We continue our countdown to the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival by examining events on the opening day of the 2015 Festival. The Mares’ Hurdle is not considered one of the feature races of the Festival and it will be a surprise if this year’s market leader Tellmesomethinggirl (7/2 with bet365 NRNB) gets the same coverage pre and post races as was the case seven years ago.
The last flight fall of Annie Power in the Mares’ Hurdle of 2015 is indelibly etched in the history of Cheltenham and cast a “shadow” over the meeting for many punters and saved the bookmakers from losses which would, in all likelihood, have been worse than Frankie Dettori’s Magnificent Seven winners at Ascot in September 1996.
It was all going so well
Willie Mullins had been champion trainer at the Cheltenham Festival in 2011 (4 winners), 2013 (5) and 2014 (4) and the build up to the 2015 Festival was dominated by the fact that the Irish handler had short-priced favourites in all four Grade 1 contests on the opening day; he couldn’t? could he?
Douvan (SP 2/1) in the Supreme, Un De Sceaux (4/6) in the Arkle, Faugheen (4/5) in the Champion Hurdle and the Irish banker of the week Annie Power (1/2) in the Mares’ Hurdle. The four-timer at SP’s paid over 12/1 but most firms offered inflated accas on the Mullins hotpots given it was the opening day of their biggest week of the year and the Cheltenham Festival is a key instrument in their recruitment of new customers.
As well as the four-timer many punters had the four horses in Yankees (11 bets) or Lucky 15s and it is fair to say that all firms would have had fingers and toes crossed as Douvan went to post for the curtain-raiser the Supreme Novice Hurdle.
Defeat for Douvan and there would be no running up money going onto the three odds-on shots later in the day and the trading teams could breathe, relax and enjoy the afternoon. A victory for Douvan and they were in for an uncomfortable somewhat nervy afternoon.
Douvan had comfortably landed the odds in his two novice hurdle successes on soft/heavy ground, but it was uncertain if he would cope with underfoot conditions officially described as good to soft although the winning times on the day suggested it was no slower than good ground.
History tells us that Douvan – who had been the subject of bullish noises in the build up to the race from his handler – should have been a long odds-on favourite for the Supreme and Ruby Walsh had little difficulty bringing the favourite home over 4L clear of stablemate Shaneshill. It was the third year in a row that Mullins had saddled the winner of the race for his owner Rich Ricci following the victories in the corresponding race of Champagne Fever (2013) and Vautour (2014).
Un De Sceaux was clear from the fourth and had six lengths to spare at the line in the Arkle while Faugheen made all to win the Champion Hurdle and lead home a 1-2-3 for Mullins and 1-2-3-4 for Ireland with Arctic Fire finishing second, the dual (2011 & ’13) former champion Hurricane Fly back in third and the previous year’s winner Jezki back in fourth for Jessica Harrington.
Bookmakers were on the brink, but what happened next was hard to swallow for punters.
The 2015 Mares’ Hurdle; millions up for grabs
Annie Power had only met with defeat once in her life, when outstayed in the 3m World Hurdle by More Of That in 2014, when she went to post for the Mares’ Hurdle. She was to race just four more times after the Mares’ Hurdle of 2015 which she won by an aggregate distance of just shy of 40 lengths. Those victories included the 2016 Champion Hurdle – made most – and the Aintree Hurdle the following month – her final start when she came home 18L clear of her field.
Back against her own sex she only had to be pointed in the right direction to win that Mares’ Hurdle. Only ten flights of hurdles stood in her way, but she had never made a significant mistake in her career. She was a motorbike against pushbikes; what could go wrong?
It is often forgotten that Mullins still saddled the winner of the 2015 Mares’ Hurdle courtesy of 6/1 second favourite Glens Melody, but the last flight fall of the odds-on favourite Annie Power when clear still brings a lump to the throat.
Ruby Walsh had Annie Power in the plum position on the inside saving ground and jumping well, tracking Bitofapuzzle, until he took the mare off the fence going down the hill to two out. She flew that flight and the roar as she went clear at the top of the straight was deafening. Only one flight stood between her and a bashing for the bookies not seen before or since.
It was a bright sunny day at Cheltenham and, by the time the Mares’ Hurdle was run at four o’clock, a shadow from the final flight of hurdles had appeared in front of the obstacle. Walsh quickly dismissed any suggestion the shadow was to blame for the last flight fall, but, if God exists, he is unlikely to be a bookmaker. So, what did happen?
There are of course some nonsensical conspiracy theories about what happened, but to my eyes, the mare did take off a stride too soon and the shadow may have been a factor in this, but we will never know.
Owner Rich Ricci was denied a hat-trick on the opening day, but he was to have a third winner at the meeting courtesy of Vautour in the Grade 1 novice chase over 2m 5f after which he said his favourite moment of the week was when the mare got back to her feet after her tumble. Not only did she get up, but she also put the record straight in the Champion Hurdle 12 months on. She really was a magnificent racehorse but will always be remembered for the race she lost than her sensational career.
How much did it cost the bookmaking industry?
I remember the sums being bandied around at the time which suggested Annie Power’s fall cost punters and saved bookmakers about £40m and that did not seem fanciful at the time based on my experience of working for one of the major online layers. With three winning short-priced favourites and Mullins saddling four winners on the day, it was still a bad one for the layers, but it was a very good bad day for the industry, if one exists.
By the end of the 2015 Festival normal service had resumed and the layers were well ahead on the meeting with the last six winners on Gold Cup Day recording SP’s of 25/1, 14/1, 7/1, 6/1, 7/1 and 16/1.
But perhaps the winner of the big race on Day 2 of the Festival told the story of Cheltenham 2015.
Dodging Bullets (9/2) won the Champion Chase the day after the afternoon before.