It was largely a case as you were: Gordon Elliott went into the Punchestown Festival with a healthy lead in the Irish Trainers’ Championship, only to be overtaken by Willie Mullins again, who grabbed the title for a twelfth time. Nicky Henderson retained his crown in the British Trainers’ Championship as did Richard Johnson, as Britain’s Champion jockey. There was a change in Ireland’s Champion jockey, with Davy Russell coming out on top, but only due to Ruby Walsh being sidelined through injury for much of the season.
Memories of Davy Russell’s four day ban for punching Kings Dolly in the back of the head before a Handicap Hurdle at Tramore in August, were all but forgotten by the time of his successes at the Cheltenham Festival; shortly after the death of his Mother of whom he spoke emotionally, tenderly and with gratitude. Davy then went on to claim the Grand National for the first time, as the diminutive Tiger Roll held on by a head after a storming late charge from Pleasant Company.
Richard Johnson picked up a seven day ban for over use of the whip in his victory in the Gold Cup on Native River, in an epic duel with the reformed Might Bite. Also at the Cheltenham Festival Buveur D’Air, who had been unbeaten without a test all season, proved he could also win in a proper contest, when he retained the Champion Hurdle Trophy beating Melon by a neck. Another Nicky Henderson horse, Altior, looked out of it in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but through some skilful navigation from Nico de Boinville, triumphed by seven lengths from Min. He now adds that to his Supreme Novices’ and Arkle wins.
However, whatever moments of glory British Trainers experienced at the Festival, Ireland retained the Prestbury Cup with still more than a day left ;which probably says more about the Mullins/Elliott juggernauts than it does about the strength of Irish racing. The cold statistics are that if Mullins had started the Punchestown Festival without a Euro in prize money, he would have still come second in Irish Champion Trainers’ title race and he even found time to come sixth in the British Table.
But there was so much more to the season. The victory for North Devon trainer, Richard Woollacott, with Beer Goggles against a class field in the Newbury Long Distance Hurdle reminded me of all the reasons I love this sport; whilst Richard’s death at the age of forty less than nine weeks later, put it in perspective. There was no more emotional scene at Aintree in April when Lalor followed up his Bumper win their last season with a Grade 1 triumph in the Top Novices’ Hurdle for Richard’s widow, Kayley, who took on the licence.
Bryony Frost lit up the season like no other jockey, with her enthusiasm, infectious smile and notable rides. The biggest win of her career came on Present Man in the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton, but the enduring story was her rides on Black Corton. A horse that spent the summer at Worcester, Fontwell and Newton Abbot, went on to success at Kempton, Ascot and twice at Cheltenham. With two of the greats Nina Carrberry and Katie Walsh announcing their retirement at the end of the season, both going out on highs, and Lizzie Kelly winning at Cheltenham at Trials Day and the Festival, it won’t won’t be long before we just talk about jockeys, without the prefix “women”.
The loveable grey, Bristol De Mai, followed victory in the Charlie Hall Chase by a distance win over Cue Card in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. The critics said that he was no more than a flat track mud lark and I wanted them to be wrong. But it proved to be the peak of his season. Another seven year old grey, Politilogue, started by bagging the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter and looked for a while as if he could be one of the big players in the two mile Chase division. However, he was disappointing in the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, although found some redemption over two and a half miles in the Melling Chase at Aintree.
Un De Sceaux proved he was still at the peak of his powers, making it a hat trick of Clarence House Chase titles, and completed the season with only one blip, when running second to Balko Des Flos in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
At the tender age of sixteen James Bowen won the Welsh Grand National on Raz De Maree and finished Britain’s top conditional jockey. Cue Card finally retired.
Some spoke of the end of season finale at Punchestown as being better than Cheltenham. It certainly wasn’t without excitement or controversy. Paul Townend’s steering of Al Boum Photo to avoid the final fence in the Champion Novice Chase and taking out of Finian’s Oscar in the process, was all the more inexplicable by the silence of both stewards and jockey. Townend eventually explained that he thought he heard a voice telling him to miss the fence and apologised. Suggestions that he wouldn’t be up to riding the following day could not have been wider of the mark, when he secured a treble.
The biggest cheer of the week at Punchestown was reserved for Faugheen, whose even most evangelical disciples were conceding was a spent force. Reinventing himself as a three mile hurdler, he bolted up in the Champion Stayers’ by thirteen lengths.
While Britain started its end of season seven day break from the jumps, many jockeys found the lure of Kilbeggan too great and continued their racing in Ireland. And for those of us this side of the Irish Sea there’s the Hunter Chase Evening at Cheltenham tomorrow and jumping at Uttoxeter on Saturday. Bring it on.