Tom Stanley: Cheltenham Returns With a Bang

10 min

New Matchbook Ambassador Tom Stanley will be sharing his thoughts on all things Horse Racing throughout the year, looking back on the weekend just gone and what’s on the radar for the coming weeks as the National Hunt season gets underway.

Good to be back at Cheltenham

Cheltenham was back with a bang this week, albeit more of a bump on the Friday.

Two horses in separate races unseating up the run in was sad to see on day one of the new season at Prestbury Park.

My heart went out to amateur rider Michael O’Sullivan in particular, denied the chance of a memorable Cheltenham winner. If there is a positive to come out of this, however, it’s that it did happen twice on the same card.

It couldn’t be put down to a freak incident, a one-off, and action had to be taken. Cheltenham is full of excellent operators, clerk of the course Simon Claisse in particular, and they made the right call in dealing with the situation swiftly and openly. The ability to erect a temporary rail during the race, as tested on Saturday, now means such incidents should be a thing of the past. No consolation to connections on this occasion but at least it appears a case of problem solved.

Lil Rockerfeller was a deserving winner of the Matchbook Time To Move Over Novices Chase

On a brighter note, the incident-free racing was as good as expected.

A personal highlight on Friday was Thomas Darby giving Olly Murphy his first Cheltenham winner. I brought up on the Matchbook Betting Podcast last week that Olly has some serious young hurdlers in his armoury and this is very much one of them.

Keep your eye on the yard going forward, they could have a very, very good year.

I was seriously impressed with the facilities when I visited earlier this month, and it’s worth noting that Olly’s father is one of the best bloodstock agents out there. Combine Olly’s hunger and ability as a trainer with the champion jockey often at the helm, it should spell plenty of success.

Other names who could be worth noting are Garretstown and Brewin’Upastorm. They also have a half-brother to Saint Calvados to be excited about.

Wonder mare Winx

Saturday morning belonged to Winx. Wow! What a mare!

For a horse to race at the top level as consistently as she has without injury, defeat or anything resembling an ‘off-day’ is remarkable.

What strikes me most is the relationship between her and jockey Hugh Bowman, her partner for the last twenty-six wins. Wherever he puts her, whatever he asks of her, she obliges.

Hugh has so much faith in this superstar mare and is always, always rewarded. It’s a horse and rider partnership for the ages. Adding to the spectacle was the fact that we sceptical Europeans got to see her race against a worthy challenger in the form of Benbatl. Kudos to the Godolphin team for getting out there and taking her on.

This amazing run of Winx knows no bounds

Plenty have crabbed her true ability but she firmly put this 122-rated colt in his place, and a little easier than many, myself included, thought she might.

Whilst debate on what she’s beaten has merit, I’d prefer to focus on the manner in which she’s done it. I hope that appreciation of what she’s achieved doesn’t get lost among questions about what’s been behind her.

As a racing fan who wants every opportunity to celebrate this sport, what she has done for racing, and not just Australian racing, is magnificent. That atmosphere at Moonee Valley on Saturday (oh to have been there) was astonishing. Racegoers in their droves charging through the gates, singing in unison pre-racing, cheering the mare out onto the track and even louder back in. Phenomenal, and watched all over the world.

Appreciate her whilst we can because Winx won’t be around forever and I shouldn’t imagine there’ll be another.

Donnacha seeing out the season in style

Three Classics, three juvenile Group 1s and a jockey championship, it’s been quite the year for Donnacha O’Brien.

Much of that has been due to Ryan Moore’s international engagements but there have been no ‘gimmes’ and the young rider has seriously stepped up this year. He’s also, like all the O’Brien’s, an intelligent, articulate individual willing to give time and thought to pre and post-race interviews.

You’d understand if an air of entitlement crept in given where he hails from but there’s not a bit of it.

Donnacha O’Brien gave Magna Grecia (pictured left) a superb ride to win the Vertum.

That’s not to say that such behaviour is essential in a jockey but it does make a presenter’s life easier so I’m grateful for it! On his mount, Magna Grecia, a son of Invincible Spirit, I thought he won with a little more in hand than the winning distance would suggest. But he’d have a fair way to improve before giving Too Darn Hot many sleepless nights.

This week’s eyecatcher – Robin Waters

Dan Skelton brought up the fastest ever hundred winners on Friday and that’s quite the achievement. Whilst this week’s eye-catcher isn’t a horse that ran this weekend, he’s a horse who caught the eye at the end of last season and Dan has entered him in a couple of races this week.

Robin Waters was last seen when running tenth in the Albert Bartlett but looked a raw chaser in the making for all of last season over hurdles. I remember seeing him in the flesh for the first time when making his debut behind Nicky Henderson’s Santini. He looked a horse in need of a fence back then. Hopefully, he’s developed over the winter as expected and can show his worth as a staying chaser this season.