Forget Big Buck’s. Yes, he was awesome, but the most exciting race of the day was – the charity race. Normally after the last race the crowd melts away like butter, but everyone was dying to see Henry Cecil saddle his first ever runner at a National Hunt meeting.
The legendary Flat trainer was guest of honour at Cheltenham today — it was his first Festival visit, unbelievably — and he ran a horse in the St Patrick’s Day Derby, a charity race in aid of Cancer Research UK. The 12 riders raised more than £150,000 between them, with Channel 4 Racing presenter Alice Plunkett whipping up about £53,000 on her own, according to her husband William Fox-Pitt.
Cecil was determined that he was going to make his only Cheltenham runner count, and ran the Niarchos Family’s Plato. According to HHO’s racing columnist Toby Coles, Plato had been working with multiple Group One winner Twice Over earlier in the year, and he was good enough to win a Newmarket maiden last August.
So no pressure for his rider, Lorna Fowler, then. Under her maiden name of Bradburne, Lorna has had plenty of race-riding experience — her mother Sue trains in Fife and her brother is professional jump jockey Mark Bradburne — but riding a Henry Cecil favourite was something entirely new.
The paddock was heaving before the race. All the jocks came out of the weighing room to support the riders; William Fox-Pitt towered above everyone; Jamie Redknapp and Jilly Cooper — bet you’ve never seen their names coupled before — turned up to cheer on Sky Sports News’ Rachel Wyse.
What seemed like all of Newmarket turned out to support Plato, including owner Maria Niarchos, and when Lorna duly brought the chestnut home in front — only by a length, but a very easy length — she got nearly as big a cheer as Ruby Walsh and Big Buck’s a couple of hours earlier. Alice Plunkett got to ride back into the winner’s enclosure by virtue of finishing fourth, which earned her a noisy round of applause.
Cecil is probably the most popular trainer in Europe, and it was a wonderful novelty to see him at the home of National Hunt racing.
Maria Niarchos summed up when she said afterwards: “That was excellent. I’ve never thought of having a winner at Cheltenham, but I’d follow Henry anywhere.” We all would.