The beginning of the 2015/16 National Hunt season, remember that?
Thistlecrack was just a 150-rated hurdler, Jack Kennedy was still claiming 5lb, Apple’s Jade had yet to make her debut for Willie Mullins and Richard Johnson had never been champion.
Over fences, it was Cue Card who made the early waves. Fresh from the untrapping of his epiglottis, Colin Tizzard’s horse was very good in beating the Pipe duo Dynaste and Ballynagour in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby at the end of October, and he was even better in the Betfair Chase at Haydock three weeks later when he got the better of old rival Silviniaco Conti.
Conti was sent off as favourite to beat Cue Card that day, but it was obvious from early in the race that Cue Card and Paddy Brennan had rhythm on their side. The Tizzard horse strode clear from the third last fence and veritably dotted up. That was leg one of the all-new Triple Crown, and one-third on the million-pound bonus in the bag.
Over hurdles, Tizzard also made early waves with Thistlecrack. A week after Cue Card had re-announced himself as a serious player in the staying chasing division, on Hennessy day at Newbury – more of which in a second – Thistlecrack burst a couple of staying hurdling bubbles.
The Long Distance Hurdle was billed as a match between Whisper and Cole Harden, but Thistlecrack and Tom Scudamore did not read that billing, and they beat the two big guns, with Deputy Dan staying on past Cole Harden for second place.
But the Hennessy day headlines were dominated, fittingly, by the Hennessy winner Smad Place, who bowled along up with the pace and took up the running fully 11 fences from home before coming clear of his rivals from the third last fence. There’s something about front-running greys. Always has been.
The New One returned to win the race that he always wins at Kempton in October, a 2/11 victory last season to go with his 2/11 victory of 2014 and his 1/2 victory of 2013 (11/10 the treble), but his bid to follow up in the Christmas Hurdle would flounder on the rock Faugheen.
Faugheen was doing his own floundering in Ireland. His return to action in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November was supposed to be a 1/6 walk in the park, but these things are rarely as straightforward as they appear, and he just couldn’t master his grittily determined stable companion Nichols Canyon, who got home by a half a length under an equally grittily determined David Mullins. More of him later.
It was Faugheeen’s first defeat ever. It was a new experience for him. He resolved not to suffer one again, and duly went to Kempton the following month and won that Christmas Hurdle, beating The New One by seven lengths, which could have been 17. Faugheen was back, that defeat was just a blip. Nothing to see here.
Don Cossack was back too. His defeats of Djakadam and Road To Riches and Cue Card at Punchestown the previous April still fresh in the memory, Gordon Elliott’s horse started off his campaign with a facile victory at Punchestown in mid-October, and he followed up two weeks later by landing the JNWine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal. The King George was next, Elliott said.
Willie Mullins also said the King George was next after Vautour returned in the Ascot Chase in November. He wasn’t overly impressive in beating Ptit Zig, he was out to his left at a couple of his fences and he only got home by less than two lengths, in receipt of 5lb, but Ptit Zig is a talented horse and it was Vautour’s seasonal debut. He would be a better horse at Kempton.
And so the stage was set for one of the clashes of the season, Vautour and Cue Card and Don Cossack, with Smad Place and Silviniaco Conti thrown in among them.
It all developed as we thought it might, except that Smad Place didn’t lead. Silviniaco Conti in front, Vautour up with the pace, Cue Card tracking, Don Cossack in behind. Ruby Walsh allowed Vautour stride along from early, and it looked like he had his rivals cooked when he turned for home.
Don Cossack had had a troubled passage, but he was just starting to stay on down the outside when he got in tight to the second last fence and came down. After that, it was left to Vautour and Cue Card to fight it out, with Cue Card wearing down Willie Mullins’s horse on the run-in and getting home by a head.
The novice chasers were making their own waves. Douvan won his beginners’ chase at Navan in November without much fuss, then went to Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival and won the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase before following up in the Irish Arkle.
Blaklion was on the go early. Nigel Twiston-Davies’s horse was beaten on his chasing bow in October, and he fell when travelling well at Cheltenham in November, but he made no mistake back at Cheltenham in December. Beaten on heavy ground by Seeyouatmidnight back at Cheltenham again on New Year’s Day, he bounced back from that, putting up an impressive performance to win the Grade 2 Towton Chase at Wetherby in early February.
The 2014 World Hurdle winner More Of That made his chasing debut at Cheltenham’s Open meeting in November, putting up a nice performance to win the Steel Plate and Sections Novices’ Chase, then returned to Cheltenham in December and was impressive in beating Sametegal.
Meanwhile, No More Heroes was busy winning in Ireland, winning his beginners’ chase at Punchestown in October before going to Fairyhouse in November and winning the Grade 1 Drinmore Chase. Then the Gigginstown House horse went to Leoapardstown at Christmas and landed the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Novice Chase, beating Rule The World – more of him later – by nine lengths.
And the novice hurdlers were getting going. Yanworth and Altior both went four for four, Yorkhill and Buveur D’Air and Min all went two for two. Unowhatimeanharry also went four for four, but his route was different, his was the handicap route, which made sense given that he had already run 11 times over hurdles before the season started.
Jack Kennedy was also getting going. Gordon Elliott never tried to hide the young rider’s talent, he always gave him every opportunity, and Kennedy was making the most of those opportunities. It all came together for the young rider on Troytown Chase day at Navan in November, when Kennedy had three winners from three rides, all three for Elliott, one for Gigginstown House and one – the Troytown Chase itself on Riverside City – for JP McManus.
