What a week. The Cheltenham Festival is the most intense four days’ racing of the year, I find.
Although Royal Ascot matters more in the grand scheme of it all – stallions (and fortunes) are made and lost, future Classic winners are spotted etc – the racing is, really, only one element of the meeting. It’s as much a summer party and a frock show as it is a racemeeting – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But Cheltenham is purely about equine competition, and it’s much more gruelling on the nerves. I’m sad it’s over – the whole season is built around it now, and I know we’ve got Aintree left but, apart from the National, which is totally different, winning at Cheltenham will always take precedence.
My feet, lungs and liver are happy, though – they need some serious r&r.
Here are my highlights – and low points – of the Festival:
Seven winners for Seven Barrows. Nicky Henderson had a simply incredible week, even if Long Run couldn’t pull another Gold Cup out of the bag. For me the most exciting of these was Sprinter Sacre in the Racing Post Arkle – all being well, he’s next year’s Champion Chase winner.
First Festival winners for two very good female trainers. Lucinda Russell has long deserved a success on the big stage, and Brindisi Breeze gave it to her in impressive style in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. One for Scotland – and Wales got on the board when Rebecca Curtis took the National Hunt Chase with Teaforthree.
AP McCoy’s Betfred Gold Cup. He’s broken every riding record and, more than anyone else, epitomises the “man of iron” image of the jump jockey. He should be winning the big ones, and we love it so much when he does.
Applause for Kauto Star. The crowds clapped and cheered him as he walked round the parade ring before the Gold Cup and again as Ruby Walsh pulled him up in the race. Will we see him again? I don’t think so, although no move has been made to retire him yet. A proper legend, my favourite National Hunt horse ever and as big a star as we’ll ever see in racing.
The British-bred winners. By my reckoning there were seven – Cinders And Ashes, Alfie Sherrin, Simonsig, Son Of Flicka, Cape Tribulation, Countrywide Flame and Attaglance – which is more than for many years. Otherwise, King’s Theatre had a truckload. And the greatest of them all, Sadler’s Wells, rounded off his stunning career with a Gold Cup winner the year after his death. He obviously had his treble Champion Hurdle winner in Istabraq, and it’s nice to have a Gold Cup horse too. Never mind the dozens of Classic winners, this is Cheltenham!
The horses that died during the week. It’s very sad for their owners, trainers, jockeys and grooms, and we all hate seeing these terrific animals in their final moments. But I don’t think anyone is to blame – it’s just one of the facts of life with animals. Lots of you will disagree, and you are entitled to, but I’d rather be a racehorse than almost any other animal. Top-class care, an exciting life working and racing with my friends and the assurance of a quick death if the worst should happen.
Three of the “big four” failing to defend their crowns. I like my champions to be champions and to win and win and win. Of last year’s Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, World Hurdle and Gold Cup heroes, only Big Buck’s could do it again, and it did flatten the atmosphere a touch.
No winners for Choc. Our H&H columnist Choc Thornton rode his ass off all week, being placed on seven out of his 12 rides, but none of them could quite get their heads in front. He’s had a tough winter, he’s a great jockey and he deserved a moment in the sun this week.