Cheltenham Festival blog: farewell hunting, long live Cheltenham

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  • For the first time in my life, I felt rather caught on the hop at Cheltenham this morning. I’ve been cramming in days’ hunting whenever I can in the past few weeks to try and make up for having lost so many during the freeze. This included three in the past week, which also entailed driving about 1000 miles, and I admit that I’ve rather let keeping up with the racing slide.

    I wasn’t prepared for this week and, when I read the Racing Post this morning and listened to my housemates talk about their selections for the day, I began to panic somewhat. I hadn’t heard of some of the horses they were talking about; how on earth did I know what was going to win the 24-runner William Hill Trophy? And the views I did have weren’t exactly backed up by hours of form study; they were just horses I’d seen and liked. In a houseful of racing journalists, that’s not much cop.

    Worse, we were doing a “house” entry into the placepot and I had to make my selections for the last race. Inevitably, all the others would come in and I’d boot us out in the last. Hardly the impatient excitement and anticipation I should be feeling at the start of the best week of the racing winter.

    I felt slightly better when Dunguib got beaten in the first. Not that I wouldn’t have liked him to win for Philip Fenton, but I just thought he was a hype horse who had been talked up beyond his abilities. My next selection, Somersby (only because he was ridden by our H&H columnist Choc Thornton) was second — I felt like I was beginning to catch up.

    When the mares’ hurdle, the final race, came round, true to form, we were still in the placepot. One of my horses, Sway, thumped the first hurdle really hard, and it took all my willing and a couple of Hail Marys for Voler La Vedette to gallop home in third place — well behind lovely Quevega, but placed, which is all that matters.

    We won’t have won a fortune, but at least I didn’t let the side down. And I’d rather forgotten what a magical place Cheltenham is, particularly on a day when the sun actually felt warm for the first time this year. The hunting season is dead, long live Cheltenham.

    Save of the day: Paul Carberry on Mad Max in the Arkle. The huge, 18hh, gelding made a terrible mistake at the second-last and every single one of us would have fallen off. Carberry’s lightning reflexes and upper body strength saw him snap back into the saddle in a stride and, although it might have cost him the race, he rode a blinder to finish fourth.

    What a mare: Mad Max’s dam, Carole’s Crusader, also produced Carole’s Legacy, second in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle.

    Superheroes on parade: nine former Festival winners paraded before the first race. Brave Inca, Blowing Wind, Earth Mover, Hussard Collonges, Make A Stand, Master Oats, Moscow Flyer, Royal Predica and Stormyfairweather were all ridden, and all looked a million dollars. Most are hunting, some are doing ex-racehorse classes in the showring, some are eventing and showjumping.

    The little people get a look-in too: the main race of the day might have been won by one of racing’s most powerful teams of Nicky Henderson, JP McManus and AP McCoy, but James Moffat, who won the William Hill Trophy with Chief Dan George, trains a string of just 25 in Cumbria. Paddy Aspell, Andrew Lynch and Irish claimer Adrian Heskin all rode their first Festival winners.

    Equestrian celebrity spotting: Mary King, looking very glam in long boots and a short tweed skirt, enjoying the racing with her husband David.

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