Half a dozen years or so ago, day 2 of the Cheltenham Festival was lost to high winds. Arriving this morning earlier than is healthy for any middle-aged man, I wondered if we might suffer a similar fate. Gone was the blazing sunshine which shone so brightly on the punters yesterday and its place, a cold chill and a threatening wind.
Nothing panics the Cheltenham executive quite like high winds.But by mid morning it had calmed down somewhat and attention quickly switched to completing the post-mortem on what had been an extraordinary opening day. All too often those of us who love our racing raise our eyes to the heavens as we despair of a news agenda that believes racing only deserves front and back page attention when there is a doping, animal-cruelty or corruption scandal. But today is different. The press is full of scenes of exultation as stories roll freely of the glories of Prestbury Park. It’s a reminder that our sport has mass appeal and when we get it right, we do it better than any other sport.
When asked where I would send anybody who has never been racing before to get a flavour of what makes us all in thrall of racing, I tell them to head for the Cheltenham Festival. Not the fancy corporate boxes which throb with middle managers hell-bent on quaffing champagne with barely a passing glance at the real stars of the show – the thoroughbreds – preparing for the greatest stage of all. But the pre-parade ring.
This is where I find myself before the first race. Here is a scene of tranquil splendour. The setting itself is fairly drab, but as the horses emerge from their boxes ahead of the opening race, primed, inquisitive and beautiful, it suddenly feels splendid.
As the clock strikes 1 o clock with half an hour until racing begins, the weather forecasters have headed for the hills. The Press Room is overflowing with umbrellas, mackintoshes and thermal scarves. We are warned that Noah might be floating up the straight in his Ark.
It wasn’t going to be a dry day. But rain hasn’t materialised and although the wind is up again, it’s dry. Dry enough for the ten thousand punters crammed into the Guinness Village. And at the other end of the social scale, the Comms team here confirm that the new champagne tent in the newly-refurbished swanky fizz bar has sold out of its stock of bubbles for the entire week. Somebody was clearly thirsty yesterday.
Racing begins and Windsor Park duly obliges under the watchful eye of the Duchess of Cornwall. Who knows how many member of the royal household had a tenner on the aptly named winner? Don Poli, trained by that man Willie Mullins again, turns the RSA Chase into a procession and is surely a horse destined for great things in years to come.
The Irish have an iron-grip on the Festival until champion UK trainer Paul Nicholls strikes back with three winners of his own to remind the Irish raiders that there’s still some fight left in the home team yet. The feature race of the day has been billed as a head-to-head between defending champion Sire De Grugy and former hero Sprinter Sacre but neither land a blow as Dodging Bullets takes the spoils under Sam Twiston-Davies.
A couple of surprises are sprung courtesy of Rivage D’Or and Qualando but just as the bookies threaten to put their heads above the parapet, they get clobbered again as the well-backed favourite Moon Racer lands the finale.
So the half-time whistle blows at Prestbury Park and the winners and losers on day 2 are doing their sums. On the losing team are the bookies, narrowly, and the ice-cream sellers, certainly. In the winning dressing-room are the Guinness sales team, the scarf-sellers and the Royal correspondents.
Oh yes, and the Manchester United first-team squad who must surely have realised as they cheered home their winners from the comfort of the hospitality tent that playing lousy football is a pointless pursuit whereas racing, most certainly, is where it’s really at.
Picture credit: PRESS ASSOCIATION