Tag Archive: Cheltenham Festival

  1. Cheltenham Festival 2015: Gold Cup day

    Leave a Comment facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

    And so to the final day of this liver-crushing, wallet-bending, roller-coaster of a week. And guess what? It’s raining. And it’s cold. Very cold indeed.

    But it’s scarcely enough to chill the bones on a day when National Hunt enthusiasts worship in their most swollen numbers for the Blue Riband event of the Turf – the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

    They’ve been smashing attendance records left, right and centre all week and today is expected to be a sell-out. In fact, it’s only 8 am but I can confirm it’s a sell-out because the omnipresent ticket touts are peddling in earnest in the Press car park. They must be desperate. They know they can make some cash today, and they’ll probably sell a few of yesterday’s tickets to unsuspecting folk before the morning is out.

    On the big screen, they’re showing re-runs of famous Gold Cups of yesteryear, all beautifully set to the soundtrack of our youth, Sir Peter O’Sullevan calling them home. When Desert Orchard finally climbs up that famous hill, a couple of tubby old tweedsters start to applaud as O’Sullevan declares the Dessie has done it. The passing of 26 years has clearly not dimmed the memory. They were here than and they’re here now.

    And I guess that’s where the magic of Cheltenham lies. Year after year, we turn up, full of hope; we follow the same rituals, we speak the same rubbish to the same friends who join us on the pilgrimage. We vow to drink a little less and we fail; we pledge to bet a bit more cautiously and we fail; and yet failure has never been so enjoyable, so rapturous and so rewarding.

    For here in Prestbury Park is every walk of human-kind. Sober and sozzled, wisp-like and weighty, they’re all here, rubbing shoulders and booming with laughter, often at their own expense.

    Coneygree takes the week’s most prestigious race

    In truth, Gold Cup day borders on the over-crowded. Everything takes that little bit longer as the masses of people shuffle from bar to enclosure and back to bar, stopping occasionally to lock horns with their bookmaker. And sometimes, we all stop to remember those who went before. The statues of former Gold Cup heroes scatter the course and the Hall of Fame is decked in the silks of those glorious winners whose names are still whispered reverentially.

    So when the novice Coneygree makes all to win the biggest and most prestigious race of the week, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, there is a fitting symmetry. His breeder, the late great Lord Oaksey was the ultimate Corinthian. Coneygree could have taken the traditional route for novices and gone for Wednesday’s RSA Chase. It would have made sense and nobody would have been surprised.

    But connections of Coneygree chose to shoot for the moon, they went all in for the win and to hell with the safety of an each-way insurance. Sometimes there’s no such thing as “next year”. It is the here and now that matters. Yes, the Douvans and Vautours and Don Polis will reappear next year with their favourite tags and the weight of the antepost vouchers of far-sighted punters in their grasp, but next year can wait.

    For now we say goodbye to AP McCoy. We’ve probably also said goodbye to Sprinter Sacre, and we may not see Silviniaco Conti here again: Cheltenham isn’t his bag.

    But for the rest of us, it is our bag and it’s an awful lot more. The band is still playing The Wild Rover and we’re trying to join in, but the usual 6 pm despondency descends.

    We shuffle out to sit in an endless trail of tail-lights, reflecting on a week which has no compare. Tomorrow we’ll return the humdrum of our lives: working out how long it is til pay-day, and where the nearest dry-cleaner is.

    But as the darkness falls, the candle of hope burns on. Next year we will be back, from every corner of the land and beyond, and we’ll play it all over again and as we arrive 51 weeks on Tuesday full of hope, we’ll take a deep breath and give thanks that we’re racing fans.

    Truly, this is the greatest show on turf.

  2. Cheltenham Festival 2015: day three

    Leave a Comment facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

    When can you have too much of a good thing? I’ve been pondering the concept of the optimum length of the Cheltenham Festival today.

