EVEN the Vikings would have been proud of the unprecedented plundering by the Irish raiding party at last year’s Cheltenham National Hunt Festival. Of the 28-race programme run over four days in the shadow of the Cleeve Hill, the ransacked hosts had to be content with only winning nine of them.
Aficionados of the sport had thought Ireland’s haul of 15 winners at the 2016 festival was freakish, but racegoers were left astounded altogether by the utter dominance of the invaders 12 months later when Sizing John and company swept all before them in amassing a mind-blowing 19 victories.
And this wipe out of the home challenge all happened at a festival where Willie Mullins didn’t have a solitary success over the first two-days of the meeting. His casualty list was headed by Douvan in the Champion Chase, but there was also a high-profile defeat for Melon in the Supreme Novices, while neither Vroum Vroum Mag nor Limini, two more stable stars, could halt Apple’s Jade victory march in the OLBG Mares Hurdle.
It was a chastened Mullins who faced into the third-day action, but seven races later normal service had been resumed after a glorious four-timer which comprised of big-race wins for Yorkhill, Un De Sceaux, Let’s Dance and the ill-fated Nichols Canyon, all steered home by stable jockey Ruby Walsh.
By the end of the week, Mullins who was seeking to be the festival’s top trainer for the sixth time in eight years, had brought his Cheltenham tally to six, but it still wasn’t enough to fend off the challenge of Gordon Elliott, who also turned out a half-dozen winners, but took the trainers’ award for the first time after saddling a greater number of second place finishers.
It was also a meeting to savour for Jessica Harrington, whose three-winner haul included Sizing John again underlining his transformation for the step up to longer distances by landing the Gold Cup, and Supasundae’s smooth success in the Coral Cup – both horses being guided home by Robbie Power.
Full festival preview in this week’s Connacht Tribune