Sprinter Sacre was also back. He won the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham in November on his return, then went to Kempton at Christmas and beat Tingle Creek Chase winner Sire De Gurgy by three parts of a length in a thrilling Desert Orchid Chase. The Champion Chase was next, Nicky Henderson said.
We didn’t see Annie Power until February, when she recorded a bloodless victory at Punchestown, and, lamentably, we didn’t see Faugheen after that day. It was ironic that, on the day of Annie Power’s successful return, the announcement came that her stable companion Faugheen had had a setback, and that he was out for the rest of the season.
And so, Willie Mullins shuffled his pack for Cheltenham.
After much conjecture, Annie Power ran in the Champion Hurdle, along with Nichols Canyon and Sempre Medici. They couldn’t provide the trainer with the 1-2-3 that he had achieved the previous year with three different horses, but Annie Power was brilliant in victory, and Nichols Canyon ran a cracker to take third place.
Splitting the pair of them was My Tent Or Yours, who ran a remarkable race for a horse who was racing for the first time in almost two years. Nicky Henderson’s achievement in bringing back JP McManus’s horse was up there with what he achieved in bringing Sprinter Sacre back and winning the Champion Chase with him, four years and three days after he had won the Arkle.
The Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup was a thriller. Cue Card’s bid for glory, and for the third and final Bell Fruit that would bring up the million-pound bonus, came unstuck at the third last fence when he came down. After that, it was left to Djakadam and Don Cossack to fight it out.
Ultimately, it was Don Cossack who proved to be the stronger, providing trainer Gordon Elliott with his first Gold Cup and owners Gigginstown House with their second, 10 years after War Of Attrition had provided them with their first. Djakadam was runner-up again, for the second year in a row, with Don Poli running on to take third and Carlingford Lough getting up for fourth to provide the Irish with a 1-2-3-4.
Other Cheltenham Festival highlights?
Altior put up a really impressive performance in winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, while Yorkhill got the better of Yanworth in the Neptune and Unowhatimeanharry landed the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Douvan was unstoppable in the Arkle, and Blaklion beat the two big guns More Of That and No More Heroes in the RSA Chase, a race in which, sadly, No More Heroes suffered a fatal injury.
Davy Russell excelled on Diamond King in the Coral Cup and on Mall Dini in the Pertemps, and Minella Rocco stayed on well to win the National Hunt Chase under a determined ride from Derek O’Connor, while fellow amateur Jamie Codd was patience personified on Cause Of Causes in the Kim Muir. The other amateur riders’ race at the Festival, the Foxhunter, was won by On The Fringe, who oozed class, under Nina Carberry, who also oozed class.
Vautour was superb in the Ryanair Chase and Thistlecrack was superb in the World Hurdle. Ivanovich Gorbatov and Barry Geraghty got the better of Apple’s Jade and Bryan Cooper in the Triumph Hurdle, while Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh teamed up to land the two mares’ races, the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle with Vroum Vroum Mag and the Dawn Run Novices’ Hurdle with Limini.
Indeed, it was another Cheltenham Festival that was dominated by Mullins and Walsh, the pair of them teaming up for seven wins.
Paul Nicholls had to wait until the second last race of the week, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, to register his first winner at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival, Ibis Du Rheu, and he registered his second 40 minutes later, when Solar Impulse’s win in the Grand Annual brought the curtain down on the Festival.
It didn’t bring the curtain down on the season, mind you. There was lots more. There was the battle between Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins for the British trainers’ championship for starters. It looked all over after Aintree, where the Mullins battalions ran amok.
Apple’s Jade cut loose in the Anniversary Hurdle, while Annie Power and Bacardys and Yorkhill and Douvan and Ivan Grozny all proved victorious, springing Mullins into a lead that looked likely to see him home. That was before Nicholls won the Scottish Grand National with Vicente and, while Mullins pushed him all the way to Sandown on the final day of the season, it was Nicholls who lifted the trophy.
Richard Johnson lifted the riders’ trophy, but we had known for a while that he would. We had known, really, since February 2015.
But once again, it was the Aintree Grand National that provided one of the stories of the season, when Rule The World stayed on strongest of all under a supremely cool ride from David Mullins to win the race for Mouse Morris and Gigginstown House.
It had been a year of tragedy for Mouse Morris, who lost his son Christopher to carbon monoxide poisoning the previous summer. If Rogue Angel’s victory in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse at the end of March was filled with emotion, Rule The World’s victory at Aintree burst the banks.
The Punchestown Festival provided its usual mix of consolidations and new departures. Carlingford Lough sprang a mild surprise in the Punchestown Gold Cup, staying on well under a determined Barry Geraghty to get the better of Djakadam and Don Poli and Cue Card, while God’s Own sprang a surprise of his own when he beat Vautour in the Champion Chase.
Zabana gained consolation for an eminently forgettable Cheltenham when he won the Champion Novice Chase, and Jer’s Girl was brilliant in the Champion Novice Hurdle, while Vroum Vroum Mag won the Champion Hurdle, taking on the boys for the first time since she joined Willie Mullins and beating them.
And Douvan was unstoppable again in the Ryanair Novice Chase. He’s the horse who won the Arkle and the Maghull Chase and the Irish Arkle as well last season. Susannah Ricci’s horse, who won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Punchestown Champion Novice Hurdle and the Moscow Flyer Hurdle the previous season. Remember that?
More of him later.