We have just seen a fantastic three days of racing at Cheltenham’s Open meeting, in which the stable powerhouses of Pipe, Nicholls and Henderson were expected to dominate.
But it was the understated and extremely humble Phillip Hobbs who came away laughing loudest with an extraordinary six winners.
All of these were ridden to victory by stable jockey Richard Johnson.
His reward for this magnificent feat is a place at the top of the trainers championship in which he was a previously an unconsidered outsider.
Prestbury Park’s prestigious Open meeting got off to the best possible start for the Somerset handler as he had three winners on Friday’s opening day with the all equally impressive displays of Bold Henry, Champagne West and Balthazar King.
All three winners are considered strong possibilities for the Cheltenham Festival in March and in particular Champagne West, whose main target will be the RSA chase and with the further distance expected to eke out further improvement the 20/1 currently available may well be worth taking now.
Golden Doyen was the single victory for the Hobbs and Johnson team on Saturday as he proved victorious in the JCB triumph trial but the feature race of the day, the Paddy Power Gold Cup went the way of Paul Nicholls who hailed the ride of Sam Twiston-Davies aboard 10/1 shot Caid Du Berlais as ‘brilliant’ and ‘top drawer’ in a dramatic victory to just deny last year’s winner John’s Spirit.
The final day on Sunday saw a slightly sombre mood dawn upon Cheltenham as early news broke of the death of National Hunt legend Dessie Hughes after a battle with illness.
Two minutes’ silence was observed impeccably before racing started and all the jockeys wore black armbands as a sign of respect to hugely popular jockey turn trainer and father to champion flat jockey Richard Hughes.
Hughes had 14 winners in total at the Cheltenham festival as both a jockey and a trainer with the most famous training feat being his dual Champion Hurdle victories for Hardy Eustace in 2004 and 2005.
Sunday’s feature race, The Greatwood Hurdle was Hobbs most notable scalp as his five-year-old Garde La Victoire just held off the well-fancied Vaniteux of Nicky Henderson’s to cap off a most memorable few days for the overwhelmed Hobbs: “Before the meeting started I said I would settle for two winners and Richard said three.
“To have six is phenomenal.
“I could not have imagined it in my wildest dreams. It was borderline whether we ran two winners because we thought it might be too soft for them. We will enjoy it while we can.”
Trainer Hobbs was later outshone by his stable jockey Richard Johnson who won the final race aboard favourite Definitly Red to take his meeting tally to seven, a feat only matched by Tony McCoy in 2001.
Meanwhile, over in Ireland the remarkable Hurricane Fly recorded his 20th Grade 1 victory as he brushed aside last year’s Champion Hurdle winner Jezki with consummate ease to claim the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
The 10-year-old superstar seemed on the downgrade last season with comprehensive defeats at both Cheltenham and Punchestown but jockey Ruby Walsh refuses to write him off :“He’s a horse that always had plenty of guts and determination.
“Some people may have had their doubts about him, but Kauto Star was also written off a number of times. That’s racing, it’s all about opinions and he got a wonderful reception from the crowd here.”
This weekend’s feature race sees early Gold Cup candidates clash in a cracking renewal of the Betfair Chase at Haydock.
With the recent poor seasonal debuts of both favourite Cue Card and second favourite Silviniaco Conti they can be quite easily overlooked and it is worth taking a chance with the in-form David Pipe runner Dynaste who finished second in the corresponding race behind Cue Card.
Dynaste went on to show massive improvement last season culminating in victory in the Ryanair Chase, and he has also won twice on his seasonal debut in the last three seasons and I’m sure Pipe will have him primed for this contest.
RSA chase, Cheltenham, March, Ante-Post: Champagne West 20/1.
Betfair Chase, Haydock, Saturday: Dynaste 4/1.