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Reflections On The International Meeting

Monday 12th December 2016

In her latest column, Maddy Playle (@mp_horseracing) takes a thorough look back at Cheltenham's International meeting, where Frodon and The New One were amongst the big winners...

RACING is all about the horses, but for me, Cheltenham’s International meeting taught us a lot about patterns between people. You could argue racing is very much in a transitional period, with AP McCoy having retired, ITV Racing set to cover new ground, and many of the old stars bowing out in return for the new. In many ways, this year’s two day meeting enforced that narrative, with this season’s newer stars proving they have what it takes to remain at the top.

First and foremost, we are very lucky to be in a thrilling new era for jockeys. These musings will mostly be connected to the talented jockeyship we are lucky enough to be experiencing at the moment, and there wouldn’t be many around better than Aidan Coleman. He is Cheltenham’s most successful jockey at the moment, and it is easy to see why. His riding style is extremely dynamic and he is very adaptable, I am confident he will make it as Champion Jockey one day, especially considering the range of trainers he is riding for at present. Granted, CALL TO ORDER doesn’t look a complicated mount, but Coleman steered him to an encouraging victory in the Citipost Handicap Hurdle on Friday. Coleman has a solid relationship with Jonjo O’Neill, as he proved when winning the BetVictor Gold Cup aboard Taquin Du Seuil at the Open Meeting. There will be more wins to come from his Call To Order, who is still inexperienced and has more to offer of his current mark in staying handicap hurdles.

Saturday hailed no winners for Coleman but his ride aboard WEST APPROACH was one of superb horsemanship. New hold-up tactics were employed to try and beat the eventual winner WHOLESTONE, but a cataclysmic mistake two from home cost him dear, and Coleman performed acrobatics of Olympic degree to keep the partnership intact. I don’t think many jockeys would have been able to do the same.

Many will have missed Coleman’s ride in the last race on Friday, but it was probably my favourite race of the entire meeting. The novice hurdle was full to the brim with quality and I am sure it will produce plenty of serious horses. In a race ridden at a very slow pace, he had the gorgeous PINGSHOU well placed on the heels of the leader BRIO CONTI for much of the race. The race developed into a sprint up the home straight, but Coleman didn’t panic and despite showing signs of greenness, Pingshou held on very well. He finished fourth behind JENKINS, BAGS GROOVE and CAPTAIN FOREZ at Newbury on his first start over hurdles, and these all look future stars in their own right.

Second was WILLIAM HENRY under Davy Russell, who a very promising race after a huge absence. For the same trainer and owner combination, Russell partnered WHISPER to victory in the Ryman Novices Chase. Whisper is not an easy mount, and can travel just behind the bridle, but Russell gave him an intelligent ride and it paid dividends. He gave the horse confidence over his fences, and didn’t rush him throughout the race. He delivered Whisper to perfection and I feel he will be very well suited to many of Henderson’s horses as, similar to Barry Geraghty, he rides with an awful lot of patience. I think the Dai Walters silks will be ones to watch this season as think Russell is bound to gel well with the type of horse he owns.

If we’re talking of trainers in form, they don’t get much better than Colin Tizzard. He had another fruitful venture to Cheltenham, with wins courtesy of Theatre Guide and the aforementioned Pingshou, but plenty of his inmates ran superb races in defeat. BALLY LONGFORD fits into this category, and is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to praise Aidan Coleman in this blog. Bally Longford had never run over 3m2f before, and Coleman sensibly positioned him on the rail for the entire race in order to save ground. Despite making a mistake at a crucial stage, the horse travelled ominously and looked the winner turning for home. His stamina appeared to give out in the final furlong but it was to his credit he managed to get as close to the front two as he did. I have no doubt he will be winning a big handicap before too long.

Tizzard’s QUITE BY CHANCE also fits into a similar bracket. There aren’t many jockeys around at the minute with a better strike rate than Tom O’Brien, and Quite By Chance initially raced prominently before being shuffled back in the field. He was impeded twice by the mistakes of horses around him and wasn’t flawless in the jumping department himself, but still managed to make up an awful lot of ground to finish fourth, staying on strongest of all. Now we can be confident he stays 2m5f, it will be interesting to see him tackle a similar style race again. He is still improving and is very versatile, so should be one to keep on side.

