The turf

Cheltenham Festival was a triumph

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

The socialite MP Chips Channon once noted in his diaries his feelings about an after-lunch snooze in parliament’s Library: ‘It was,’ he said, ‘a true House of Commons sleep. There is no sleep to compare with it — rich, deep and guilty.’

With racing by then almost the only spectator sport available, the 60,000 a day who turned up for this year’s Cheltenham Festival had similar instincts. Thanks to coronavirus, millions were facing ill health, bankruptcy or worse while we gloried in the comparatively trivial distractions of who arrived first past the post in 28 races. Yet the vividness of the spectacle and the intensity of emotion were as gripping as ever, if not more so as we sensed that it might be a long time before we gathered in numbers to see its like again.

The glorious uncertainties began with the very first race, when in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, ridden by the skilful Nico de Boinville, bungled one obstacle badly, got shuffled back in the pack and was nearly brought down, yet still went through the gears up the hill to win his race. Said his pilot hailing a future star: ‘That’s what champions do. They get themselves out of a hole and they get the jockey looking a little bit better than they probably should.’

The contest for champion trainer lasted until the final race when a countdown on placed horses gave the edge to Willie Mullins over Gordon Elliott. Their seven victories apiece meant that two men from Ireland had trained half the Festival winners between them and Willie’s stable jockey Paul Townend, after a tricky start, held his nerve to cement his position as successor to Ruby Walsh. It is to some extent a numbers game: Willie had sent 50 horses to the Festival and as one Lambourn handler remarked to me: ‘Most of us would be delighted to have 50 horses in the yard full stop, let alone 50 good enough to bring to Cheltenham.’ But that does not make these racing behemoths immune to the sentiments so near the surface on the National Hunt scene. Willie looked as pleased when the 12-year-old former Champion Hurdler Faugheen was applauded back into the winners’ enclosure after finishing third in a novice chase as he had when winning a second Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo. Gordon Elliott looked as exuberantly happy, welcoming back as the winner of that Marsh Novices’ Chase the problem horse Samcro, written off by many after previous disappointments, as he was in accompanying his other six winners put together.

Special memories from the 2020 Festival include the lasting brilliance of 40-year-old jockey Barry Geraghty — not just his immaculate timing in winning the Champion Hurdle on Epatante and the Coral Cup on Dame De Compagnie for owner J.P. McManus and Nicky Henderson but his persistence in coming from the clouds to swoop past Minella Indo and Allaho in the dying yards of the RSA Novices’ Chase, a ride of epic persistence reminiscent of the great A.P. McCoy on Wichita Lineman.

I will remember, too, the tears of owner John Hales after Dan Skelton, on a rare ride for Paul Nicholls, led all the way in a perfect rhythm on the bold-jumping grey Politologue to win the Champion Chase; and the celebrations of the Racing For Fun Partnership following the victory of ‘adopted Welshman’ Adam Wedge on Rebecca Menzies’s 50–1 shot Lisnagar Oscar in the Stayers’ Hurdle. It was Adam’s first at the Festival, and for regular employer Evan Williams it was well deserved: ‘He is a real horseman — a quality not valued as much as it should be. It has taken him some years to develop into a jockey but it’s best that way round.’

Then there was the Triumph Hurdle tragedy that befell the most popular family act in racing. Goshen, trained by Gary Moore and ridden by son Jamie, was ten lengths clear when he caught the top of the final hurdle and stumbled, giving his jockey no chance of staying aboard. You could hear the gasp from every mouth on the course that hadn’t got a glass of Guinness at its lips. That raised the question: how will racing cope with doing it behind closed doors? Better that than stopping it altogether say the jockeys. Their concentration is such that in the saddle they are immune to audience reaction. ‘You don’t get a lift from it and you don’t get put down by it,’ said Tom Scudamore. ‘Although it will be very different before and after a race.’ Barry Geraghty declared: ‘You’re in a bubble but although it will be strange riding a finish in a big race, if that’s what’s got to be done for world health, then so be it.’

Perhaps, though, the Cheltenham management should put back behind closed doors the new practice of calling out named jockeys one by one for the Gold Cup: the riders looked about as happy as miscreants being lined up for a police identity parade.

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