But record-breaking crowds still flocked to Cheltenham’s three-day Open meeting last weekend. Despite the upheaval caused by the course’s redevelopment work, everyone weaved their way around remarkably well. And although it sometimes resembled a social outing for a private gentlemen’s club, with most of the races going to just a handful of trainers and jockeys, as a gateway to the new Jumps season, the meeting again served its purpose.
It also served as an antidote to what has been something of a shambolic start to the 2014/15 campaign. What with the revelation that big races at Wetherby were run over the wrong distance and the anomaly of a big race at Wincanton being won by a horse (The Young Master) that was ineligible.
The shambles deteriorated into farce on the first day of The Open when the issue of low sun reared its ugly head again, forcing fences to be omitted in the best novice chase seen so far this term. Was this really what the anti-Flat brigade in Twittersphere like to refer to as “proper racing”?
Thankfully, a repeat did not blight the Paddy Power Gold Cup the following day and by the time DEFINITLY RED had defied incredibly generous overnight odds of 9/2 to land the Bumper on Sunday, the hunger for more top-class jumping action in the coming months was well and truly triggered.
It’s a fair bet too that by the time the Grand National comes along next April, we will have forgotten all about course measurements, eligibility cock-ups, meagre purses and bilnding sunlight, although that should not preclude Wetherby, trainer Neil Mulholland and Chelltenham from taking full responsibility.
In any event, it never ceases to amaze me how racing fans shrug off, or even dismiss, such controversies, preferring to concentrate on the action that matters -- ie: the races and the horses.
For example, I posted on Twitter this week that I couldn’t believe the extraordinary story about the drink-driving court-case of Frankel’s jockey Tom Queally, and his bizarre mitigation about sleepwalking, had not made it as front page lead in the ‘Racing Post’.
My point was not to kick Queally when he was down. Far from it. But rather to question the priorities of the paper’s news operation. However, I ended up in a peppery contretemps with two indignant followers of the sport.
One of them was Camilla Henderson, daughter of brilliant trainer Nicky Henderson, and both insisted Queally’s case was not even newsworthy. It was something “real racing fans” did not want to read about.
Of course, it was newsworthy. Any self-respecting journo would tell you that, particularly those at ‘The Daily Telegraph’ who splashed the case across their news pages. But maybe Henderson and her fellow tweeter, Darragh Hayes, are right. Maybe too much is made of the rows and rumpuses that the media like to trumpet but which can damage the reputation of the sport. Therefore, without further ado, let’s get on to what mattered most from The Open and pinpoint ten horses to follow as the season progresses.
I’m off to Newbury next week and will do the same after the Hennessy meeting. Providing, of course, I don’t find myself caught up in another bust-up about the Berkshire track’s dress code. Doubt I will. It looks as if the new boss, Julian Thick, is definitely getting things sorted down there. Well done, Julian!
BARAKA DE THAIX (Martin Pipe)
A UK debut of huge promise by the three-year-old grey son of Dom Alco. He was outpaced by the front two on the long run to the last, but rallied very gamely up the hill and is sure to win decent juvenile hurdle races.
BITOFAPUZZLE (Harry Fry)
A strong renewal of Saturday’s Listed Bumper for fillies and mares was turned into something of a procession by the lengthy, good-bodied six-year-old daughter of Derby runner-up Tamure. She’s a willing galloper sure to make her mark now in novice hurdles.
CHAMPAGNE WEST (Philip Hobbs)
The omission of six fences, because of low sun, ruined the race. But so convincing was the six-year-old novice on his chasing debut that he probably would have won anyway. Dismissed some quality opponents over a 2m 4f trip too short and with his trainer disclosing he was short of full fitness.
HARGAM (Nicky Henderson)
Well-regarded, good-looking recruit from France, who travelled, quickened and was unlucky to be collared on the line by a tenacious favourite in what was easily the best juvenile hurdle seen so far this season. A banker to land some worthy prizes.
KATKEAU (Martin Pipe)
A mammoth absence from the track of 630 days could not disguise that this neat seven-year-old French-bred was enticingly handicapped -- and he duly proved it in a classy performance to boss a competitive Listed staying hurdle. He will shoot up the weights now, but there is lots more to come.
KINGS PALACE (Martin Pipe)
It would be hard to find a more polished chasing debut than the one delivered by the six-year-old many of us made our banker of this year’s Cheltenham Festival. He blotted his copybook in the Albert Bartlett for staying novice hurdlers, but all roads lead back to the Festival next March for a crack at the RSA Chase.
KNIGHT OF NOIR (Martin Pipe)
An eyecatching performance on his seasonal debut off top weight in a competitive handicap hurdle by a six-year-old son of crack Jumps sire, Westerner. Still lightly-raced, he’s best with cut in the ground but is going places on this evidence.
THE DRUIDS NEPHEW (Neil Mulholland)
Staying chaser who looks set to fulfil his potential for the switch to a different yard. Still only seven, he travelled better than anything through this Grade Three contest and although he couldn’t quite reel in the winner, a relentless galloper, he thrashed the rest.
UXIZANDRE (Alan King)
The drop to 2m looked all against JP McManus’s six-year-old. If anything, he seemed in need of 3m. But his class and toughness proved the doubters wrong. Best when ridden aggressively and prominently, he will be serious contender for either the Queen Mother or the Ryanair at the Festival.
VANITEUX (Nicky Henderson)
A frustrating meeting for Henderson was exemplified by the display of his five-year-old top weight in the Greatwood Hurdle. Not quite good enough to win, but still a terrific display that augurs well for the rest of the campaign. On this evidence, he’s improved from last term and could be a Champion Hurdle candidate.