Ben Linfoot: Many reflections
Ben Linfoot reflects on Many Clouds and his legacy, Thistlecrack's Gold Cup claims and Melon's Cheltenham odds in his latest column.
Many Clouds: Beating Thistlecrack was his final act
Many Clouds: National treasure
There are very few sporting arenas where a deafening roar turns to eerie silence within a matter of seconds. Cheltenham Racecourse on Saturday provided that very experience, though, the devastating death of Many Clouds anticipated by a silenced crowd who had only moments earlier roared on a pulsating finish to the Cotswolds Chase.
Preparing themselves to give the winner the reception he deserved, excitement turned to shock as he went down and the dreaded screens were rushed on. Having had the wobbles after his races before, most notably after his 2015 Grand National win, there was a glimmer of hope he would get up and inspire a roar as loud as the one that accompanied his thrilling victory.
That moment, when you're hoping for the best but fearing the worst, reminded me of the time Spot Thedifference went down following the Cross Country Chase at The Open meeting back in 2007.
He had just recorded his seventh victory at the track when he collapsed after the line, prompting the swift arrival of the screens. It seemed like an age, it probably wasn't, but eventually those screens parted and the horse had got to his feet, prompting a vehement collective explosion of sound from a crowd delighted that one of their heroes had survived the rigours of his sport.
It was a spine-tingling moment and one that Many Clouds so desperately deserved on Saturday. Yet the silence this time wasn't a pre-cursor to joy, but to sadness, as Martin Kelly announced over the public address system that Many Clouds had died. This time the collective was a deep groan and the feeling was whatever the opposite of spine-tingling is. I'll go for the stomach drop.
There are probably no words for what the connections of Many Clouds were feeling themselves, but it was to their great credit that his trainer Oliver Sherwood and work rider Nathan Horrocks came out and paid tribute to the horse, insisting we remember him for his outstanding achievements on the track.
And they were outstanding. He's the only horse to win the Hennessy and the Grand National in the same season and, though it took him a while to conquer Cheltenham, conquer it he did, twice, both times on trials day when the mid-winter ground saw his major qualities – his metronomic jumping, his stamina and iron will to win – come to the fore.
He's also become the poster boy for the modern Grand National. The classy winner, good enough to run in a Gold Cup (heck, he might even have been good enough to win one on Saturday's evidence), he'll be remembered as the horse that won the National and was strong enough to come back for more.
Since Bindaree won the Welsh National at Chepstow 20 months after his 2002 Grand National success, 13 more Aintree heroes have raced on after their finest hour under rules at various levels. Between them, they have raced 111 times and on 107 occasions they were beaten. Just four wins for those National winners out of 111 races.
Pineau De Re won one of those, over hurdles, but Many Clouds was responsible for the other three, all over fences. From six races after his Grand National win he won three more times, at Kelso, Aintree and at Cheltenham, a feat unheard of in the modern era.
"As with a human, it will hurt when you are pushed," said Leighton Aspell, his jockey for each and every one of his 27 races, in a piece for The Times on Monday.
"Some horses who experience that won't go there again. They just shy away. Many Clouds emptied his tank for me many times, and kept coming back for more. He never flinched from a battle."
Everyone at Cheltenham on Saturday witnessed that first hand. But they knew it already. His toughness was one of his trademarks. He was a much-loved horse, the triers always are, and this fellow gave every last drop to the game we love. And for that, he will not be forgotten.
Cracks in Thistle Gold Cup claims?
It was difficult for anyone to think about Thistlecrack in the immediate aftermath of the Cotswolds Chase, even Colin Tizzard, but given a few days' reflection it's time to assess whether he dented his Gold Cup claims following his first defeat over fences.
And there's no doubt the air of invincibility he'd built up following a nine-race winning streak has gone following his head defeat. He made three mistakes at his fences, nothing too drastic but enough to unsettle his rhythm, and he will have to jump better if he's to win a Gold Cup.
I must admit, though, when he loomed up to the last back on the bridle following those errors I was asking myself 'what sort of monster is this?', fully expecting him to lengthen clear up the hill.
Of course, it didn't pan out like that, but I couldn't have it on my mind that he won't stay the Gold Cup trip. For me, the mistakes took their toll and Many Clouds, as efficient as he always was over a fence, simply ran a better race on the day.
The pair pulled 17 lengths clear of Smad Place, a horse that won this race last year, and even in defeat it looks like one of the best pieces of staying chase form this campaign. Perhaps only Cue Card's Betfair Chase romp can be considered better.
There might well be something in Tizzard's suggestion that Thistlecrack will be better on spring ground, too. He won some top hurdles on heavy ground last winter, but this was his first go on soft jumping fences and it has to be remembered this was just the fifth chase of his life.
He's still learning, but he remains by far the likeliest winner of the Gold Cup, and this experience should help him become battle-hardened, something he's not been used to such has been the ease in which he usually bulldozes his rivals.
You're twisting my Melon, man
The top end of the Sky Bet Supreme market has been stagnant for a while with long-time favourite Moon Racer not having run since November, but there is a new jolly sitting atop the betting now in the shape of Willie Mullins' Melon.
He was impressive on his hurdling debut at Leopardstown on Sunday, bar a slight lunge for the last obstacle, but 9/2 favourite for the Supreme, and as short as 3/1 in a place, is bordering on the ridiculous.
All of Mullins' recent Supreme winners – Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan – all came into Cheltenham with graded-race experience to their name and, in the case of the last two, with impressive victories to boot.
Melon could have that under his belt by the time they're off for the Festival opener as well, but the feeling from Mullins in the aftermath of Sunday's contest was that he'd be going straight to Cheltenham.
The Supreme is a big ask for a horse with one maiden hurdle win to their name, and, while Mullins' number one challenger for this race will never be underestimated, the odds look to have gone too far the other way in this instance.
Moon Racer, Charli Parcs, Neon Wolf, Any Second Now and Consul De Thaix were all just as impressive last time, or have stronger form to their name, and though some have other options, some have ground requirements and some haven't been seen recently, that's no reason to chop up the Melon to such short odds.
He might well be the real deal, but we've no evidence of it yet. Not enough to justify the general 9/2 quotes in any case.
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