Mar 21, 2022

Breaking news: reports of the demise of British National Hunt racing have been somewhat exaggerated.

After a virtual greenwash by Ireland at the Cheltenham Festival of 2021, and further defeats during the latest season in prizes ranging from the Grade One Betfair and King George VI Chases to the historic Imperial Cup handicap hurdle, a year on morale was hardly buoyant.

Some had even done the once barely-thinkable, seemingly waving the white flag and nominating alternative targets, at Ayr, Aintree or Sandown, for horses that would normally have lined up in the Cotswolds in mid-March as a matter of course.

In the Festival build-up, bookmakers had done some fair business pricing up another humiliating conquest by Messrs Mullins, De Bromhead, Cromwell and Co, re-joined by a Gordon Elliott in bullishly redemptive mood after his year away because of suspension.

For many, even the heady days of parity between the two sides most recently achieved in 2019 felt more like three decades ago than three years.

Some think we in the racing media bang on about all this too much, but forget national pride, this is crucial for the business and all the promotion of the sport at its biggest event, especially if a fifth day materialises.

But hold your horses: the obituaries can be parked and wakes postponed because although the British remain many lengths behind their Irish cousins, and they could make no telling impression on Boodles Gold Cup day, the results were furlongs better than feared thanks to a fightback as spirited as it was not entirely expected.

The spectacularly fast, wide-margin Supreme Novices Hurdle success of Constitution Hill over fellow Nicky Henderson-trained contender Jonbon set the tone from early, and that was only underlined by the foot-perfect performance of Edwardstone in the Arkle a few minutes later.

The pair, which along with champion hurdler Honeysuckle made up a memorable day one treble for British breeders – respectively Sally Noott; Robert Abrey and Ian Thurtle, who are also owners of Edwardstone; and Geoffrey Guy – are now most prominent in chat about a ‘cycle’ which will see jump racing’s pendulum swing away from Ireland naturally at some point.

Adding to the grounds for optimism were the Harry Fry-trained Love Envoi which ended the Irish stranglehold on the first six stagings of the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle when leading home a 1-2-4 for the home team.

And while everyone has a view on the allocation of weight levels for the nine handicap-races, the wider spread of results could be seen to vindicate the tinkering with the system – the Evan Williams-trained, Adam Wedge-ridden Coole Cody was no. 1 hero when making it four wins from 12 starts at Cheltenham in the Plate.

Hopefully, there should also be plenty of better Festival days to come from the two biggest disappointments of the week, both pulled up favourites: Shishkin in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the usually brilliant Hillcrest in the Albert Bartlett.  

But for me the most exciting result came in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase from the winner L’Homme Presse, trained by Venetia Williams, who was rewarded throughout the week for boldly stepping up to the plate against the Irish challenge, achieving an impressive return of F1623431552.

With the name that translates as ‘man in a hurry’, L’Homme Presse further climbed steeplechasing’s ever-greasy pole at the principal expense of Ahoy Senor; and I have little doubt that Bravemansgame would also have succumbed had the downpour not kept that one away.   

Taking in his impressive stride the challenge of stepping up to three miles for the first time and making light of the rain-drenched conditions, the seven-year-old looked every inch a major Gold Cup player in waiting.  

It should make for interesting times for Herefordshire-based Williams and jockey Charlie Deutsch – leading contenders surely for the trainer/jockey team of the season – as their Royale Pagaille, which was a career-best fifth behind A Plus Tard and history-making Rachael Blackmore in the latest Gold Cup, is just eight.

So, although challenging times still lie ahead for British jumping, notably in a Grand National packed with Irish talent, perhaps this will again prove all the theories about the darkest hour (at the 2021 Festival) preceding a new dawn.

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