I enjoyed a fantastic week and was delighted to ride my first Cheltenham Festival winner. I went into the week knowing Coo Star Sivola, who is trained by my stepfather Nick Williams, had a good chance in Tuesday’s Grade Three Ultima Handicap Chase. He has plenty of experience around Cheltenham and we had a perfect prep run under our belt, winning at Exeter at the end of February, plus there were no Irish runners in my race!
I was told to be fairly handy with him, but not to miss the boat. He jumped almost too well over the first two fences and we ended up closer to the leaders than I had hoped.
I didn’t want to hit the front and for it to turn into a three-mile sprint but when the leaders dropped back, I had no option but to take up the lead.
Coo Star Sivola travelled and jumped so well for me, and, apart from the two leaders initially, we didn’t see another horse the whole race.
We finished a neck in front of Shantou Flyer, ridden by James Bowen, and people have been saying that if they’d not made a mistake at the last, they would have beaten us. However, I think Shantou Flyer should be flattered by that result, as there was no way Coo Star Sivola was going to let him past.
I was very happy with the softer ground; it didn’t make a difference to Coo Star Sivola as he runs on any ground.
Riding a winner at the Festival is an unbelievable feeling. It perhaps wasn’t as euphoric as winning the Grade One Betway Bowl Chase at Aintree last year on Tea For Two, however, I had come back from a bad week then and this time, I guess, I had gone out half expecting to win the race, but I was still shocked.
Most of the time I am good under pressure and on the big occasions, but I had a few issues coming into this year’s Festival after my fall from Tea For Two at the second fence in the Gold Cup 12 months ago, and I was more worried about messing it up this time.
Mentally, I had to break down what went wrong and then work on putting it behind me. After all, when you race-ride everyday for a living, ultimately, you are still jumping and galloping a horse around a big field — regardless of which meeting you are at.
Too much racing?
There was a lot of Irish dominance at this year’s Festival and I believe it is to do with the fact horses over here race in very few competitive races all year until they go to the Cheltenham Festival, where they are put up against the Irish runners.
If you look through the forms of the Irish horses, they have often run against each other previously and they are battle-hardened.
In this country, there is so much racing, horses can easily avoid coming up against each other. It makes the racing diluted and results in reduced field sizes — look at both Altior and Buveur D’Air – yes, they won, but they came up against just two others in their prep runs, which is such a shame. If you watch Irish racing, most of the time the fields will be large.
Aside from my win on Coo Star Sivola, my other Festival highlight would have to be Bridget Andrews’ victory on Mohaayed in Friday’s Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle.
I race a lot alongside Bridget and, most of the time, it is just the two of us in the girls’ changing room, so I was thrilled for both her and Dan Skelton’s team.
Ref Horse & Hound; 22 March 2018