The absence of the last two winners, Annie Power (h170+) and Faugheen (h176), had led to much talk about the latest renewal being substandard, and perhaps overall it was, but in Buveur d'Air (from h167p to h170) it had a winner whose performance looks well up to the recent standard for the race and one likely to continue to be a leading player in the division.
The race was run at a better pace than the Supreme earlier on the card, leading to a slower finish, though it would be wrong to suggest that Buveur d'Air and the same connections’ runner-up My Tent Or Yours (h163 from h161, though has been h172 in the past), who both came from off the pace, were in any way flattered.
Petit Mouchoir ran creditably again attempting to make all but coming up short, though he needed no excuses and has had his ratingsdowngraded slightly from h164 to h162. The bitterly disappointing favourite Yanworth (h164 from h168), who like Buveur d'Air had other plans than the Champion Hurdle in the autumn, was labouring before two furlongs out and given he's worn cheekpieces on his last two starts, it may well be that his attitude is starting to fray a little (his sire Norse Dancer had a Timeform ‘squiggle’ attached to his rating).
At 9/2-on Douvan (c182 from c182p) was the shortest-priced Festival favourite this century, justifiably so given he was 16 lb clear on pre-race ratings and hadn't been extended in nine previous outings over fences, but he failed to jump with any fluency and was done for by three out (later found to have sustained a ‘small stress fracture’ in his pelvis).
The race was left for some horses whose limitations are rather better known to fight it out, and while the pair that came clear—dual race third Special Tiara (c166 from c157+) and Fox Norton (c166)—still put up top-class efforts, it certainly doesn't go down as a vintage Champion Chase, not even the best form shown in a two-mile chase in Britain this season (Un de Sceaux in both the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chases).
Special Tiara typically set a sound pace, racing clear from the fifth until three out, and his rider Noel Fehily (who had the day before won the Champion Hurdle and would finish placed in both the Stayers’ Hurdle and Gold Cup) kept just enough in reserve to hold off a runner-up for whom a brief flat spot on the home turn proved costly.
Sir Valentino (c160), who had run Special Tiara to half a length when trying to give him 6 lb in the Desert Orchid Chase in December, added another high-class effort to his own collection, while the supplemented Top Gamble (c161) didn't threaten but typically gave his running and nearly snatched third.
The latest renewal was not only representative but a tremendous spectacle, too, with Un de Sceaux (c171 from c172) allowed his head before halfway and able to maintain an advantage that was as narrow at the line as at any stage from a circuit out. The top-class winner did well to maintain such a gallop but the runner-up Sub Lieutenant (c167) deserved no little credit himself for leaving the chasing pack (headed by Aso, now rated c161 from c155+) behind after that group had still been tightly-packed after three out.
Having dominated this division in Britain, Unowhatimeanharry (h165 from h169) set a fairly high standard for this year's Stayers', rated 6 lb ahead of the field coming into the race. That gelding aside they were a closely-matched bunch, however, and with him not performing quite to his best in third, it took less winning than might have been the case.
Nevertheless, the rating achieved by winner Nichols Canyon (h166 from h163) is still up there with recent standards and the form looks reasonably solid with the Long Walk runner-up, Lil Rockerfeller (h162 from h160), and the 2015 winner of this race, Cole Harden (h156), part of the quartet that pulled clear.
It was a soundly-run race thanks to the fourth Cole Harden, even tactically, although Nichols Canyon was given the ideal ride as Ruby Walsh sat back and let the other principals battle before making his challenge last of all. Willie Mullins’ seven-year-old is extremely versatile, already a Grade 1 winner at two miles this season after all, but in the Championship races this is likely to remain his trip, away from testing ground at least, with the division generally a bit weaker.
A trio of seven-year-olds, who had all run well in novice races at the meeting in 2016, filled the places in the latest Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Sizing John (c170 from c168) the youngest winner since six-year-old Long Run took chasing's blue riband in 2011. Sizing John’s performance was not in the same league as that horse, or that of the 2016 victor Don Cossack, sadly now retired, but it was still well up to standard and promised more, Jessica Harrington’s gelding only just starting to show what he can do as a stayer after all.
The performances of the placed horses Minella Rocco (c167 from c163+) and Native River (c166 from c170p) were the finest endorsement yet for the changes made to the National Hunt Chase in the last decade, the pair having finished first and second in that race 12 months ago.
There were notable absentees from the latest Gold Cup, the King George winner Thistlecrack most obviously, though the 2015 winner Coneygree and the much lamented Many Clouds were others that would have enhanced the field. It was a race run at an even gallop, ensuring stamina came to the fore late on, and it was a notably fair race, with no hard-luck stories.
Djakadam (c169 from c174) couldn’t quite match his runner-up finishes from 2015 and 2016, while Cue Card (c174 from c177) fell when in touch but not going so well as others three out. In all likelihood it will prove the end of a notable Cheltenham Festival career for Cue Card which included wins in the 2010 Champion Bumper and 2013 Ryanair as well as a second to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle.