With current events around the world, the 2020 Cheltenham Festival seems far longer than just two weeks ago. There were many highs and lows throughout the four day meeting, including Goshen unseating his rider at the final flight with the Triumph Hurdle at his mercy and Al Boum Photo becoming the first back-to-back winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup since Best Mate. Here are the top five performances of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.
FERNY HOLLOW (Champion Bumper)
The Champion Bumper is the final race on day two of the Cheltenham Festival and I was mightily impressed with the performance of the Willie Mullins-trained Ferny Hollow, ridden by Paul Townend. I thought he put in the most remarkable performance of the entire meeting and he is the first name on my list if the top five performances of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.
Ferny Hollow seemed to be overlooked in the betting and was sent off at 11/1. The reason behind his appealing odds was the race’s main protagonist, and his stablemate, Appreciate It. He was deemed to be one of the bankers of the week, having been heavily backed into 15/8 favouritism under the hands of Patrick Mullins.
Appreciate It was always handy and looked to be going best of all as they approached the home-bend. However, Ferny Hollow had different ideas and came with a strong finishing effort to see off the hot favourite and win the race by two and half lengths in the colours of Cheveley Park Stud.
The main reason behind Ferny Hollow becoming my top elected performance of the festival wasn’t the field that he beat but the manner in which he beat it. Having been held-up in rear last of 23 runners early doors, this highly regarded, promising horse raced keenly for most of the race.
It looked inconceivable for him to pass every rival in such a warm renewal but as Ferny Hollow made his move down the hill, he was hot on the heels of those at the head of affairs.
Ferny Hollow still had work to do behind a wall of horses before the turn for home. Even so, I relished the way that he got himself out of severe trouble under the hands of a cool, collected Paul Townend and when the gap finally appeared, Ferny Hollow accelerated into top gear and stormed past his remaining rivals to stamp his superiority on the race.
Evidently, Ferny Hollow earned himself a figure of 142 which is high for a bumper success, having constructed good sectional and time figures. This indicated the level of his performance and, after close analysis, I have no doubt Ferny Hollow will be a serious force in the novice hurdle division next season.
Many are now speaking of him as a stayer in the making. The figures he achieved on the clock and ratings in this bumper performance clearly suggest that he isn’t short of speed and, therefore, connections have plenty of options for him in the long run.
ENVOI ALLEN (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle)
Opening day three of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival was the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Envoi Allen had horse racing fans worldwide on his back and was, for many, the banker of the week.
Carrying such a huge reputation on the grandest stage of them all, Envoi Allen was well supported into 4/7 favouritism. He went into the race held in high regard yet came out of it a star. This huge specimen of a horse bullied his opposition with considerable ease whilst extending his perfect record to eight wins from eight starts.
Davy Russell is the man you want on your side for the big occasion and he executed the perfect ride aboard Envoi Allen. Nearly every spectator, punters and viewer would have had a moment of worry due to Envoi Allen being six lengths off the the leader, The Big Getaway, jumping the third last flight.
Still, Davy Russell resisted the urge to press the panic button and waiting until the turn for home to hit the accelerator. Envoi Allen turned on the style and swiftly made up the ground. Within a blink of an eye he was in front of the two pacesetters jumping the final flight before turbo mode was fully unleashed. He came up the hill strongly to keep his flawless record in tact to the roar of the Cheltenham crowd.
HONEYSUCKLE (Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle)
In the build up to the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, nobody was sure whether Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle would even clash in this one as connections of both horses considered alternative races. However, when both were confirmed for the mares’ race, the match between the two superstar mares of our generation was on.
Benie Des Dieux was the hot favourite at 4/6 and you could see why. On face value she was yet to taste defeat when standing up, having fallen at the final flight last year when looking set to collect the race for the second consecutive season following her brilliant win in 2018.
Honeysuckle, on the other hand, was sent off at 9/4 and was unbeaten in all career starts. She had never raced at Cheltenham previously, leaving the Irish champion hurdle queen with two major factors to overcome. However, it was a race which turned out to be special.
Having both travelled and jumped exceptionally well, Rachael Blackmore took the scenic route down the inside rail to send Honeysuckle to the front on the home bend. Benie Des Dieux had to travel out wide which wasn’t the original plan. Robbie Power, aboard Stormy Ireland, thought Benie Des Dieux and Paul Townend were on his inside pulling his mount off the rail. However, without knowing, Robbie Power opened the door up for Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore to sweep through.
It cost Benie Des Dieux a length or two and Honeysuckle set sail for home, showing a good turn of pace with the final flight looming large which she winged with ease. Benie Des Dieux was gaining with every stride but Honeysuckle was able to overcome the pressure and claim a sensational win.
The race lived up to every expectation and their next encounter will be eagerly anticipated.
MIN (Ryanair Chase)
Four years on from Min chasing Altior home in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the door was finally open for Min to finally win at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.
In his three previous Cheltenham Festival appearances, Min had seen the back of Altior on each occasion and everyone involved with this talented horse must have been sick of the sight of the two-time champion chaser. Having said that, Min had been trained for the Ryanair all season and I was adamant for a long time that he could break his duck at the track, despite coming up against the young and talented A Plus Tard.
Start time had arrived, A Plus Tard was well backed into favouritism for Rachael Blackmore and Henry De Bromhead at odds of 7/4 whereas Min started 2/1 for Paul Townend and Willie Mullins. From the off, Min jumped fantastically and was travelling so well that Paul Townend decided to send him to the front. By mid-race he had seen off defending champion Frodon.
A Plus Tard didn’t seem to take much cut at the fences and was always racing behind the bridle. Even so, Min still had a job to complete regardless of his wonderful, fluent round of jumping.
What really caught my eye, looking back, was the proficiency Min showed from the back of the third last fence to the winning post. He needed to be foot-perfect at every stage.
The majority of the field loomed up right on Min’s quarters turning for home, with A Plus Tard laying down a strong challenge. However, Paul Townend remained motionless in the saddle, showing plenty of belief that his mount had plenty left in the tank.
Min winged the final two fences before being asked to lengthen his stride and seal the deal. Although Saint Calvados looked very dangerous on the run-in, Min showed plenty of resilience to fend off all challengers and land the spoils in taking fashion.
SAMCRO (Marsh Novices’ Chase)
We were treated to an absolute classic in the Marsh Novices’ Chase where we witnessed one of the finest finishes at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival as Samcro, Melon and Faugheen contested an epic three-way duel up the famous hill.
What marked up Samcro’s performance to reach my top five was how he redeemed his reputation back at the Cheltenham Festival. I never lost faith in this horse and neither did his connections because there were excuses in all his defeats since winning the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle twelve months earlier.
The benefit of a wind-operation clearly did assist Samcro in his performance and, not only did he travel and jump effectively, but he demonstrated a willing attitude to fend off Melon, who once again reached the frame at Cheltenham without success.
Samcro jumped beautifully until failing to lift a leg through the second last fence. However, Davy Russell regathered his momentum and a good jump at the last put him in the lead within the dying strides. Samcro had his nose in front of the luckless Melon when it mattered with the valiant Faugheen hot on their heels in third. It was a race that well and truly deserves to be remembered for a long time and the resurgence of Samcro at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival was a special and defining moment.
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