The Cheltenham Festival is a theatre of dreams in which David takes on Goliath and often wins. Catherine Austen explains why this annual National Hunt racing extravaganza is held in such affectionate reverence.
When Nico de Boinville compared Cheltenham to the Coliseum after steering Sprinter Sacre to an emotion-drenched victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase last year, the Bradfield-educated jockey conjured an image that perfectly encapsulates National Hunt racing’s foremost festival.
The racecourse, sandwiched between the Georgian spa town and looming Cleeve Hill, is a modern amphitheatre in which scenes dramatic enough to please any Ancient Roman are played out, filled with anticipation, thrill, fear, exultation, blood, sweat and tears. De Boinville had been hit by the death of his mother just a fortnight previously and the magnificent Sprinter Sacre, a battered warrior returning to the scene of former triumph, seemed to know that he had to find one last piece of brilliance.
‘A Festival winner is everything— it’s why we do it,’ says pretty much everyone who has ever trained, ridden or owned a horse that has strained every sinew to pass the Cheltenham winning post first.
From the top of the stands, the enclosures are a swirling sea of tweed, the fabric of the country person. The Cheltenham Festival is for country people—Aintree and Ascot have a quite different, urban feel. Cheltenham is crowded and high octane, but race-goers smile at each other, wait patiently for the obligatory pint of Guinness and, if there’s a moment of unsightly laddish excess, it makes news for being so unusual.
The thousands of Irish who flood in for the four days are integral to the atmosphere. Much is made of the ‘rivalry’ between the Irish and the British during the meeting, but it’s intensely good-natured; the Co Kildare trainer Jessica Harrington always stays with Nicky Henderson for the week and, for many years, the two champion trainers on either side of the Irish sea, Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls, shared a jockey, the incomparable Ruby Walsh.
There are ebullient owners, draped in scarves in the colours of their silks, who have spent millions on horse flesh; there are shy Devon farmers who breed one horse a year out of a mare on which they once won the members’ race at their local point-to-point. Both are fêted by equally loud hurrahs from a warm-hearted public crowding the step‘s of the winner’s enclosure.
In a highly polished, professional sport, the amateur is still celebrated at Cheltenham. When Sam Waley-Cohen, who has a chain of dental surgeries, captured the 2011 Gold Cup on his father’s Long Run, he wasn’t seen as a rich man’s son indulging his hobby, but as a passionate, talented Corinthian who had taken on the best and won fair and square.
Journalist Marcus Armytage rode three Cheltenham Festival winners in his amateur-jockey days. he admits that, before the first of them, he was more interested in Aintree, the subject of all his childhood dreams and where he had won the 1990 Grand National. ‘Then I rode my first Festival winner—Tug of Gold in the 1992 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase. Suddenly, I got it,’ he admits. ‘There’s nothing like riding into the winner’s enclosure there. Aintree had been a bit of a blur and was over so quickly, whereas it takes time to ride down the hill and up into the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham. It’s practically a daily occurrence for the likes of Ruby Walsh, but, for an amateur, it’s incredibly special and satisfying.’
Anyone with even the most tenuous connection to racing will be asked by their friends to tip them a Cheltenham winner. The ‘safe’ bets are those trained by Mr Henderson, Mr Mullins and Ireland’s other prolific winning trainer, Gordon Elliott—but which horses in which races? Is the Mullins- trained Douvan, odds-on for the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday, the dead cert he seems? Is Altior, strong favourite for the Arkle Chase (Tuesday), Mr Henderson’s new Sprinter Sacre?
There are few certainties on the track, but plenty off it: Mr Henderson will definitely spill tears of emotion at some point; generous Irish mega-owner J. P. McManus will pull off a glorious gamble in one of the handicaps and claim not to have had a penny on it; Cotswolds trainer Jonjo O’Neill’s 1986 Gold Cup victory on Dawn Run (and Peter O’Sullevan’s voice, choking with emotion, saying ‘the mare’s beginning to get up…’) will be replayed on the big screen and everyone will have to search for their handkerchiefs.
