Irish trained horses came within an ace of St Patrick’s Day perfection at Cheltenham when denied a historic clean-sweep of all seven races by just a short head.
On an afternoon when the sport’s most popular horse, Tiger Roll, defied doubters with a fifth festival success in the Cross-Country Chase, that was the margin Sky Pirate held off Entoucas in the Grand Annual to prevent an unprecedented ‘green-wash’ for the raiders.
It’s the fourth time in the last decade the visitors have come within one race of a clean sweep on a single day.
However on a day when Tiger Roll binned talk of retirement with a resounding feel-good success it was difficult to pin any ‘spoilsport’ tag onto Sky Pirate.
The dual-Aintree Grand National hero joined Quevega and the legendary Golden Miller as a five-time festival winner and even the mare’s record six wins might come under threat in 2022 on this evidence.
By then Tiger Roll will presumably be back under the care of the suspended Gordon Elliott and might even get a shot at emulating Red Rum with a third Aintree National success.
But for now he is trained by Denise Foster, has a tilt at the Irish National on Easter Monday in his immediate sights, and apparently not a hint of regret from owner, Michael O’Leary, about ruling him out of Aintree next month due to a spat with the British handicapper.
“None whatsoever. He is too highly rated. You can’t compare these cross-country horses to Gold Cup horses but he’s rated the same as Delta Work which is ridiculous,” said the Ryanair boss’s brother, Eddie O’Leary.
“It’s going to be hard to retire him after that, and he loves racing in any case,” he added with the assurance of the vindicated.
Whatever about the maths the visual impression left by Tiger Roll in comprehensively reversing places with last year’s winner Easyland suggested he might be as good as ever.
“We said we’d change the tactics with him, jump out, take a lead, sit second or third and make up his mind today. He came alive and he jumped brilliantly. I was in control of the race after halfway. He was in his comfort zone,” reported jockey Keith Donoghue.
Both he and O’Leary agreed drying ground made a major difference to Tiger Roll and the latter said: “He had a smile on his face there. At this stage in his career he knows what he likes and doesn’t like!”
Willie Mullins eventually wound up with a smile on his face too despite the eclipse of his odds-on favourite Chacun Pour Soi in the Champion Chase.
His new recruit Sir Gerhard led home stable companion Kilcuit to give Mullins an 11th win in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.
It completed a first-last race double for Rachael Blackmore, who had earlier landed the Ballymore on Bob Olinger. It was her 15th career Grade 1.
Mullins was also doubling up on the back of Monkfish’s eventful success at 1-4 in the Brown Advisory Novice Chase which saw a sketchy round of jumping that included an awkward blunder at the last.
“The most nerve wracking race I’ve ever watched,” Mullins said before referencing a heart procedure he underwent in 2019. “I’ll have to thank James McCarthy heart surgeon in the Blackrock Clinic for the good job he did on this (my heart)!”
He added: “Once I got over my fright at the last I was impressed how he pulled away going to the winning post.
“The first time he ran for me he was a slow staying three mile hurdler so I’m amazed at the amount of improvement he has made. He is learning all the time. The performance he put in here last year was fantastic and he has come back and boosted it. I imagine that will be his aim (Gold Cup).”
Sir Gerhard made light of his removal from Gordon Elliott’s yard a couple of weeks ago to win for his new trainer. After making all the Cheveley Park owned horse had half a length in hand of the odds-on Kilcruit at the line.
If Ireland’s big guns kept firing in salvoes then a rare shot at festival glory paid off with a vengeance for Paul Hennessy as one of just three horses he trains, Heaven Help Us, made all to win the Coral Cup at 33-1.
Hennessy is one of the most successful trainers in greyhound racing with English Derby wins to his credit. However he and jockey Richie Condon spiked some big horsey names with the home bred mare.
“We’ve got three horses in training at home. Greyhounds is our career - we were lucky enough to win the English Derby a few times over here, one of which was for John Turner, who owns Heaven Help Us.
“We’ve always kept a mare at home which we’d foal - that’s how this mare was born,” Hennessy explained.