Irish trainers, jockeys and horses have had remarkable racing success at the Cheltenham Festival.
Irish trainers saddled 14 winners out of the 27 races at the meeting, breaking the previous record which was set in 2011 of 13 winners. Those 14 winners included six of the 12 Grade 1 contests. Horses bred in Ireland fared even better, with 20 such horses coming out on top, including eight of the 12 Grade 1 contests and all 7 winners today were Irish bred. Irish-born jockeys were also dominant at the meeting, being responsible for the steering of 19 winners, including 10 of the 12 Grade 1 contests.
These achievements are overshadowed by concerns for the legendary rider JT McNamara. The 37-year-old had a bad fall on Thursday and suffered a very serious neck injury. Brian Kavanagh, Chief Executive of Horse Racing Ireland said: “Our main concern at present is for the welfare of John Thomas McNamara. The thoughts and prayers of everyone in racing are with him and his family”.
So much Irish hope rested on Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday and the pair duly delivered with remarkable performances, teaming up to complete a sensational treble. They got off the mark in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Champagne Fever showing an incredibly game attitude to see off the challenge of My Tent Or Yours by ½-length. The highlight of their days work came in the featured Champion Hurdle with Hurricane Fly becoming only the second horse in history to regain his title by recording a scintillating 2½ lengths victory. Their amazing day was capped in dramatic fashion in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle with Quevega overcoming serious trouble in running to prevail by 1½ lengths and become the first horse since Golden Miller in the 1930s to win the same race at the Cheltenham Festival for five consecutive years.
Ireland’s excellent start to the Cheltenham Festival continued on Wednesday, with Irish-trained horses scoping four of the seven races on the card. Willie Mullins again took centre stage, saddling Back In Focus to beat the Dessie Hughes-trained Tofino Bay by a thrilling ½-length in the John Oaksey National Hunt Chase under Patrick Mullins and the Ruby Walsh-ridden Briar Hill to record a comfortable seven lengths success in the Grade 1 Weatherbys Champion Bumper. The other Grade 1 Irish success came in the RSA Chase with the Jim Culloty-trained Lord Windermere getting the better of the Dessie Hughes-trained Lyreen Legend by 1¾ lengths under Davy Russell. The Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle saw the other Irish-trained victory on the day, with Gordon Elliott’s Flaxen Flare securing a comfortable 4½ lengths success under Davy Condon.
Thursday is a day that the Irish traditionally struggle on at the Cheltenham Festival, but this year saw Irish-trained horses continue their strong form. The Tony Martin-trained Benefficient got the Irish ball rolling in the opening Grade 2 Jewson Novices’ Chase, showing a very game attitude to lower the colours of Dynaste by 3¼ lengths under Bryan Cooper. The pick of the Irish wins came in the co-main event, the Grade 1 Ladbrokes World Hurdle, with Charles Byrnes saddling his stable star Solwhit to score by 2½ lengths under a typically patient Paul Carberry ride. A successful day was wrapped up in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase, with the Peter Maher-trained Big Shu leading home an Irish-trained 1-2-3-4-5 under Barry Cash.
The final day of the Cheltenham Festival on Friday got off to the perfect start for the Irish, with the Dessie Hughes-trained Our Conor becoming the first Irish-trained horse to win the Triumph Hurdle in 11 years. Ridden by Brian Cooper, the son of Jeremy could hardly have been more impressive in bolting up by 15 lengths, stamping himself as a leading Champion Hurdle prospect for next season. Just 35 minutes later, Cooper doubled his tally, riding the Tony Martin-trained Ted Veale to a comfortable 1½ lengths success in the Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle. There was high drama in the Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup, with the Jimmy Mangan-trained Oscar Delta looking set to prevail under the trainer’s daughter Jane only to jink and unseat her on the run-in, leaving the hot favourite Salsify to score for the father-and-son team Rodger and Colman Sweeney, their second consecutive win in the race. A remarkable week for the Irish was rounded off in the concluding Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase Challenge Cup, with the Tom Mullins-trained Alderwood scoring under Tony McCoy, which was also their second consecutive win at the Cheltenham Festival.