Memories of Cheltenham

Catherine Austen asks leading figures to choose their favourite memory from Cheltenham, and we look ahead to likely winners for 2016

Cheltenham’s National Hunt Festival is a noisy, joyful amphitheatre of sporitng anticipation and emotion like no other meeting. Catherine Austen asks leading figures to choose their favourite memory.

Nick Luck, Channel 4 broadcaster

Denman’s Gold Cup was the highlight of a truly memorable 2008 Festival. The Wednesday was called off due to high winds, which meant there were an epic 10 races on Thursday and nine on Friday. After Master Minded produced the single best performance I’ve ever seen by a chaser to be the youngest to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Inglis Drever took his third World Hurdle, you thought it couldn’t get any better. But then Denman (ridden by Sam Thomas), a magnificent big horse at his muscular and aggressive best, demolished the great Kauto Star, his stable-mate, with a display of complete power and accuracy. With Neptune Collonges third, it was a one-two-three for champion trainer Paul Nicholls after one of the most hyped Gold Cups ever. As commentator Richard Hoiles memorably put it: ‘The answer is Denman.’

Alice Plunkett, Channel 4 broadcaster

I’ll never forget  One Man’s Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1998 for jockey Brian Harding. I was a huge fan of the grey horse and had previously watched him struggle twice in the Gold Cup, which was so sad after he looked so brilliant  in his two King George VI wins. When he was dropped back to two miles, he was just amazing and jumped and jumped. It was such  an emotional moment, made more so in hindsight 16 days later, he was killed in a fall at Aintree.  In 1994, I remember standing  at the second-last fence in the Champion Chase when Travado, Deep Sensation and Viking Flagship (eventual winner under Adrian Maguire for David Nicholson) all came to it together. The three jockeys were flat to the boards and you thought ‘oh, take a pull’, but they winged it in unison and the last fence and then fought all the way round the corner and up the hill in a line.

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Richard Johnson, jockey

It has to be my win on Anzum in what was then the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1999.  I’d ridden at Cheltenham for a couple of years without much success, so  to get a Festival winner and one trained by my then boss, David ‘The Duke’ Nicholson, a giant figure  in the sport meant a lot. We went off at the huge price of 40–1 and beat the Irish hotshot,  the Aidan O’Brien-trained  Le Coudray, by a neck  in a great battle.

Charlie Longsdon, trainer

On a personal level,  my first runner at the Festival is a fantastic memory. He was called Songe and he was placed in the Triumph Hurdle in 2008. For him to run so well  in one of the championship races in only my second season training was a great day. Otherwise, my greatest memory was also my first real memory of the Festival: watching Desert Orchid (ridden by Simon Sherwood) winning the 1989 Gold Cup  on bottomless ground the weather was so bad that,  at one point, the day’s racing was in the balance. I was 13 and he was the horse that made me fall in love with racing.

Charlie Brooks, journalist and former trainer

My best memory is riding the winner of the Foxhunter Chase in 1987, Observe. I thought I’d ridden a brilliant race; Fred Winter (my guv’nor and one of the greats of racing) told me it was the only time he’d ever seen a jockey run away with for 3¼ miles. There was a very strong Irish  contingent that year. I heard them queuing up behind me at the top of the hill and, all the way to the line, I was just waiting for them to come flying past. And I bloody nearly fell off at the last fence I totally lost  my balance and was heading for the side exit when the hand of an angel grabbed me and put me back in the plate (probably my late father). When I watched it on the replay, I couldn’t pick it up at all. That race was redemption for me. I hadn’t always had a smooth passage with Fred, but he’d stuck by me and to ride a Festival winner for him was something else.

Lucinda Russell, trainer

It was standing in front of what  is now the new stand at Cheltenham, on my own, watching my horse Brindisi Breeze win the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle in 2012. I was whacking some poor woman on the back, yelling: ‘Go on, go on, go on!’ ‚  I had to apologise afterwards. It was my first Festival winner and the experience of the noise as you walk back into that amphitheatre of a winner’s enclosure was incredible. Campbell Gillies, who later sadly died in an accident, rode the horse. There had been so much chat beforehand that Boston Bob, trained by [Irish champion trainer] Willie Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh, was the banker, so our win was proof of Campbell and the horse’s brilliant talents.

