bookies the only winners on tough first day
As initial buzz subsides, stark reality hits that Festival is testing meeting where smallest errors are punished
The initial elation that's experienced on the first day of the Festival gradually gave way yesterday to the sombre realisation that the bookies were the ones who were happiest at closing time.
By this morning, certain stark realities had chimed. The Cheltenham Festival is a testing meeting. For man and beast.
Horses and jockeys can't afford to make the slightest mistake in a race. On a demanding course surrounded by top-drawer talent, minor blips expose challengers and are punished ruthlessly.
As one veteran punter lamented his lack of winners late last evening, he summed up the situation with startling clarity. "You look at each race when you're at home and the entries seem fine," he said. "But when you're here, you realise that there's very little to choose between many of them. Every race is very close. Almost every horse in every race is there because someone believes it can win."
Edward O'Grady, the most successful living Irish trainer at the Cheltenham Festival with 18 winners, was saying much the same thing yesterday morning at a meeting of minds organised by Horse Racing Ireland.
When asked if he felt there was a lot of strength and depth to this year's Ryanair Chase, he replied, "There are certain horses in the Ryanair that normally might have run in the Gold Cup. But perhaps quite naturally everybody's a bit scared of the big two in the Gold Cup so they prefer to run in the Ryanair. And you might also have the odd horse that might run in the Champion Chase. It's very competitive."
O'Grady trained his first Festival winner, Mr Midland, in the National Hunt Chase, 36 years ago. He's obviously looked closely at the Ryanair Chase because his Tranquil Sea will be running in it. He seems genuinely pleased with how the eight-year-old is going.
"I was very happy with him at Leopardstown," he says. "Ruby reported that he beat a crowd of Grand National horses. I couldn't help it that the horse won dead easy. He probably would have done more if he'd done a gallop after the races that day. I know Ruby's very confident that his horse (Paul Nicholls-trained Poquelin) on the ground will be better but I'm equally confident. My fellow won a Grade 1 Hurdle. It's all to play for. I've only just graduated to a Grade 2 race from handicaps. So I'm now graduating to Grade 1 which is another step up. I'm hopeful that he's capable of that."
While his Jumbo Rio didn't have it in the tank when tested in the Champion Hurdle yesterday, O'Grady's Osana came in third in the Irish Independent Arkle.
The rest of O'Grady's team has some notable strengths.
Owner of Rocco's Hall, Germano Terrinoni, has been enjoying the build-up to the Festival. Andrew McNamara will ride the horse in the Pertemps Final tomorrow and Germano couldn't ask for a better set-up.
"He's effective at good to soft," he says. "And the distance is the right distance because he's effective at three miles. All the times he won, except the two Bumpers, it was at two six or two seven. He's never won at two four. We tried him at two four this year just to sharpen him up a bit but having said that we got him in the right race at three miles and he's the right weight."
Germano believes the trainer is also a major plus. "He's with Edward O'Grady and Edward is looking good," he says. "He fancies quite a few of his horses. He's got Tranquil Sea, which is owned by my partner Dermot Cox. He also owns a leg of Rocco's Hall. Tranquil Sea will be difficult to beat at Cheltenham."
If you're in Dublin tomorrow afternoon it might worth dropping up to the Chatham Street area to watch Cheltenham on the telly. Germano owns the award-winning restaurant Pizza Stop in Chatham Lane.
Although he's a regular visitor to Cheltenham, this is the first time he's had a horse running in the Festival. "I bred the horse myself," he explains. "I had the mother, which was Miss San Siro by Zaffaran. Then we sent the mother down to Castlehyde and we got Rocco's Hall out of the mare and we got another horse but he didn't come up good. Rocco's did from the beginning. We knew he was going to be a decent sort of fellow.
"We're happy with the distance and the ground," he says cheerily. "More than anything else we're happy about the weight we're carrying. It's wonderful that we got a combination of the three things we wanted. And Andrew McNamara is very good."
Germano thought he had a horse suitable for Cheltenham last year. But unfortunately disaster struck. "He injured himself," he recalls. "And he's still out on grass. Finally we've made it. It's a great feeling. The excitement at Cheltenham is unbelievable."
While Germano is entitled to savour the experience, trainer O'Grady needs to be forensically analytical.
Surveying Rocco's Hall yesterday, he said: "He'll certainly take his chance, but he'd have to find the best form he had last year. He hasn't quite found it yet this year but I'm hoping that on better ground he'll give a far better performance than he has been up to now."
What of Edward's other chances? Alaivan will be in the Triumph Hurdle on Friday. He won in Fairyhouse in February. But in December he finished second to Carlito Brigante.
"Sadly, the form book doesn't lie," notes O'Grady. "Carlito Brigante beat me soundly and solidly. The only thing I learned that day is that my horse jumped well going fast, for as long as he went fast. I'm hopeful that we can reverse places.
"I'm very happy with the ground for him," adds Edward brightly. "He's not a big horse. He has fantastic action, a wonderful stride. And when he won on soft ground it was summer soft.
"There's a big difference between summer soft and winter soft. I think in winter soft he found it difficult. We've noticed recently that on better ground his action has returned and we're much happier with him. He's far superior than he has been earlier in the winter."
Davy Russell rode Carilto Brigante that day in Leopardstown. Ask him what he thinks and the jockey is refreshingly direct.
"I was shocked," he says. "The trainer was shocked and the owners were shocked. He'd break your heart riding him at work. He'd just sink into the ground. He's a terrible work horse. But he's won in Leopardstown. He just keeps winning. Whether he's a Triumph Hurdle horse or not, my honest opinion is, I don't know."
Russell strikes an optimistic tone when discussing the chances of War of Attrition in tomorrow's World Hurdle. Is asking the 2006 Gold Cup winner to put on a show in what is a stayers' hurdle asking too much?
"He's over-priced and people have lost a bit of respect for Mouse (Morris) somewhere along the way, because he's a dangerous man around here," says Davy, going on the offensive. "This horse has fierce form around here in two miles and three miles. Whether they be hurdles or fences. He's back to somewhere near his old self. He has a great chance.
"You must remember, he's a better horse on better ground and he's a better horse on a bigger day. He's won over two five and he's a better horse over three miles. His form might just prove for distance, ground and scenery."
While Ruby Walsh notched up his 25th Festival win on Quevega in the last race yesterday, and equalled Pat Taffee's record for most wins at the Festival, the two most delighted and excited men in the winner's enclosure were, in my estimation, Tony McCoy who rode the Champion Hurdle 9/1 winner Binocular ("I'm so happy for the horse") and Michael Hourigan, trainer of A New Story who won the Cross Country Steeple Chase.
"He hasn't won a race in five years," blurted Michael, who's trained two Festival winners in his time. "He's been placed and kept me in the limelight. He's a character. My daughter Laura rides him at home.
"He's taken me to Haydock, Liverpool, Cheltenham, Ayr, Punchestown, Leopardstown, Fairyhouse, them all. He's 12 years of age and that's about his eightieth run today."