Henrietta Knight: the magical, infectious and electric Festival *H&H VIP*

Opinion

Nowhere could the Cheltenham Festival atmosphere be replicated. It is magical, infectious and electric.

To be part of the special occasion is an indescribable experience — it raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck.

There were a number of stand-out stories this year and, horses aside, many top performances from brave jockeys. Noel Fehily, 43, announced after his win on Eglantine Du Seuil that he would be retiring from the saddle. It was a poignant moment and he will be missed by racing fans.

Nico de Boinville’s unflappable approach to race-riding is admirable. His patient, yet skilful, ride in the Champion Chase on the mighty Altior was superb.

Worthy winner

The Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup was deservedly won by Willie Mullins, who had come close in the feature race but never lifted the crown.

Nowadays, many of the Gold Cup contenders are given easy campaigns in the build-up to race.

When Best Mate won three consecutive Gold Cups he, too, was lightly raced prior to the Festival. We were much criticised for wrapping him up in cotton wool, but it is always a tough race and horses need to be feeling good when it matters most — they only have limited mileage in their careers.

However, the Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy’s preparation was different again. He wasn’t raced in any chases between March 2018, when he won the RSA Chase, and this year’s Gold Cup.

In the Gold Cup, he was not travelling with confidence and his jumping was erratic. Hopefully, he will regain the promising form he showed in 2018 and bounce back next season.

Better than the pros

It was unfortunate that the four-mile National Hunt Chase caused such a stir on day one. Admittedly, it was not a pleasant spectacle and only four of the 18 starters completed. The runners were notably tired and there were some heavy falls. Critics of the race now say that the jockeys should not be amateurs. But most of this year’s riders had plenty of experience and several of them are better than many of the professionals.

Maybe the rain-softened ground played a major part. For most of this season these novices have been running on good or good-to-soft surfaces due to the unusually dry winter in Ireland and the UK.

However, it is hard to see why Declan Lavery was penalised for finishing third on Jerrysback. He was delivered a 10-day ban for not pulling up his mount before the last fence. Yet, the horse jumped the fence safely and carefully. Declan did not resort to his whip and nursed his partner up the run in to finish third. What more could have been done?

Philip Hobbs, Jerrysback’s trainer, reports that the horse was fine afterwards and was never seen by any of the racecourse vets. Surely if there was so much concern about the horse he should have been routinely checked over?

Finally, I can’t leave out the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase victor Tiger Roll, last year’s Grand National hero — a little terrier of a horse who is only 15.3hh, yet has the heart of a lion and an unbelievable enthusiasm for racing.

As H&H goes to press, whether he runs in this year’s big race is undecided, but meanwhile he is the star of Gordon Elliott’s yard and much loved.

Ref Horse & Hound; 21 March 2019

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