Cheltenham Festival 2019 review: Paisley Park, Bryony Frost, Altior, Al Boum Photo

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Paul Townend and Willie Mullins
Paul Townend rode Al Boum Photo to give trainer Willie Mullins his first Gold Cup victory after six second places

With four days of fantastic racing, the 2019 Cheltenham Festival offered plenty to remember it by.

Was it a successful Festival?

Yes - and I don't say that as a cheerleader. Some years, racing's bar-room bores have a field day declaring the Festival 'marvellous' when everyone knows perfectly well that it was just OK.

That's not the case this time after four days packed with star performers and a full gamut of emotions and high drama, some of it provided by less than spring-like weather, which ultimately failed in its dogged efforts to dampen spirits, or even blow us away.

Let's start with 'that' 45 minutes…

Bryony Frost and Frodon
Bryony Frost became the first female jockey to ride a top-level Grade One Cheltenham Festival winner

Day three is billed as St Patrick's Thursday, but this year it was the luck of the British, not the Irish, that dominated.

First, Bryony Frost and Frodon jumped and galloped their way to Grade One race success in the Ryanair Chase. Minutes later, the Emma Lavelle-trained Paisley Park - owned by Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth - stormed home in the Stayers Hurdle.

They were buzzy and breathless Festival moments on a famous sporting day. It could be seen as a significant boost for racing, which in the contemporary world has a tendency to feel defensive and unloved; these two quite different but equally inspirational characters belong to it.

Joyous images of Frost were scattered prominently across the media and internet. She has a likeable personality to rival honed skills in the saddle, so stand by to hear a lot more about her.

For the second year running, female jockeys lifted the trophy after four of the 28 races - there has never been a bigger total - with Ireland's Rachael Blackmore, twice, and Lizzie Kelly on the winners' podium as well as Frost.

So, as well as Frodon and Paisley Park, who were the equine stars?

As predicted, the Nicky Henderson-trained Altior, ridden by Nico de Boinville - the top jockey of the week - successfully defended his Queen Mother Champion Chase title on Wednesday, but it was all rather more nail-biting than anticipated.

The very soft ground conditions probably weren't ideal, and he was forced to show the traits of a 'proper' champion when knuckling down to see off good quality rivals and make it a record-equalling 18 wins in a row.

It was Altior's fourth Festival victory, as it was for the Grand National winner Tiger Roll when he strolled home by practically the length of Cheltenham town centre's Promenade in the Cross Country Chase.

Now a warm favourite to become the first horse since Red Rum (1973-74) to triumph at Aintree two years running, Tiger Roll provided his trainer Gordon Elliott with the first of three winners during the fixture. However, he missed out on retaining the week's training title to arch-rival Willie Mullins, who had four victories, which included Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup.

Talking of Tiger Roll, he was the only success story during a disappointing week for aviation tycoon Michael O'Leary's vast Gigginstown House Stud racing operation, which had nearly 40 runners.

Meanwhile, two other prominent owners in Irish racing, the financier Rich Ricci and wife Susannah, drew a blank from 10 runners. One of them, Benie Des Dieux ridden by Ruby Walsh, fell at the last when in command of the Mares Hurdle, thus exactly emulating the Riccis' Annie Power, which, again ridden by Walsh, did the same in the 2015 race.

A Plus Tard
Rachael Blackmore, on A Plus Tard, won the Close Brothers Novice Chase

What caught the eye for the future?

The novice chasers looked pretty good, particularly A Plus Tard, which dotted up in Tuesday's Close Brothers Novices Chase, and the giant Topofthegame, which gained comparisons with chasing-great Denman in the RSA Chase.

Over hurdles, City Island impressed when beating well-touted Champ in the Ballymore Novices Hurdle and Band Of Outlaws looked the business in the new Boodles Hurdle.

Band Of Outlaws was a first Festival win for trainer Joseph O'Brien - and he had one more too - but as he himself tweeted, "the week felt like a disaster" after stable star Sir Erec tragically broke a leg just after jumping the fourth in the Triumph Hurdle, and had to be put down.

Criticism for racing's regulator

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) can legitimately claim that safety measures brought in before the Festival have made a difference, with the number of horse deaths - three - down on recent years.

However, officials were criticised over the treatment of amateur jockeys in comparison with their professional counterparts. Bans were handed out to 20 or so participants in two out of the three amateur-only races, leaving some unconvinced that professionals would have received the same censure - and with the impression that there's an agenda against the so-called 'unpaid ranks'.

Prior to the Festival, the Authority warned of a "material threat" to their exclusive races if rules were breached.

In particular, eyebrows were raised when no contraventions were judged to have taken place following false starts to four opening-day races in which any jockey can take part, but a similar incident on day three before the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase - confined to amateur riders - led to 17 suspensions.

There was also controversy after a jockey who finished third in the amateurs-only National Hunt Chase on the opening afternoon received a 10-day ban for continuing in the race "when it appeared contrary to the horse's welfare".

The former champion jump jockey AP McCoy labelled the decision "disgraceful".

Rightly or wrongly, an element at the Authority has gained a reputation for misunderstanding the historic meaning of the word 'amateur' in the context of British racing.

It's not the modern derisory 'unprofessional', but the more classical definition, from the Latin verb Amo - meaning 'I love' - ie knowledgeable horsemen and women who take part in racing in whatever role, notably race-riding and stewarding, for love not money.

Many amateur riders are considered far more experienced than the average professional, and only retain their status so as to be able to ride additionally in races on the entirely amateur point-to-point circuit.

The argument goes that this tradition, while sounding quaint and perhaps outdated in the 21st century, has been a generally solid backbone for horse racing for centuries. Critics fear a case of babies being throw out with bathwater by a BHA with too much reform on its mind. I suspect this one will run and run.

Buveur D'Air
Buveur D'Air, left, ridden by Barry Geraghty, fell during the Champion Hurdle

Surprises along the way

Reigning titleholder Buveur D'Air's fall during Tuesday's Champion Hurdle, when not getting the third hurdle quite right, was quite a moment; happily, no harm was done.

Pretty amazingly, neither of the other two most tipped contenders - Apple's Jade (sixth) and Laurina (fourth) - made the first three either, but Espoir D'Allen demonstrated considerable authority in winning the race.

Both Buveur D'Air and Espoir D'Allen are owned by JP McManus, whose mind-boggling investment in jump racing was rewarded with success in five races - though he was also owner of the ill-fated Sir Erec.

With Anibale Fly behind Al Boum Photo, McManus had to settle for second place in a Gold Cup in which again all of the principal fancies were defeated: Clan Des Obeaux's stamina ran out, while the favourite Presenting Percy was found to be lame - though that news came from the racecourse, not from his ever-silent trainer Pat Kelly.

Anything else?

There were defeats of several fancied horses, plus successes for outsiders - including hardly considered 50-1 shot Eglantine Du Seuil and the sadly soon-to-retire veteran jockey Noel Fehily in the Mares' Novices Hurdle. That all meant the competition between bookmakers and punters went the way of the bookies.

It was honours even - 14-14 - between Britain and Ireland, a good result for the home side considering the amount of investment flying around the visitors' stables.

Looking at the record crowd figures and indications of good numbers following proceedings from afar, this is an event that for all of its issues, seems to have plenty about which to be happy.

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