Another trainer in form is Fergal O’Brien. I still find it hard to believe his PERFECT CANDIDATE was beaten in the Unicoin Group Handicap Chase on Friday. The horse led from flag fall, jumped superbly and battled on bravely, only to be denied by a nose. After the race O’Brien was insistent that his rider Conor Shoemark deserved more opportunities in the saddle and I don’t disagree. The stable are having a tremendous season and long may it continue. No doubt Perfect Candidate and Shoemark will be back at their beloved Cheltenham before too long, and I hope they are able to gain rightful redemption.

A jockey who is getting plenty of opportunities, and deservedly so, is Charlie Deutsch. He has showcased his maturity in the saddle on countless occasions before, most notably when riding AACHEN to victory at this meeting last year. He often uses bold front running tactics, and he did so aboard ON DEMAND in the final race of the meeting, the Mares’ Handicap Hurdle. It was a enterprising ride under a featherweight and the mare will have more wins next to her name before too long. Deutsch’s customary tactics marry particularly well to the yard he is attached to, as horses trained by his trainer, Venetia Williams, are synonymous for their fitness and bravery, particularly in tough conditions. I also thought he rode ASO very well in the Caspian Caviar to finish second. The horse is prone to making a mistake at a crucial stage, but Deutsch was patient and allowed him to recover. The horse must have one of these top handicaps in the bag if he were to jump better. The same can be said for Williams’s COLD MARCH, who looked woefully outpaced in the Raymond Mould Handicap Chase on Saturday before staying on encouragingly into fifth. The rain hadn’t really soaked into the ground at this point, and I think he will be a horse to note once he goes a little further, too.

Other good rides to note were those by Barry Geraghty on BRIERY QUEEN and Kielan Woods on AMI DESBOIS. Cheltenham aside, Leighton Aspell also suits Lucy Wadham’s tough stayer POTTERS LEGEND, who again ran his heart out in defeat to PRESENT MAN at Doncaster. You can get 25/1 about him for the National Hunt Chase at the festival and I think the race would suit him down to the ground.

Champion Jockey Richard Johnson also enjoyed a successful meeting. VILLAGE VIC ran another monstrous race in the Caspian Caviar to finish third and I think people are still in danger of underestimating him. Johnson excels when he is allowed to be bold and he has the most willing of partners in Village Vic, who continues to impress around Cheltenham, despite carrying lumps of weight. He employed similar tactics aboard THE NEW ONE, who won his third International Hurdle and looks as if he will stay over the smaller obstacles for the time being. In addition, he may not have won, but Johnson’s ride aboard LABEL DES OBEAUX in the Jockey Club Ownership Syndicate Novices Chase is worth a second look. The horse improved into the race smartly before he was let down by a few poor jumps. He stayed on powerfully up the hill to finish third behind the impressive winner SINGLEFARMPAYMENT and ARPEGE D’ALENE. On this evidence, I think he will be one for long distance handicaps.

The final mention goes to Sam Twiston-Davies, who claimed one of the feature races of the meeting aboard FRODON for Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls. Sam seems to have been on the racing stage forever, and has always had the invaluable backing of his farther Nigel and Carl Llewellyn. That said, his riding continues to improve, and he is his own biggest critic. His job is one of huge pressure, which other jockeys have shown they aren’t able to handle, yet alike his trainer, he has proved he has what it takes to deliver on the big days. It can’t have been easy to be sat on the sidelines for as long as he did, yet he handled the cards he has been dealt admirably, this mentality proves he has what it takes to be Champion Jockey sometime in the future. Perhaps most importantly, Sam is always generous with his time with the media and the public and I wish to thank him for that. It paints a great picture when racing’s figureheads are as approachable as he is, and it is just one of the things we have to be excited about in this revolutionary time for our sport.

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