    It’s ten years or so since they added the fourth day to the race meeting and there’s more than a whisper that the commercial teams, sponsors and TV executives fancy a fifth! It’s an intriguing idea:  extending the Festival to take in Saturday will give hitherto unknown access to the mid-week workers and would surely be a sell-out, driving revenues for the betting, boozing and TV industries.

    But the livers and limbs would suffer, and less can often be more. The fifth day at Royal Ascot hasn’t been an unanimous success – the Friday has suffered from a bit of a lull – and a 5th day at Cheltenham might suffer a similar fate.

    Sunglasses weather

    Thursday at Cheltenham has sometimes struggled to find its feet as punters take a bit of a pull to reflect on the opening two days and reload their ammunition ahead of Gold Cup Friday. Today feels different. Not only have the forecasters once again got it wrong (yes, I’ve brought my mackintosh and brolly, when I just need my sunglasses) but the sense that this really could be the year when the annual battle between the bookies and the punters goes in favour of the massed ranks of the latter.

    The sun shines on Rich Ricci 

    It certainly begins that way. In Vautour, I don’t think I have ever seen a novice jump as immaculately and effortlessly as he did in running away with the opening race. There were no secrets in the form book. Twelve months ago Vautour had scorched to victory in the Supreme Novices Hurdle but the transition to the bigger fences seems to have brought out the best in him. He’s already the 2016 Gold Cup favourite, ahead of yesterday’s impressive winner Don Poli and we’ve not even had this year’s race yet. Vautour’s owner, Rich Ricci, is wearing his trademark shades again is interviewed in the winner’s enclosure  after yet another success.

    Surely I am not alone in finding it slightly incongruous to see a rakish tweed suit set off with a traditional trilby, futuristic shades and a soft American accent? I can’t work out what grates the most – but I think it’s the glasses. Or maybe the tweed. I daresay he’ll be able to afford to freshen up his wardrobe.

    Uxizandre flies to victory in the Ryanair Chase 

    But the day belongs to one man. In AP McCoy, jump racing is saying a long goodbye to the most prolific rider the sport has ever seen and, most likely, will ever see. The champion jockey doesn’t like losing and although he has worn a less stony countenance this week as his fancied mounts have faded and fizzled out, it was evidently getting to him this morning as he conducted his seemingly endless tour of boxes and media interviews.

    So when he went from the front aboard Uxizandre in the Ryanair Chase, jumping his rivals into submission and shovelling on the coals at the front of the field, we realised me might be watching history in the making. McCoy booted and coaxed, urged and pushed, and Uxizandre galloped on for his famous jockey with the chasing pack flailing in the distance.  At 16/1 the punters could hardly claim to have been on in their masses, but such was the reception for this outgoing champion you’d have thought he was the best backed horse of the week.

    In the Winner’s Enclosure, wife Chanelle showered her man with kisses, and patron JP McManus suggested that they’d have to clone him before they retired him.

    An emotional end to the day 

    But the racing wheel never stops turning and as one man prepares to bow out, the emergence of a new name on the blocks, that of trainer Warren Greatrex, lurches into prominence. His horse Cole Harden took the Ladbrokes World Hurdle in tremendous fashion to hand his trainer his first ever Cheltenham winner. Warren cried his eyes out and nearly swore on the telly.

    It’s been one of those weeks where emotions have struggled to stay in check. Thank goodness for the so-called quiet day.

  3. A smoking start to Cheltenham Festival

    Leave a Comment facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

    It’s amazing how many people still smoke. This has always been my first reflection each year for the past decade or so as I park my car up in the Press car park on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. The scene is always, reassuringly, the same. Jockeys, grooms, trainers, horse-whisperers, all puffing away, all nervously treading the racing boards and exchanging furtive snippets of gossip ahead of the biggest week of the National Hunt year.

