Despite the fact that the ‘blue riband’ of steeplechasing is not run until Friday, it’s hard to imagine that Sprinter Sacre’s victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase will be viewed as anything other than the outstanding performance of the 2013 Cheltenham Festival.
His owner Caroline Mould admitted to “Sleepless nights, dry mouth, beating heart, grinding teeth, the lot”, and she wasn’t the only one as the crowd of 56,000 racegoers at Prestbury Park on Wednesday gasped as one when her horse fiddled an extra short stride at the fourth fence from home to interrupt his customary fluent jumping style just temporarily.
By the time the next fence loomed, however, he was in front of the former champion Sizing Europe and had been slipped into cruise control by Barry Geraghty, who allowed him to coast home at the pace he maintains with such ease, but which his rivals find so punishing.
Nineteen lengths clear at the line, Sprinter Sacre returned, at 1/4, the shortest-priced favourite at the Festival since Arkle won his third Gold Cup in 1966, and he has been given a provisional Timeform rating which puts him in third place on the list of all-time jumping greats behind that great champion and Flyingbolt. His mark of 192p also ranks him 1lb ahead of the modern-day great, Kauto Star.
His trainer Nicky Henderson, who edged yet further clear at the head of the list of the most successful Festival trainers of all time, describes Sprinter Scare simply as “very, very special”. Nobody who witnessed his commanding performance around Cheltenham’s amphitheatre will argue with that assessment. It was very, very special just to be there.
In many ways, the second day of the Festival echoed the themes of the first: a Henderson banker obliging and Willie Mullins continuing to demonstrate that he has brought his team across the Irish Sea in almost embarrassingly rude health. His book-end winners in the first and last races of the day were both for owner Graham Wylie, no stranger to Festival success himself having owned such talented individuals as Inglis Drever and Tidal Bay.
Patrick Mullins, the trainer’s 23-year-old amateur rider son landed the National Hunt Challenge Cup, now named in honour of the late John Oaksey, with a well-timed rattle up the hill on Back In Focus to deny long-time leader Tofino Bay, ridden by Nina Carberry. Despite his trio of wins on Tuesday, Willie Mullins was choking back tears as he greeted his son after the race, saying: “This winner means as much to me as any other I have had here. I am very emotional.”
Emotion was swapped for surprise by the time the overlooked Briar Hill bolted home to win the Weatherbys Champion Bumper by seven lengths. The fact that the horse was trained by Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh had most people shaking their heads at his staggering starting price of 25/1. The trainer himself commented: “I had four horses lined up for this race and he was the fourth.”
Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton, watching from the sidelines with his broken arm in a sling, was quick to shake the hand of his friend and fellow Alan King-retained jockey Wayne Hutchinson, who coaxed the diminutive Welsh Champion Hurdle winner Medinas to a sneaky 33/1 victory in the fiercely competitive Coral Cup. King, who lost his former Champion Hurdle winner Katchit to a fatal bout of colic earlier this year, also trained the runner-up Meister Eckhart.
“We fancied the runner-up a bit more,” the trainer confessed. “We’ve not had the greatest season – I’ve made no secret of that – and I’ve almost forgotten how it feels to have a winner here but it’s marvellous to have the first and second.”
The Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle, another large-field handicap, went to Ireland when Gordon Elliott’s 25/1 shot Flaxen Flare surged clear of the Paul Nicholls duo of Caid Du Berlais and P’tit Zig to win by a comfortable four and a half lengths under Davy Condon.
Lord Windermere provided Best Mate’s former jockey Jim Culloty with his first Festival win as a trainer when making the most of a final-fence fall of another Mullins-trained, Wylie-owned runner, Boston Bob, in the RSA Chase.
“It’s very different from riding,” said Culloty. “As a jockey you get nervous half an hour before the race but as a trainer you are nervous six months beforehand. I was a nervous wreck watching that. I was pacing and I went out to walk the course on my own beforehand as I didn’t want to talk to anybody.”
Another trainer whose nerves got the better of him was Nigel Twiston-Davies, who provided the second father/son combination winner of Wednesday when The New One returned triumphant in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle.
Ridden by the elder of Twiston-Davies’s two jockey sons, Sam, The New One’s four-length victory went largely unwatched by the trainer who admitted: “I didn’t see the race – I’m afraid I got gut-ache and was in the loo. I only saw the last hurdle.”
Hiding in the loo was a tactic which worked for Henrietta Knight during the reign of three-time Gold Cup winner Best Mate. Perhaps it bodes well for the future of The New One.