JIMMY BEADLE: Shocks and surprises cap the biggest and best festival

So often in sport the terms biggest and best are overused, but when describing this year’s Cheltenham Festival you would be doing it an injustice to call it anything short of that.

Thursday, 19th March 2015, 1:03 pm
Coneygree ridden by jockey Nico de Boinville after winning the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Gold Cup Day during the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday March 13, 2015. See PA story RACING Cheltenham. Picture credit should read: David Davies/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial Use only, commercial use is subject to prior permission from The Jockey Club/Cheltenham Racecourse. Call +44 (0)1158 447447 for further information.

It was an emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions and had the nation glued from the very first race to the time Tony McCoy got the biggest cheer of the week as he entered the parade ring for his swansong after finishing fourth on his final ever ride at the festival.

A new record attendance of 63,249 for the first day of the festival was the first of many records to be smashed this week as people crammed into Prestbury Park for what they hoped was going to be the day of the Irish and in particular the day of Willie Mullins.

He didn’t fail to disappoint. The talking horse of the festival Douvan lived up to his trainers billing as he sauntered to a 4 ½ length victory under the relieved Ruby Walsh, who punched the air as he crossed the line.

Next up was the beast Un De Sceaux as he looked to keep the punters ‘festival four timer’ alive with favourites in the first four Grade 1 races all for the Mullins/Walsh combination.

Un De Sceaux again read the script and in all honesty never looked in trouble as he cruised to a six-length victory. Surely Faugheen - the machine - would continue the dream in the Champion Hurdle.

Yep, not a problem. Another cosy victory as a familiar pattern was emerging. It was unbelievable scenes as Mullins and Walsh were going through the card with consummate ease with some incredible performances from their equine superstars.

Last up, the queen, Annie Power. A horse that the Closutton trainer described as his best chance of the week.

A horse that if victorious was set to cost the bookmaking industry in excess of £50 million and bring punters the best day in the history of the Cheltenham Festival.

They’re off, a massive cheer as expectant punters dreamed of that big payout. Annie Power hunted round under the expertise of Walsh, jumping fluently and travelling like a dream.

The race flew by and she was quickly in the home straight with a five-length lead under no pressure at all. Just one hurdle to jump and she’s never even looked like falling.

But she fell.

Never have I witnessed anything like it and I probably never will again. Absolute silence fell over Prestbury Park as people fell to their knees and held their heads in their hands.

Most people didn’t even know who won the race as they were in utter shock but no prizes for guessing it was that man Mullins’ second string Glens Melody, who completed a four-timer for the trainer and gave Paul Townend his first winner at the festival.

The dream was over. It was unbelievable to be a part of that historic first day, but simply agonising to watch the replay.

The highlight on day two was The Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Paul Nicholls-trained Dodging Bullets proved all the doubters wrong, who had knocked his form throughout the season.

Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy, the two returning champions failed to show their past sparkle and it was left to Sam Twiston Davies to outbattle Brian Hughes on the old-timer Somersby and claim festival glory in a victory that clearly meant the world to Nicholls, who had grown tiresome of people knocking Dodging Bullets’ ability.

Also on the Wednesday, that man Mullins continued his domination of the festival as his Don Poli put up one of the most impressive victories of the week in the RSA Novices Chase as he cantered up the Cheltenham Hill to reward favourite backers and lay down a firm marker for next season’s Gold Cup.

The day was completed as the heavily-gambled Moon Racer brought jockey Tom Scudamore to tears after victory in the bumper to show how much it means to the jockeys.

With McCoy still searching for an elusive first winner at the festival it arrived unexpectedly on day three as he led from start to finish on the unfancied Uxizandre to land the spoils at 16/1 in the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase.

He was greeted in the winners enclosure by rapturous applause from his adoring public in what turned out to be his last ever festival victory.

The feature race on Thursday was the Grade 1 Ladbrokes World Hurdle and it brought perhaps the most emotional victory of the week as the relatively small stable of Warren Greatrex claimed the spoils with his stable star Cole Harden, who again led from start to finish.

Greatrex was an emotional wreck after the race and broke down in tears before showing his ecstatic feelings in an interview in which he swore on live radio.

A great victory for the little guy which was a theme which was set to continue.

Thousands descended on Prestbury Park for the final day of the 2015 Cheltenham Festival all in search of their own fairytale story but it was the Bradstock family and their eight-year-old novice chaser Coneygree, who provided that magical moment.

So many experts and pundits had voiced their opinions that novices should stick to the novice races but the Bradstock family refused to take head of these opinions and entered the apple of their eye Coneygree in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Trainer Mark Bradstock and his wife Sara, who is the daughter of the legendary Lord Oaksey, have only 10 horses in their care and had to defy the 41-year absence since a novice has won the Gold Cup but Coneygree, with the heart of lion, was not to know this and he led at a frantic pace and jumped like a stag as his rivals toiled in behind and slowly but surely fell by the way side.

That was until only the Mullins-trained Djakadam come into contention, but even he could not get past the mighty Coneygree who bounded clear up the Cheltenham hill under conditional jockey Nico De Boinville for an emotional victory.

A victory in the most prestigious steeple-chase of the year for such a small stable was truly inspirational and gives hope to so many similar yards around the country who yearn to be on that big stage.

A record 248,521 visited Cheltenham over the four-day festival and every single one of them was praying McCoy could sign off with a fairytale victory aboard the heavily-backed Ned Buntline.

But it was not to be as he could only muster fourth place as Next Sensation took the honours in the finale to give Great Britain a 14-13 victory over the Irish in the Prestbury Cup and cap an outstanding weeks racing.

Only 51 weeks to wait for the next one.