    If God made amphitheatres, he would use Prestbury Park as his template

    It’s only 7 o clock in the morning but the air is heavy with anticipation. Thousands of catering staff are shivering outside the gates, waiting to be dispatched to their small corner of the turf to attend to the whims and fancies of the hundreds of thousands of punters whose fortunes will be won and lost before the weekend.

    Mornings at the Festival – long before the gates open – are a rare privilege afforded to the deserving and undeserving in equal measure. I comfortably fall into the latter category but I keep my head down and enjoy it. With the sun rising above Cleeve Hill, there can be few more beautiful sights in sport. If God made amphitheatres, he would use Prestbury Park as his template.

    As the gates open at 11.00, there is a surge towards the infamous Guinness Village. Nearly a quarter of a million pints of the Black Stuff were downed by racegoers last year and early indications suggest this year’s cohort of Festival attendees fancy a crack at breaking that record.

    Laughter soars high above the rapidly filling grandstands and the horses in the pre-parade ring and stables barely get noticed, other than by the most devoted of worshippers at this grand cathedral of racing.

    Trainer Willie Mullins with his 1,2,3, in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy on Champion Day

    Trainer Willie Mullins with his 1,2,3, in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy PRESS ASSOCIATION

    The four horses of the apocalypse

    The press room is buzzing. Journalists are juggling their next day’s copy with the more pressing need to get their bets on for the coming races. And two names dominate: Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins. Two names to strike fear into the hearts of bookies on both sides of the Irish Sea, and they’ve wasted no time in reminding us how potless they will be if all the big guns win. Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen and Annie Power. The four horses of the apocalypse and tens of millions will be riding on their fate.

    Sophie Brudenell, the overworked yet remarkably calm Comms Director here at the racecourse is furrowing her brow as her walkie-talkie goes on the blink. Faugheen, the hot Champion Hurdle favourite, looks on – unfussed. Rich Ricci – the mega-banker and top racehorse owner flashes a smile at anyone who dares to look at him enviously. JP McManus, another grandee of the owning ranks, cuts a less conspicuous figure and is deep in conversation with his racing manager, Frank Berry, and the soon-to-be retired champion jockey, AP McCoy.

    It’s still over an hour until racing and it can’t come soon enough.

    And they’re off!

    When the racing finally begins, it’s all about Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins. The bookies have peddled their doomsday scenarios around the four horses of the apocalypse. Douvan gets the punters off to a tremendous start under Ruby and raises the grandstand roof.

    Well, one of the grandstand roofs. The other main grandstand here is being renovated and stands eerie and empty, half-built in concrete, a peculiar spectre at this most glorious feast. Moments later, Walsh and Mullins team up as Un De Sceaux cruises to a facile win the Arkle Trophy, and the bookies start to the feel the heat of the afternoon sun. Down in the gritty, earthy world of the betting ring, hundreds of thousands of pounds are being shovelled onto the favourite in the Champion Hurdle, Faugheen. Bookies are trying to look brave, but the grins are forced. If Faugheen wins, they’ll be way behind.

    A record year for Guinness? 

    Faugheen wins. Punters are in clover. Is this year going to be a record for Guinness? It certainly feels like it.

    And so to Annie Power: the fourth and final leg of the most popular accumulator bet in history. Turning into the home straight, Ruby went for home and the mare quickened away. Just one hurdle to clear and the punters would enjoy their greatest ever day at the Festival. And then the unthinkable happens: Annie Power clatters the last and unseats Ruby Walsh.

    50,000 racegoers gasped and the bookies were spared their hiding as Glen’s Melody picked up the pieces to win in a photo finish.

    Truly, the God of bookmaking moves in mysterious ways.

    Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullina celebrate their  victory on Faugheen in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy on Champion Day, during the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse. PRESS ASSOCIATION

    Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullina celebrate their victory on Faugheen in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. PRESS ASSOCIATION

    Ruby Walsh celebrates victory on Faugheen in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy

    Ruby Walsh celebrates victory on Faugheen in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy