The 2011 Cheltenham Festival was one of the finest for many years. (credit: Will Palmer)
It is difficult to remember a Cheltenham Festival that has captured the imagination of the public quite like this year’s renewal and the exhilarating finishes and explosive performances from some of racing’s greats went hand in hand with a very punter friendly four days.
It was the invading Irish raiders that dominated the headlines and Champion Hurdle hero Hurricane Fly is arguably the best of his kind to cross the Irish Sea since the mighty Istabraq. After missing the 2009 Supreme Novices’ and then last year’s Champion Hurdle through injury, it was a result to get him there in the first place but Willie Mullins sent the ultra-talented star to Prestbury Park in fine form and there was little doubt about his wellbeing this time around.
So sensational and polished was Hurricane Fly’s success that there was little talk of Binocular after the race and if we knew that the French import was certain to be back next year, the 5/1 on offer at William Hill could look incredibly generous.
The Irish continued their assault on Wednesday’s card and Sizing Europe bounced back to his scintillating best with a flawless performance in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Last year’s Arkle Trophy winner returned to the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham after a disappointing season campaigning over longer distances but any doubts about him retaining all his natural ability were banished with a powerful performance under the guidance of master trainer Henry De Bromhead.
For many the highlight of the week will have been Thursday’s World Hurdle and it is doubtful that there is a better horse than the mighty and utterly admirable Big Buck’s in racing at this moment. Paul Nicholls’ superstar is yet to be beaten over hurdles since he reverted to the smaller obstacles and though Grand Crus made him work for his third consecutive victory in the stayer’s championship, in truth, he won with any amount in hand and it is just impossible to know how good he is. He is just 6/4 to return and win the race for an unprecedented fourth time in 2011 and there can’t be too many people queuing up to lay the best long distance hurdler we have ever seen.
Arguably, the racing gods saved the best until last and Friday’s breathtaking climax to the Cheltenham Gold Cup was worthy of its superstar billing. When Kauto Star and Denman settled down to battle it out in another instalment of their rivalry it looked like a war of biblical proportions could ensue as Ruby Walsh and Sam Thomas eyeballed each other to the sound of over 50,000 screaming racing fanatics.
However, while the two legendary chasers battled it out at the front of affairs, King George hero Long Run wasn’t far behind and the heavily backed favourite swept by his elders in a sensational conclusion to a race which will go down as one of the all-time classics. Nicky Henderson’s youngster was given quotes of 6/1 to retain his crown next year and Ladbrokes go an astonishing 4/1 that he can repeat the accomplishments of Kauto Star and win the race on three occasions. At just six years of age, would anybody really bet against it?