As is the norm these days, the Cheltenham Festival is front loaded with big Grade 1 events in the first two days and the 2016 event has not disappointed in producing some great action and more importantly some really exciting winners. Pride of place on performance goes to the Queen Mother winner, Sprinter Sacre.
Here was an old warrior returning to the biggest and hardest stage to try and reclaim his crown against the younger pretenders. In a race run at a furious pace, Sprinter Sacre looked to be struggling mid-race as the pace was red hot but when Nico De Boinville urged him to attack the leaders, the response was immediate and he took complete control of the race.
While not as impressive in victory as his stroll in 2013, this was redemption for a returning champ and his team should take great credit for nursing him back to compete at this level. If this horse is retired now, he will live on as one of the greats of the game.
Redemption of another kind came in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle, when the admirable Annie Power finally gained a richly deserved Festival win following her non-staying second in 2013 World Hurdle and her unfortunate fall in the 2014 Mares Hurdle.
In this race, Ruby Walsh sent her straight to the front, took control of the race and the Mare responded, jumping with alacrity and never allowing her opposition to challenge with any real chance.
The emotion from Walsh afterwards told you how much this victory meant to a team whom has enormous resources to go to war with. It will be interesting to see her next plan as Walsh spoke of comparisons to Dawn Run, surely a go at the Gold Cup would be the ultimate plan to emulate a great?
While those wins were emotional, the real superstar on show during the opening two days had to be Douvan. This horse simply oozes class and is a complete joy to watch. He sauntered around in the Arkle, jumping cleanly until a slight error at the last.
Willie Mullins sounded like Aidan O’Brien afterwards as he hyped him up as a Champion Chaser and Gold Cup horse in the same sentence. Whatever route this horse takes, he is one to see when the chance arises as he is a truly spectacular specimen and can go on to greatness as he becomes more experienced over fences. On the Novice Hurdle scene, we saw two performances that screamed class.
Firstly, in the Supreme, Altior stalked the pace before surging clear in decisive fashion on the run to the last. This is a seriously good horse who will be a strong contender for Champion Hurdle honours next season.
In the Neptune, we saw another superior performance from Yorkhill. Traveling strongly behind the pace, in what was an admittedly slowly run race, he quickened impressively and pulled right away with Yanworth from the rest of the field. Despite this impressive win, he idled due to greenness towards the end and this is a horse going places. He has the look of a Chaser already and will more than likely be back here next season for the Arkle, where he already looks to be an outstanding contender.
In the Mares Hurdle, the Willie Mullins team won the race for the eight year in a row with Vroum Vroum Mag. This Mare is now unbeaten in nine runs for the Mullins team. Starting off over fences, she would six Mares Chases before being switched to hurdles this season.
Following an easy win, at prohibitive odds, around Clonmel in December, Vroum Vroum Mag ran at Ascot in January in a Mares Grade 2. In that race, she travelled with supreme ease towards the rear before coming through easily to win.
On Tuesday, she again travelled well in rear before making smooth progress to join the leaders on the way towards the last Hurdle, where a super lead propelled her well clear and she stayed on stoutly to record her victory.
Vroum Vroum Mag is a very good Mare who has not been hyped like some of her stablemates but it will be interesting to see what route she takes next.
A return to fences would be exciting as with the Mare allowances available to her, it is not hard to envisage her being very competitive in the top races but knowing the Mullins camp management of resources, it is equally likely that she sticks to the Mares hurdle route and you could see her returning for this race next season.