Sunday, March 3, 2024

Cheltenham Festival 2023 from the course

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Ben Linfoot was our man on track as The Real Whacker won for a formerly struggling trainer amongst a host of victories for the bigger guns.


“It is the best day of my life,” says joint-owner of The Real Whacker David Mann, dressed head to toe in bright red and white suit, complete with optimistic sunglasses on a grey, wet and cold day at the Cheltenham Festival.

His horse had just put in a bold and brave performance in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, jumping brilliantly on the front end before falling in ahead of a flying Gerri Colombe, much to the relief of his ecstatic owner.

“I thought he was beaten until Matt Chapman came up and said you have got it,” he said.

“We are so proud of the team, especially [trainer] Paddy Neville who came over from Ireland two years ago. He is one of my best friends that I grew up with in the same village in Ireland. Paddy has done so much and brought this horse on.”

The celebrations bounced around the parade ring. “Up ****ing Limerick” was heard a few times as red and white scarfs were raised in triumph. At a Cheltenham Festival dominated by huge yards and racing’s big guns, The Real Whacker’s story is as David beating Goliath as it gets.

And to underline the transformation in Neville’s fortunes, here’s a stat: His record over six years from 2017-2022 in Ireland saw him train seven winners from 268 runners at 2.6%. This is his first season training in Britain and his 2023 record alone, the last 11 weeks, has seen him train seven winners from 23 runners at 30%.

“It’s working out great,” Neville said as he took it all in amongst the celebrations. “I trained in Ireland for 15 years, and had good winners there as well, but the last couple of years were getting tough. I made the move because I couldn’t get any owners in Ireland, just couldn’t get them. Hopefully it will work away here.”


Cheltenham Day Two: Ranked

  1. The Real Whacker jumps them silly
  2. Impaire Et Passe cruises to Ballymore
  3. Energumene all business in Champion Chase
  4. Skeli-copter on show in Coral showdown
  5. Maskada just Grand for De Bromhead
  6. Delta backs up in Cross Country thriller
  7. Dream is shared in Bumper for Kiely

While Neville was a triumph for the smaller yard, it was the biggest of them all that dominated the other Grade Ones on the day.

Willie Mullins’ 91st Cheltenham Festival winner was Impaire Et Passe in the Ballymore and he won like the preview evening circuit said he would. They didn’t go quick, it played into his hands and he simply did slower horses for speed.

“You have to look at everything, including the Champion Hurdle,” said Mullins. “Yesterday I was telling Michael Buckley, we’ll have to go shopping again to find one to beat you [Constitution Hill], but maybe we haven’t yet! He’s in the same sort of mould with his speed, jumping and the way he came up the hill, so maybe we have one.”

Optimistic fighting talk was followed up by a victory for attention to detail, as Energumene (win number 92) bolted up in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase after his trainer transported some white fences to Closutton to help him adjust to the English fences.

Whatever the reason, Energumene jumped much better than he did in the Clarence House and he sauntered to victory – he’s very good at Cheltenham in the driving rain. Market rival Edwardstone ran no race in the conditions, summing up another bang average day for the Brits.

After Ireland filled the first eight spots in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, they had the first four home in the Ballymore (Paul Nicholls’ best chance of the week, Hermes Allen, was only sixth) and the Champion Chase was an Irish one-two with the third, Nicholls’ Greaneteen, beaten 34 lengths.

The Real Whacker seems a tenuous victory for Britain – we’ll take it with Neville’s Leyburn base in North Yorkshire credited as the major factor in his turnaround of fortunes – but Langer Dan did register a bona fide success for the home contingent as Dan Skelton’s horse edged a three-way thriller in the Coral Cup.

This was a triumph for persistence on his fourth go at the Festival, with his first effort a sixth in the Fred Winter, his second go a runner-up finish to the absolutely lobbed in Galopin Des Champs in the Martin Pipe, and then he was brought down at the second on his last go at the latter race when sent off 7/2 favourite.

After three County Hurdles, it’s not really a surprise that Skelton added to his Festival tally in the Coral Cup, a prize coveted by a posse of target trainers. Cue the ‘Skeli-copter’ as brother Harry did his trademark celebration after crossing the line in front.

The celebrations were more low-key for Tony Bloom, multi-millionaire gambler and owner of Energumene. “My heart rate didn’t go above 80!” he said. Contrast that with Mann, of The Real Whacker fame. “My heart is pounding and my stomach is all over the place!”

This magnificent arena has seen victories for all different kinds of folk. It’s part of its alluring charm. And guess what – Willie Mullins didn’t even win the Bumper with any of his ten, John Kiely’s A Dream To Share landing the spoils – quite an apt name for the winner considering the day’s events.


Follow the Cheltenham Festival on Sporting Life

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