At this time last year, Sizing John was a two-mile chaser who couldn’t beat Douvan, Buveur D’Air was a high-class novice hurdler who was about to embark on a chasing career, and One For Arthur was a young staying chaser rated somewhere in the mid-130s. And Thistlecrack hadn’t jumped a fence in public. Then things changed.
Thistlecrack impressed when he jumped that first fence in public, and when he jumped the next 17, it took him to victory over the three-mile chase track at Chepstow in October. He was Gold Cup favourite before he jumped that first fence, and he consolidated his position at the head of the Blue Riband market with a jumping display that belied his inexperience.
Then he went and won at Cheltenham and at Newbury, before going on to Kempton on Boxing Day and landing the King George.
Colin Tizzard’s horse was brilliant in that Christmas display. He travelled with enthusiasm, he jumped fluently and he oozed class. He beat Cue Card, Silviniaco Conti and Tea For Two, all of whom wrestled for the runner-up spot, and he beat them easily.
After that performance, it was difficult to argue that he didn’t deserve to be a short-priced favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, novice or not.
While Thistlecrack was winning races and gaining experience, Sizing John was busy settling into his new surroundings at Jessica Harrington’s. The Midnight Legend gelding did not make his seasonal debut until the day after Thistlecrack had won the King George, and when he did, on the second day of the Christmas Festival at Leopardstown over two miles, he finished second behind Douvan once again.
The only way to avoid Douvan, it appeared, was to go out in trip, and Sizing John duly did, stepping up to two and a half miles for the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles in January. He won the Kinloch Brae, getting the better of Sub Lieutenant in a tussle that lasted all the way to the line.
It looked like the Ryanair Chase was the ideal race for Sizing John at the Cheltenham Festival at that point, but rider Robbie Power said that it was his stamina that got him past Sub Lieutenant, and it wasn’t long before the Irish Gold Cup appeared on the radar.
Buveur D’Air made his much-anticipated chasing debut at Haydock in December, and he impressed in winning easily. He wasn’t so impressive next time, however, at Warwick on New Year’s Eve, when he was all out to beat Gino Trail by two lengths.
A couple of weeks later, trainer Nicky Henderson said that JP McManus’s horse would revert to hurdles, which he did for the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown in early February.
He didn’t have to be at his best to win that race, but he won it easily under a typically confident ride from Barry Geraghty, and the fluency of his jumping impressed. He jumped his hurdles low and fast, like a horse who had never even seen a fence.
Thistlecrack suffered his first defeat over fences in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January, Colin Tizzard’s horse coming out second best in a titanic battle with the Oliver Sherwood-trained Many Clouds. Sadly, we lost Many Clouds that day, Trevor Hemmings’s 2015 Grand National winner carried out on his shield.
We haven’t seen Thistlecrack race since then either, a setback ruling him out of his bid to land the Cheltenham Gold Cup as a novice. Hopefully he will return as well as ever this season.
There were sub-plots going on all over the place. The Potts’ horses had left Henry de Bromhead and had been dispersed to other trainers, Colin Tizzard and Jessica Harrington among them. Sixty of Gigginstown House’s finest had left Willie Mullins and had gone to another assortment of trainers, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead the main beneficiaries.
Swing and roundabouts. De Bromhead had to sit and watch as Sizing John won the Irish Gold Cup and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and as Supasundae won the Coral Cup, another former inmate.
However, among his Gigginstown influx was Valseur Lido, with whom he won the JNWine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal, and Petit Mouchoir, with whom he won the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Gordon Elliott kicked on. There was hardly a high-profile handicap chase run in Ireland in the early part of the season that he didn’t win. The Galway Plate, the Kerry National, the Munster National, the Troytown Chase, the Paddy Power Chase, the Dan Moore Chase, the Leopardstown Chase, they all went Elliott’s way.
Willie Mullins countered with Grade 1 winners; Nichols Canyon, Un De Sceaux, Airlie Beach, Min, Douvan, Saturnas, Vroum Vroum Mag and Bacardys.
But Elliott was having Grade 1 winners of his own. Apple’s Jade in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, Outlander in the Lexus Chase, Death Duty in the Lawlor’s Hotel Hurdle, Mega Fortune in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, and he led the Irish Trainers’ Championship from early in the season.
While there was always a feeling that Mullins’ deep firepower would see him prevail in the end, by the time the spring rolled around the bookmakers couldn’t split them. Their battle spilled over out of Ireland into the Cheltenham Festival too, where they each trained six winners.
Elliott won the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, with the oft-reticent Labaik under Cheltenham Festival maiden Jack Kennedy, a Cheltenham Festival maiden no longer.
And he had two more winners on the day, Tiger Roll, who landed the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase under a super ride from Lisa O’Neill, and Apple’s Jade in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle under a determined drive from Bryan Cooper; the pair of them getting the better of the Willie Mullins duo Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini.