History is an important part of why people are so devoted to the Festival and block it out in their diaries year after year. They remember where they were standing when Desert Orchid ground out that gruelling Gold Cup triumph in 1989. They remember that, the following year, Welsh farmer Sirrell Griffiths milked his cows before driving Norton’s Coin, one of only two horses he trained, to Cheltenham in a trailer, winning the Gold Cup at 100–1 and driving home to milk them again. They remember Henrietta Knight running into the arms of her husband, Terry Biddlecombe, when Best Mate won his third Gold Cup in 2004.
They remember the scintillating sharpness of Kauto Star, pitted against his stablemate, the relentless galloping machine Denman. They remember A. P. McCoy’s white, set face suddenly cracking with a smile as he rode back into the winner’s enclosure at his final Festival after taking the Ryanair Chase on Uxizandre for his boss Mr McManus. Some of them still remember Michael Dickinson’s extraordinary feat in training the first five horses home in the 1983 Gold Cup. And even fewer remember ‘Himself’ (Arkle).
Colin Tizzard is the ‘happy story’ of this National Hunt season. The likeable Somerset dairy farmer, who enjoys his hunting, has gradually evolved from a small-time permit holder who trained a few pointers around milking the cows to one of the most successful trainers in the country.
The mighty Thistlecrack, who bolted up in the World Hurdle last year and then won the King George VI Chase at Christmas on his fourth start over fences, will, unfortunately, miss this Festival with a strained tendon.
However, the plain-speaking, dryly comic Mr Tizzard has at least three other big chances: Native River, Theatre Guide and Cue Card. The latter gave Mr Tizzard and his son Joe, now his assistant trainer but formerly a jockey, a first Cheltenham Festival winner just seven years ago when he won the Champion Bumper. If either Native River, usually partnered by the popular champion jockey Richard Johnson, or, more emotionally, Cue Card, a much-loved horse that fell in the race when travelling brilliantly last year, could bring the Gold Cup home to Spurles Farm, Somerset and Dorset’s bookies will go bust.
‘I remember going to Cheltenham when I was about 17, when Pendil was running against The Dikler [in 1973],’ says Mr Tizzard. ‘Races like that stick in your mind. The Gold Cup is what we spend all this time and other people’s money getting horses to. It’s what we do it for. And it’s not always the fastest one that wins; it’s the one who can grind it out. I’m just so chuffed to have these horses— anyone would be.’
Gloucestershire is stuffed with good trainers—Mr O’Neill, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Charlie Longsdon— but one who might pull off a first Festival winner at his ‘local’ track is Fergal O’Brien. Once head lad to Mr Twiston-Davies, Mr O’Brien started off training point-to-pointers and is now taken seriously as a top-flight National Hunt trainer. After five years with a full licence, his horses are flying and he’s enjoying his best season to date. Colin’s Sister, which has won all four of her starts this winter, runs in the Mares’ Hurdle (Thursday) and is a great each-way bet.
There’s always been a David and Goliath element to Cheltenham; everyone loves to see the big battalions outgunned by a sniper. This year, it could be a horse called Tobefair. Trained, along with just seven others, by Debra Hamer in Carmarthenshire and owned by a gang of 18 friends from the local pub, Tobefair has won his last seven races and has shot up the handicap by 62lb. He will be Mrs Hamer’s first runner at the Festival, but, off a low weight, should have a real chance in the intensely competitive Pertemps Network Final on Thursday. ‘We’re going to the Festival full of hope. He’s the horse of a lifetime,’ says Mrs Hamer. Dreams do come true at Cheltenham.
The Cheltenham Festival is on March 14–17; Gold Cup day is sold out (www.thefestival.co.uk) Catherine Austen is author of ‘Little Book of Cheltenham’ (G2 Entertainment Ltd)
TIPS FOR THE BIG FOUR
Champion Hurdle (Tuesday) It isn’t the strongest renewal, but the Alan King-trained Yanworth has done nothing wrong in his three outings this season, including winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and is a solid prospect
Queen Mother Champion Chase (Wednesday) There’s no reason to look beyond Douvan, unbeaten since he joined Willie Mullins in 2014. He’ll be long odds-on, but justifiably
World Hurdle (Thursday) Unowhatimeanharry (trained by Harry Fry) is nailed on for this stamina test, but Cole Harden (Warren Greatrex), winner in 2015, is a good bet for a place
Gold Cup (Friday) The heart is with Cue Card, but the head with his progressive stablemate, the younger Native River