It is minus four degrees here at the Cheltenham Festival this morning. It’s the earliest I’ve arrived thanks to a few TV pieces I agreed to do before I checked the weather forecast. Despite my toes turning a deeper shade of purple, it is stunning. The weak, wimpy sun is beginning to appear atop Cleeve Hill and a sharp frost blankets the racecourse. It is hard not to stand and silently play back the loop of life-lasting memories that have been shaped this week.
Yesterday was entirely framed around two of the hottest horses of the week, Vautour and Thistlecrack. Neither let us down of course, much to the disappointment of the bookmakers. To my hazy eye, Thistlecrack put up the unemotionally best performance of the week in the Stayers Hurdle. The manner in which he quickened was breathtaking and while he isn’t yet a public horse, he is fast heading in that direction. I’d be tempted to send him to Ireland for Punchestown next month before embarking on a novice chasing career. His gears are extraordinary.
The Irish were out in fuller force than ever on St Patrick’s Day and with six of the seven winners it was little wonder that Cheltenham town centre last night was a sea of green. There was, however, near mutiny in the city centre when it transpired that nowhere was showing some wretched football match between Liverpool and Manchester United. Finally, word got round that a place called The Spectre had it on. I suspect the landlord is still counting the cash now.
Back to the races and the Cheltenham management tell me that media interest in Victoria Pendleton’s ride this afternoon has gone through the roof. This morning’s press seem divided about the project, but I’m reluctant to vent my frustrations about racing’s inability to unite behind good news, as regular readers will know I’ve done that before. Ask yourself this, however: would we rather be talking about an Olympian new to our sport being at Cheltenham or some overpaid footballers behaving like louts here in the hospitality boxes?
Elsewhere on the racecourse, I’ve had a strong whisper for John Constable in today’s County Hurdle. I’d love to see Alan King on the scoreboard today and I’m siding with Who Dares Wins in the opening race, the Triumph. I may yet live to regret taking on Barter’s Hill in the Albert Bartlett but Noel Fehily’s mount Unowhatimeanharry is the one for me at a price.
I’m sticking with last year’s tip Paint The Clouds in the Foxhunters’, for all that my principal hope is the safe and sound return of Pendleton. The Martin Pipe is utterly impossible but I won’t be able to resist backing Qualando for Paul Nicholls, with the talented young Harry Cobden in the saddle. The finale will go to Next Sensation for the Scudamore team who look to have laid the horse out for the race again.
And what of the Gold Cup? Many of us point to this race or possibly the Grand National as the reason why we ended up devoting vast tracts of our life to this intoxicating game. It stirs the emotions like little else, the Blue Riband of the turf and an annual feast of the most brilliant staying chasers in full flight.
In Don Cossack, Don Poli, Djakadam and Cue Card we have four class acts who ordinarily would be clear favourite in any given year. I will never forget Kauto Star and Denman laying it down to each other in 2011 before Long Run came to pick them off. Fair play to Long Run, but it was the sight of those two legends hammering it out in front of the sun-drenched packed stands that still gives me goosebumps. That is all we dream of and all we can hope for.
My hope this afternoon is that the big four are all there in contention as they roll down the hill. It will give us ten seconds to drink it all up and commit it to the memory bank for eternity, for this truly is a Gold Cup for all the ages. And who will win? Don Cossack, I suspect. But who will I back? With whatever is left in my account, my wife’s account and whatever I can find here on the press room floor, I will be backing Cue Card.
There are too many ordinary days in our lives. This is not one of them.
Top image: Racegoers at Cheltenham by Andrew Matthews/Press Association Images, courtesy fo The Cheltenham Festival