by the prolific Alan and Ann Potts and ridden by Robbie Power who triumphed for Ireland instead.

The Champion Chase was the highlight of the second day and everyone was expecting to enjoy watching Mullins’ Douvan, the 2/9 favourite, fly to victory in the Ricci’s pink colours. It soon became apparent that his wings were not working, his jumping was random and the engine was not firing as he struggled to keep pace with the front running Special Tiara (11/1) ridden by Fehily.

Douvan’s problems were a disappointment but provided an unexpected exciting finish. The Henry De Bromhead-trained Special Tiara just managed to hold on to his lead to beat Colin Tizzard’s strong finishing Fox Norton (7/1) a head. Douvan pulled up slightly lame and was subsequently found to have suffered a stress fracture to his pelvis.

Elliott’s disappointment with Tombstone was mitigated by a double later on that included a one-two in the Cross Country Chase. Cause Of Causes (4/1) owned by McManus won, beating his stablemate Bless The Wings nine lengths into second. The 9/4 favourite Cantlow, also owned by McManus, finished third. Elliott also took the Champion Bumper with Fayonagh (7/1).

The Juvenile Hurdle provided a thrilling finish and the longest priced winner. Flying Tiger (33/1), trained by Nick Williams and ridden by Richard Johnson, beat the 9/2 favourite, Henderson’s Divin Bere a neck.

Day 3 Thursday: Sceaux reaps Ryanair Chase

It is rare for Mullins and Walsh to go into the third day of the festival without a win but their fortunes changed dramatically on Thursday. Yorkhill proved a worthy 6/4 favourite in the JLT Novices’ Chase under a masterful ride from Walsh, beating Henderson’s Top Notch (7/2) a length.

The Ryanair Chase was one of the most entertaining races to watch of the meeting for anyone who knows what it is like to be out of control on a horse. The Mullins-trained favourite Un De Sceaux (7/4) soon carted Ruby Walsh into the lead and did not settle when he got there. The commentator remarked that the move did not look like plan A and that we were likely to find out if Un De Sceaux really did stay two miles five furlongs as he tore off, never dropping the bit.

Un De Sceaux’s determination got him home, beating Henry De Bromhead’s Sub Lieutenant (8/1) a length and a half. Walsh admitted afterwards that he was a total passenger and was pleased that his runaway looked where he was going. The prize ceremony provided some amusement too as Michael O’Leary (boss of Ryanair) had to present the spoils to the team he deserted after Mullins increased his training fees.

In the Stayers’ Hurdle Unowhatimeanharry was the 5/6 favourite, expected to continue his unbeaten record since joining Harry Fry’s yard. After the pace-setting Cole Harden weakened the favourite had every chance but it was the 33/1 shot Lil Rockerfeller who looked the likely victor until the patiently ridden Nichols Canyon (10/1) took command close to the line under Walsh beating him three quarters of a length. Unowhatimeanharry finished third.

It was an unexpected victory for Walsh and Mullins who nearly dropped his cup of tea watching the finish. Nichols Canyon had not been in the best of form and Mullins had changed both his stable and work rider in an attempt to get him back on track, he was not predicting such a spectacular turnaround.

The Mullins/Walsh partnership scored a more predictable fourth win of the day with Let’s Dance, the 11/8 favourite in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle carrying the Riccis’ pink silks. She provided them with their only winner of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.

Day 4 Friday: Sizing John takes Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017

Gold Cup day saw a host of free bets, bonuses and enhanced odds offers from the bookies, who were feeling pretty happy with the way the meeting had gone for them so far. But punters got the better start on Friday when Defi Du Seuil, the 5/2 favourite in the Triumph Hurdle, won convincingly for Philip Hobbs under champion jockey, Richard Johnson. It was not the sign of things to come though as all the other market leaders were well beaten.

The Mullins machine continued to provide surprises with Arctic Fire (20/1) taking the County Hurdle under Paul Townend after a lengthy absence. Penhill (16/1), followed up in the Albert Bartlett providing Townend with a double. Walsh’s more fancied rides in both races failed to fire and Death Duty, Elliott’s 13/8 favourite in the Albert Bartlett, was out of touch when he unseated Bryan Cooper at the last.

Mullins’ momentum on the day propelled the Riccis’ Djakadam to the top of the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting market at 3/1 ahead of Colin Tizzard’s pair, Native River (7/2) and Cue Card (9/2). For the first time a female rider lined up in the big race but Tea For Two (40/1) made a complete hash of the second, unseating Lizzie Kelly.

Champagne West and Native River shared the lead until Champagne West weakened six from home leaving Djakadam, who had travelled strongly throughout under Walsh, to dispute the lead with Native River under Richard Johnson. Cue Card tipped up three out, at the same fence as last year. He was being pushed along by Paddy Brennan at the time and looked a forlorn hope.

As they took the final turn Djakadam was alongside Native River with Jessie Harrington’s Sizing John (7/1), the Irish Gold Cup winner, travelling nicely for Robbie Power just behind them in third. Djakadam hit the second last pretty hard and it was Sizing John who took the lead at the final fence with Native River and Djakadam toiling behind him. Minella Rocco (18/1) jumped the last four lengths adrift of them but stayed on impressively for Fehily to grab second from Native River on the line, nearly three lengths behind Sizing John. Djakadam took fourth, half a length further back.

Owned by Alan and Ann Potts, Sizing John was the 70-year-old Harrington’s first ever Gold Cup runner. It was Robbie Power who had suggested stepping him up in trip as he kept getting thwarted by Douvan over shorter distances. The Potts were so impressed with Power that they later asked him to partner their horses whenever he was available.

Harrington and Power’s success did not end there, they also took the final race of the meeting, the Grand Annual Handicap Chase with the 10/1 shot, Rock The World for Michael Buckley. Paul Nicholls’ 7/2 favourite Le Prezien was outpaced on the good ground, finishing out of the money.

Nicholls went into the meeting noticeably short of top class ammunition but had some consolation in the Foxhunters’ Chase, he saddled Pacha Du Polder (16/1) to win with Bryony Frost. Partnered last year by Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton, Pacha Du Polder held off a strong late challenge from his more fancied stablemate, Wonderful Charm (7/2) and Katie Walsh to win by a neck.

The 2017 Cheltenham Festival was dominated by horses trained in Ireland, they notched up 19 victories in the 28 races. For the first time Elliott topped the Cheltenham Festival trainers’ leaderboard saddling six winners, the same number as Mullins, but winning on the count back of placed horses. Henderson sent out three winners, the same number as Jessie Harrington, putting him well ahead of Paul Nicholls in the race for British Champion Trainer. The 2017 Cheltenham Festival was a pretty good one for the bookies too.

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