Kim Bailey, trainer

My greatest and most  memorable moment came  in 1995 when Alderbrook delivered the perfect punch when winning the Champion Hurdle [under Norman Williams]. It was the start of a dream week, which still sits right up there in my memory bank. It was when my father last kissed me. It sounds odd to have that memory, but a public show of affection was normally out of the question and, for just one fleeting moment, emotion and pride took over when we embraced after this great victory. It was to happen again two days later when Master Oats won the Gold Cup for us, but this time it was a handshake, not a smacker on the face, that followed.

Mark Hedges, Country Life Editor

Cheltenham would be nothing without the Irish influx, hoping, in the friendliest way, that their horses will beat ours. In 1994, Danoli (trained by a farmer, Tom Foley, in Co Carlow and owned by a surgeon, Danny O’Neill the horse’s name was an amalgam of his and his daughter, Olivia’s, names) was blessed in his local church before leaving Ireland for the Sun Alliance Hurdle race at Cheltenham where he and jockey Charlie Swan carried the nation’s hopes. His win at 7–4 produced the greatest outpouring of joy I have ever witnessed in the cathedral of racing, prompting the late Racing Post journalist George Ennor to report: ‘They cheered him down to the start, they cheered him as he started, they cheered more loudly as he took the lead, and they raised the roof as he passed the post in front.’

Marcus Armytage, former amateur jockey and journalist

Until I won the Kim Muir on Tug Of Gold in 1992, followed the next day by the National Hunt Chase on Keep Talking, I didn’t really get Cheltenham I only had eyes for Aintree [Marcus won the Grand National in 1990 on Mr Frisk]. I remember walking back from the winner’s enclosure to weigh in feeling about 10ft tall and floating. My best memory, however, was Christmas Gorse (named after a hunting covert), which won the 1994 National Hunt Chase. Nick Gaselee, his trainer, had told me to take my time and, passing the stands with a circuit to go, I was 13th, about 20 lengths off the pace. My late mother, a notable grandstand jockey, turned to my sister Gee and said: ‘The bugger’s gone to sleep.’ It was probably the finest ride of my career.

Tom Scudamore, jockey

Without a doubt, it’s winning the Grand Annual Chase on Next Sensation last year. He was trained by my brother, Michael, who only has a small yard, so that was very special, but also because his owners, the Blandfords, are great friends. We’d lost both our grandparents in a short space of time the summer before and our families go back generations together, so it really was a great day.

Jessica Harrington, trainer

Probably my favourite is of Moscow Flyer winning his second Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2005. He’d won in 2003, but had unseated Barry Geraghty four fences from home when odds-on favourite in 2004. Everyone said he couldn’t regain the title, that he was too old. I was just delighted that he had proved them wrong and extremely proud of him.

Rupert Uloth, Country Life Deputy Editor

The year Dawn Run (Jonjo O’Neill) became the first horse to win both the Champion Hurdle (1984) and Gold Cup (1986), I was a student at university and it was my first time at Cheltenham. I was already euphoric because I’d had an outrageously successful bet, for a student, but I’d never seen such spontaneous, unbridled joy, with hats thrown in the air and Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s hoarsely emotional ‘the mare’s beginning to get up’, and I was taken aback. Dawn Run’s arrival in the winner’s enclosure, after somehow making her way through a wildly ecstatic crowd, was like that of a rock star.

The Cheltenham National Hunt Festival takes place on March 15–18 ( Tickets from £35 (Friday is sold out)

Who will win at Cheltenham?

In the absence of her stable-mate Faugheen, AnniePower, from Willie Mullins’s all-dominating yard, is a worthy favourite for the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday. Her fall at the final flight in the Mares’ Hurdle last year was a blip in an otherwise glittering career and she has a top chance in an open race.

Mullins trains the top two in the betting for the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday, the brilliant jumping Un De Sceaux and Vautour, but British hearts will be with former winner Sprinter Sacre. Trainer Nicky Henderson will have done everything in his power to have the great horse back to something like his brilliant best and that might just be enough.

Kilcooley may be an outsider, but Charlie Longsdon’s World Hurdle (Thursday) hope has a real chance of a place and is a good each-way bet. The Colin Tizzard-trained Thistlecrack should win.

Cue Card, also from the Tizzard yard, has won the Champion Bumper here, finished second in Sprinter Sacre’s Arkle and won the Ryanair, but has flopped, too. He’s won three from three this season, including the King George VI and, although he will have to stay further for the Gold Cup (Friday), he could do it. Have an each-way saver on Alan King’s Hennessy winner, the glorious grey Smad Place.

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