Jump racing review: Johnson, Kelly and Pendleton shine in first post-McCoy season
Jump racing moved into a new era following the retirement of AP McCoy last April, with Richard Johnson taking the opportunity to achieve a long-held dream.
Johnson was crowned champion jockey this weekend, having finished runner-up on 16 occasions - every time to McCoy, who won the title on 20 successive occasions.
Paul Nicholls was the top trainer for the 10th time in 11 seasons and, considering he had just two successes in valuable Grade One races, did tremendously well to hold on to the title ahead of Willie Mullins.
The Grand National, meanwhile, was won by Rule The World, ridden by 19-year-old David Mullins for trainer Mouse Morris.
As the first post-McCoy jump racing season draws to a close, here are my thoughts on the significant moments and achievements.
Thistlecrack leads a vintage field
A public vote gave the jumps horse of the year accolade to Thistlecrack on Saturday. Yet the Colin Tizzard-trained eight-year-old - named after a field on the West Country farm of owners John and Heather Snook - did not win by the proverbial field, as a string of equine stars shone in what was a vintage campaign.
The undisputed champion of long distance hurdling, Thistlecrack beat off competition from a sparkling quartet of Annie Power, Tizzard's Cue Card, Don Cossack and Sprinter Sacre.
Anyone of the 'finalists' would have been the worthiest of winners, especially the remarkable Sprinter Sacre, who overcame a heart condition and severe loss of form to regain his Queen Mother Champion Chase title at the Cheltenham Festival. I hope they're all back for next season's marquee events.
Errors can be costly...
Cue Card, already successful in the Betfair and King George VI Chases, was very much on course for the Jockey Club's new £1m 'Steeplechasing Triple Crown' when falling at the third-to-last fence in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
We will never know what might have happened had the hugely-popular 10-year-old stayed on his feet, but his legion of fans were quick to note that, when making a triumphant return to the winners' circle at Aintree barely three weeks later, Cue Card had the Gold Cup's second and third-placed horses trailing in his wake.
However, Cue Card's unscheduled departure was not the season's only expensive one: had the Willie Mullins-trained Vautour won rather than crashing out - when cruising - of Aintree's Melling Chase, Mullins would have won £112,260 in prize money and beaten Paul Nicholls to be champion trainer. Ouch.
Female jockeys making further progress
Lizzie Kelly carved out a significant piece of horseracing history when becoming the first woman to ride the winner of a top-of-the-tree, Grade One jumps race in Britain when guiding Tea For Two to victory at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Only a few weeks later, Kelly - again riding for her trainer-step-father Nick Williams - landed Europe's richest handicap hurdle, staged at Newbury in February, on Agrapart.
There were further success in National Hunt races for the Ireland-based pair Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh and plenty of others. It means surely that the sport's perennial question - will a female jockey ever win the Grand National? - will be answered sooner rather than later, in the affirmative.
Could Johnson threaten McCoy's all-time record?
The idea has been mooted over recent weeks as Richard Johnson - 'Dickie' throughout jump racing - as it became clear that he was going to land his first title with a display of the same kind of ruthless dominance for which AP McCoy became famous.
The new champion, easily the second most successful jump jockey of all time, sailed by the 3,000-winner mark in January, but still needs 1,300 more to catch his old friend and rival, and by my maths, even at his current prolific rate, that would take five-and-half years. At 38, he's among the most senior members of the jockeys' changing-room.
So it is possible, but unlikely. Johnson has said it would have been lovely to have beaten McCoy, but he is now just concentrating on defending his crown; the bookies make him long odds-on to beat Aidan Coleman, Sam Twiston-Davies and Co once again.
Who are the new big names coming through?
The first two names are easy. Trainer Dan Skelton and his jockey-brother Harry, sons of Olympic gold medal-winning showjumper Nick, both reached a century of winners for the first time.
Dan is an former assistant to Paul Nicholls, The 10-time champion trainer is likely to have his work cut out to hold off future challenges to his title from Willie Mullins, but the skills he passed on to his protégé will ensure that the Skeltons are not too far behind.
Scotland-born Craig Nichol was the champion conditional jockey [jumps apprentice] and has made a big impression on the northern circuit, but the pendulum among the young riders is likely to swing south now, with David Noonan and Harry Cobden tipped as up-and-coming talents.
The feelgood story of the year: Victoria Pendleton
The double Olympic cycling champion swept aside a torrent of sceptics and their brickbats to not only complete the course in the Cheltenham Festival's Foxhunters Chase, but also finish in a highly creditable fifth place.
That was an astonishing achievement for somebody, however accomplished a sportsperson in another field, to pull off from scratch in a little over 12 months, and amid so much media scrutiny.
Pendleton's participation and evident passion about racing has provided a major boost for the sport - especially the point-to-pointing circuit, where she did much of her training - and the fact that she plans to keep on going can only be a plus. With more practice, an even better big-race finishing position may soon be beckoning.