Elliott had two more winners on the second day, Cause Of Causes and Fayonagh, both ridden by Jamie Codd. He rested on the third day.
That day was Willie Mullins day. Mullins did not have a winner at Cheltenham on either of the first two days, but he made up for that on the third day with four: Yorkhill, Un De Sceaux, Nichols Canyon and Let’s Dance, all ridden by Ruby Walsh.
Mullins had two more on Friday, Arctic Fire and Penhill, both ridden by Paul Townend, and Elliott countered with one, Champagne Classic, who landed the Martin Pipe Hurdle under JJ Slevin. That made it six all, with Elliott claiming the title of leading trainer at Cheltenham with three seconds to Mullins’s two.
But Cheltenham was not all about Elliott and Mullins. The plan that Nicky Henderson and JP McManus hatched to return Buveur D’Air to hurdles with the aim of winning the Champion Hurdle came to fruition when the Crillon gelding bounded clear up the hill under Noel Fehily, with My Tent Or Yours running a massive race to take second place, completing a 1-2 for the Henderson/McManus team.
Henderson also won the Arkle with Altior, for whom it was all plain sailing, and the RSA Chase with Might Bite, for whom it wasn’t. Nico de Boinville rode both horses to victory and, while Altior was smooth as smooth can be, Might Bite made it difficult for himself. After veering sharply to his right on the run-in, he did very well to get going again and get back up to beat Whisper by a dramatic nose.
Jessica Harrington was having winners too, Supasundae in the Coral Cup, Rock The World in the Grand Annual, both ridden by Robbie Power. But the pinnacle was obviously Sizing John in the Gold Cup.
Under a copybook ride from Power, Sizing John coasted to the front over the second last fence and stayed on strongly up the hill to get home by almost three lengths from Minella Rocco, with Native River back in third and Djakadam fourth.
Douvan disappointed in the Champion Chase, but the race still produced a thriller with the Henry de Bromhead-trained Special Tiara – sixth in the Champion Chase in 2014, third in 2015 and third again in 2016 – getting home by a head under Noel Fehily from the fast-finishing Fox Norton.
The Philip Hobbs-trained Defi Du Seuil confirmed himself the undisputed king of the juvenile hurdlers with another masterclass under Richard Johnson to land the Triumph Hurdle, while the Ben Pauling-trained Willoughby Court got home by a head under David Bass from now sadly ill-fated Neon Wolf in the Neptune Hurdle.
Colin Tizzard drew a blank at the Cheltenham Festival, but he cut loose at the Aintree Grand National meeting with five winners, more than any other trainer for the week, with Pingshou, Finian’s Oscar and Fox Norton providing him with a Grade 1 treble.
Robbie Power rode four of the five Tizzard winners, which was enough to see him crowned top rider for the week.
Barry Geraghty didn’t have a winner at Cheltenham either, he was busy recovering from injury, and he was back in time for Aintree, where he rode Defi Du Seuil and Buveur D’Air to Grade 1 victories on Thursday, and Yanworth to Grade 1 success on Saturday.
Nicky Henderson continued at Aintree where he had left off at Cheltenham. As well as having the 1-2 in the Aintree Hurdle with his Champion Hurdle 1-2 Buveur D’Air and My Tent Or Yours, he also sent out Might Bite to win the Mildmay Chase and Rather Be to win the Alder Hey Handicap Hurdle, thereby putting himself in pole position for the trainers’ championship.
Paul Nicholls ran him close, he ran him all the way to the last day of the season at Sandown, but a Henderson treble on the day, highlighted by Altior’s win in the Celebration Chase, saw him home.
Lucinda Russell was never in contention for the Trainer’s Championship, but she provided one of the stories of the season when she sent out One For Arthur to win the Grand National at Aintree under the coolest of cool rides from Derek Fox.
It’s a shame that a setback has ruled One For Arthur out for this season, but he is still a relatively young horse, he is only eight and hopefully he will be back.
In Ireland, Jessica Harrington provided plenty of stories. As well as winning the Irish Gold Cup and the Gold Cup with Sizing John, she also won the Irish Grand National with Our Duke. Then she sent Sizing John to Punchestown and he added the Punchestown Gold Cup, as he got home by a short-head and a length and a half from Djakadam and Coneygree, respectively, in one of the races of the season.
The Irish Trainers’ Championship went all the way to the end too, to the final week at Punchestown, to the final day. It ebbed and flowed all season and all week but, in the end, they were right, the Mullins firepower prevailed.
It wasn’t really until the Friday though, the second last day of the meeting and of the season, when Mullins had a Grade 1 double with Wicklow Brave and Bacardys, both ridden by the trainer’s son Patrick, that the balance tilted. It was some tussle. It was some season.
Ruby Walsh was crowned Champion Jockey in Ireland, Richard Johnson was crowned Champion Jockey in Britain.
Plus ça change.