Looking back at Cheltenham

By David Williams on |


Horses in action at Cheltenham

It’s a glorious afternoon here in Harrow and as I write I cast my mind back to the moment — exactly a week ago today — that Altior lowered the colours of Min in the Supreme Novices to kickstart a week of unrivalled emotion at Cheltenham.

There were no shortage of sensational stories — from the Walsh-Mullins-Ricci dominance to Thistlecrack’s stunning demolition job in the World Hurdle and Victoria Pendleton’s sensational ride and result in the Foxhunters.

On reflection, it looks like a week that will live long in the memory but one moment stands up, head and shoulders above all others and that moment came last Wednesday when Sprinter Sacre surged up the famous hill to land a scarcely believably Champion Chase win to the soundtrack of 60,000 roaring voices, many of whom hadn’t had a copper coin on him.

And at the weekend, as I reflected on the week, nursed my wounds, avoided the bank manager and single-handedly upheld the Buckinghamshire dry cleaning trade, I wondered if Sprinter Sacre had any right to be put on that pedestal of Cheltenham greats which houses only, for certain, Arkle, Dawn Run and Best Mate.

I wholeheartedly believe he absolutely does, for Sprinter Sacre is a every bit as brilliant as he is flawed. It remains the most potent mix in sport — the concept of being able to share in unmatchable brilliance with the fear of it all going wrong looming large.

Since his well-documented troubles, he is no longer a sure thing. Indeed, he was 5/1 last week and only the romantics truly believed. Where there is anxiety, where there is uncertainty and where there is risk there is sport in the raw, and the Cheltenham Festival is the rawest of the lot.

Sprinter Sacre is the horse of a lifetime; perhaps he’ll never have the acclaim of an Arkle but I am happy to lock away for a few quid for a few decades with anyone who tells me that he won’t be spoken of in the same bracket Dawn Run.

Anyone who was there knew we were standing in a moment of time last Wednesday. He may never win again, but it scarcely matters, for what he has done over the past four years or so is the very stuff that will keep National Hunt fans returning for, God willing, the next 400.

The tragedy of the casualties

However, I was angered, too, at the weekend when I saw so little being made of the equine fatalities in the key media outlets in the aftermath of the frenzied week.

It is utterly unacceptable for us to gloss over this appalling statistic that marked a ten-year high (and, as such, a horrible low) in horse deaths. We live in an age where we want to hold people to account and where individuals or management teams must be ‘blamed’. A review of the deaths is underway and lessons must be learned. We had this at the Grand National a few years ago and the modifications since then have been superb.

I have absolutely no time whatsoever for those who lament the passing of the terrifying Becher’s Brook. I want racing to remain a fierce sport but anything that can be done to reduce deaths or serious injury must be done; on that issue I am unequivocal and if that means the spectacle is a little less awe-inspiring, so be it. I will pay that price.

But for now, in the aftermath of Cheltenham, we look back on the horses we have lost. It would be invidious to rank them, for every death is a death, but I will struggle to overcome the sadness of No More Heroes, the young Gigginstown chaser who was so well fancied in the RSA Chase last week.

He was a horse that quickened the heartbeat, who allowed us to dream that he could one day develop into a Gold Cup winner. His owner — Michael O’Leary — may well have won the Gold Cup last week and may have the privilege of being worth millions, but the loss of a racehorse does not distinguish between the rich and the poor. It’s as true for Rich Ricci, who also suffered a loss as it is for O’Leary, as for the lads and lasses who are with those horses day in, day out.

By Friday night, seven horse boxes across the UK and Ireland stood empty. That is the most chilling, saddening and demoralising thing to reflect on right now. To ignore it, to stop short of pouring out our hearts to those who were closest and to turn a blind eye is unacceptable. Weep for them.

Make a wish for Mshwish

I spent yesterday with Frankie Dettori at a launch event. He was brilliant. He always is. Dettori has propped up Flat racing for two decades and as we sat over lunch (I was feasting, he was sipping wine and not eating) I couldn’t help be struck by this new-brand man. \

He still brims with excitement, he still can’t sit still and he still looks like a bit of a kid. But what he was saying was startling, in a sense. Here is a guy who — in his own words — has grown up and slain his demons. I have never before heard him so reflective, so considered and so utterly at peace with himself.

Is he likely to have another year of Derby and Arc glory? I’m not sure. But, this weekend, he rides Mshwish in the Dubai World Cup and, at 10/1, it only needs one of the big guns in front of him to fluff his lines and Dettori will be waiting to pounce. Flat racing still hasn’t found his replacement. We may just get a reminder this weekend that the old boy is still full of fire and fight as well as a bit of fair reflection.

Top image: horses in action at Cheltenham, by the Press Association, courtesy of the Jockey Club


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