Ryan Mania described his first ever Cheltenham Festival winner as “an unbelievable thrill” after partnering Vintage Clouds to victory in the Grade Three Ultima Handicap Chase at odds of 28-1.
The Grand National-winning jockey retired from race riding in 2014 at the age of 25 but returned to the saddle in October 2019.
He and the 11 year old grey Vintage Clouds were always in a prominent position and at the finish had five and a half lengths to spare over 100-30 favourite Happygolucky. It was a 12th Festival success for owner Trevor Hemmings and second for trainer Sue Smith.
Despite it coming in front of near-empty stands, Mania said it was a day he would never forget. He said: “It’s an unbelievable thrill. It’s a shame that my first Festival winner comes under these circumstances, but it truly doesn’t matter. It will be a very memorable day.
“I rode Vintage Clouds in this race last year and he made a fair bit of a noise coming down the hill. I said then he maybe needs a wind op, and he had a couple of runs this year and it became clear that he did need one.
“They sent him away for it, and, with the application of cheekpieces, it has just helped sharpen up his jumping. He used to spend quite a bit of time in the air, whereas today he was really slick over his fences, so they have really helped, the wind has helped, and luckily he has got his day today.
“Realistically, coming into the race, we thought he had a really good each-way chance - that’s all you can hope for coming to Cheltenham. I am sure Harvey Smith will tell you that he knew he was going to win, but we were confident that he would come and run his race because he always does - he’s a real true old warrior. We’re delighted by that.
“I’m pretty sure this hasn’t sunk in yet, but in a way I have been able to take it in a bit more without the distraction of the crowds. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would come and ride a Cheltenham winner, especially so soon after coming out of retirement, so I couldn’t be happier.”
The jockey also told Racing TV: “It’s unreal. I can’t work out whether it would be better with the crowds or not as I’ve had a chance to walk in and take it all in. It’s my first ever winner at Cheltenham, not just the Festival, and it’s unbelievable. Especially for an old horse like that, to come back year after year, he really is an old warrior.”
He added it was Mr Hemming’s suggestion to put cheek pieces on the horse and explained: “It was completely his idea and they’ve just sharpened him up. He’s always been so genuine and so tough, but it just sharpened him up over his fences.
“He was a lot slicker today. He’s always been a really good jumper, but he was a lot slicker through the air and wasn’t wasting a lot of time, so they’ve helped a hell of a lot.
“He was going so well underneath me and when you see a nice stride and it comes out your hands and you gain some ground, you’ve just got to keep kicking. I know he stays four miles, so I knew he would get home. Last year in this race he didn’t quite see it out, and that was down to him needing his wind operation. I can’t fault him. He’s jumped and he’s travelled and he’s stayed on up the hill. What more do you want?
“I’m unbelievably pleased for Sue Smith. It hasn’t maybe been the best year for Sue and Harvey on numbers, but the horses are all in good form and we’ve had some nice winners and they’ve got some nice horses in the yard.
“It’s great for them and great for the North. It couldn’t happen to two nicer people than Sue and Harvey. They’ve been real stalwarts of the sport. I shouldn’t say they’re getting old, but they are getting towards the end of their training and it’s just unbelievable that they can send a horse here in this fettle and still compete with the best of them.
“I think because of the National (Mania partnered 2013 Aintree hero Auroras Encore for the Smiths) we always have that shared relationship, that shared bond, and they didn’t have to start giving me rides again when I came out of retirement as ultimately it was them I let down when I retired. They’ve been so good to me, letting me come back in and ride the horses and hopefully this repays some of their faith in me.
“I couldn’t see any other way out at the time, but I still felt as though I let people down. It was November, just when we were starting to get busy, and Sue and Harvey then had to find someone else to ride the horses.
“We had the National winner and we had a lot of history then, and for me to walk away they must have been disappointed. I can’t thank them enough for taking me on again.
“It’s indescribable to be able to come back and do that, feeling as fit and as good as ever, in my mind it makes it right I came back in the first place. You can’t really put it into words, I can’t thank everyone enough that’s supported me along the way and given me these opportunities.”
Trainer Smith said: “I know he’s got round to being an 11 year old now, but he’s always loved Cheltenham. He’s run very, very well in the race before and got beaten there two years ago, but he’s an absolute star for us and the old lad is better than ever this time!
“He’s a great jumper, and he does just love it round there. He’s been a very consistent horse for us over the years and he’s deserved every bit of that today – as did the jockey (Ryan Mania) who gave him a super ride.
“We’ll probably enter him in the Scottish National at Ayr next.”
Kim Bailey, trainer of second Happygolucky said: “Someone’s just sent me a message saying that silver medals aren’t much fun, and they aren’t are they? We’ve got a few more opportunities, thank God, but I thought he was my best chance. No excuses, and for a horse having only his fourth run over fences it was a very good run. There’s a really big handicap in him, and there might be something at Aintree. In a year’s time he could be very special.”
Jockey of Happygolucky, David Bass, added: “No excuses at all. He ran an absolute blinder. He travelled, he jumped, and everything went to plan. He had a nice lead to the last, and I know we missed it but the winner beat me fair and square, so well done to Sue Smith and her team. He’s a lovely young horse for the future, and there’s a big day in him somewhere.”
Harriet Graham, trainer of third Aye Right said: “It was a great run, and he probably didn’t get the race his own way like he usually does, but Richard gave him a super ride and we’re really pleased. To finish third at Cheltenham is really good and well done to Ryan Mania (on Vintage Clouds).
“We’re so chuffed. He will (win a race like this) sooner or later and if I’m honest we were hoping for good ground today. They got that 10mm of rain which was a bit stodgy for him, and he does like a quicker surface, but he’s run his heart out. We’ll have to discuss his next race with his owners.”
Richard Johnson, rider of Aye Right, said: “He ran really well. He’s been an ultra-consistent horse this year. He was second at Newbury (in the Ladbrokes Trophy), he was second at Doncaster (in the Sky Bet Chase) and in the three big handicaps he’s run in this season he’s run really well every time. You almost feel like he deserves to get his head in front, but there was nothing lost in defeat today. He’s only a relatively young horse as well, so I think there’s some big days ahead for him.”
1st - Vintage Clouds – Sue Smith 11-10-11 Ryan Mania 28/1
2nd - Happygolucky – Kim Bailey 7-11-01 David Bass 100/30F
3rd - Aye Right – Harriet Graham 8-11-08 Richard Johnson 11/2
4th - Cepage – Venetia Williams 9-11-12 Charlie Deutsch 14/1
Distances: 5½, 2¼, 2½
Time: 6m 31.00s
Winner owned by Trevor Hemmings
Breeder: Gleadhill House Stud Ltd
Breeding: gr g Cloudings (IRE) - Rare Vintage (IRE) (Germany)
Sue Smith – 2nd winner at The Festival™ supporting WellChild
Ryan Mania – 1st winner at The Festival™ supporting WellChild