Having privileged access to all four days of the Cheltenham Festival, it is all too easy to become rather blasé – and a touch jaded – by the final day. My feet hurt, my back hurts, I’m considerably poorer than I was on Monday and I’m knackered. In the gap between the second and third races, I could have easily packed it in and gone home.
But, a couple of hours later, I feel wonderful. My feet and back still ache, I’m still poor and I’m still tired. But the Cheltenham Gold Cup was just so incredibly exciting that it was like having a jolt of electricity passed through me.
I felt nearly as nervous beforehand as if I was riding in it myself, and my heart-rate was up before they left the paddock. I didn’t really have a view as to what would win – the “big” horses all had holes to pick at, the lesser ones could have been seriously on the upgrade, but they needed to be. But that much adrenalin flooding round a racecourse is infectious, and I wouldn’t have been anywhere else in the world during those few minutes.
As Kauto Star, my favourite National Hunt horse, surged to the front at the start of the second circuit, my heart began to race, and by the time he, Denman and Long Run came round the final bend I really could feel it leaping out of my chest. I’m not a shouter – the odd “Come on Kauto”, then “Come on Sam!” but I have to be really, really excited by a race to make any noise at all. As Long Run passed the post with the two great heroes of jumping racing in the past decade just behind him, I felt completely taken over by the glory of it all – the bravery, the skill, the power. If Hollywood had written the script, it couldn’t have been any more emotional.
Sam Waley-Cohen is a seriously cool customer. He’s a businessman, not a jockey – can you imagine the pressure in going out to ride the most exciting young chaser in training on the biggest day of the jumps calendar when you really only ride as a hobby? He’s had 15 rides under Rules this season. AP McCoy has had 300. It’s not so much the pressure of having to do something right, it’s more the fear of doing something wrong.
He did nothing wrong – he just did the most that any jockey can do, which is allow the horse to do its best and help it if it needs help. It’s that simple – and that tremendously hard. Look at poor Willie Twiston-Davies, who got totally carried away with the thrill of being in the lead in the Christie’s Foxhunter with every chance of winning. He asked Baby Run for a gigantic leap at the second-last, the horse said “Whoa, Willie, we’ve got a whole stride to go yet” and put in another one, and Willie flew over his head.
We’ll forgive him, he’s 16, and most of us weren’t anywhere near good enough to ride the favourite in the Foxhunter at 26, let along 16, and once his pride has recovered he’ll have learnt a valuable lesson. But it does prove how difficult it is not to do something wrong, more than it is to do something right. And for the likes of McCoy, Walsh, Thornton, Johnson etc who get it right time after time, day after day – we salute you.