Flat caps fade into folklore
Twenty-three years ago this week, a little-known Welsh farmer called Sirrell Griffiths rose early to milk his cows and then motored off to Cheltenham to win the Gold Cup with one of the three horses in his care. Norton's Coin, which beat Desert Orchid into third, was a 100/1 chance.
"The Queen Mother was lovely," Griffiths recalled years later. "She knew I came from west Wales and had cows. She asked me how could I come and win the Gold Cup with only a couple of horses in the stable." The way things are going, that kind of question may not be asked again.
Just as people wonder whether a Derby County or Nottingham Forest could ever win the Premier League in this age of extreme wealth-concentration, so National Hunt racing is ceasing to be the refuge of farmers and country folk.
All across the shires, dreamers are still buying cheap jumping horses and hoping they might squeeze out a win at Plumpton or Ludlow. But at the Cheltenham Festival end, power is now concentrated in the hands of a top 10 of mega-wealthy business types who are not chasing the meagre prize-money so much as rays of reflected glory.
Cheltenham is no longer a rolling sketch of whiskey priests, pilgrims, chancers and amateur poets. The characters are still out there in the sea of bodies but they no longer dominate the picture.
With the Festival's current epic scale has come commercialisation on and off the track as the big owners annex the most knowledgeable contacts and pay huge sums for the best of the breed.
The brilliant Sprinter Sacre, the winter game's new star, was bought in a job lot – but there the romance ends. the giant-sized Champion Chaser was acquired by a leading bloodstock agent (David Minton) for rich owners (Caroline and Raymond Mould) and sent to Nicky Henderson, the king of Festival trainers.
Before this meeting, racing's trade paper pointed out that 51pc of the Grade One and Grade Two races over the past three years had been won by three trainers: Henderson, Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls, who was responsible for Denman and Kauto Star.
Although Nicholls started this week slowly, Henderson won the Arkle Trophy with Simonsig and the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Sprinter Sacre, while Mullins took the Champion Hurdle with Hurricane Fly: one of five winners for Ireland's leading jumping yard over the first two days (Henderson won three).
This is not a lament for the days of flat-capped farmers mumbling in front of royalty, though they were fine old times.
Many would argue that the best horses are now in the safe care of people who have every incentive to ensure they fulfil their potential, in the most productive yards.
But the change remains striking nonetheless: a reflection of what we see in business, football and Flat racing, where owner-breeders and the landed gentry have been supplanted by billionaires, principally, the Maktoums of the United Arab Emirates and the Coolmore operation in Ireland.
In today's Gold Cup, the first four in the betting are trained by Henderson (Bobs Worth), Mullins (Sir Des Champs), Nicholls (Silviniaco Conte) and Henderson again (Long Run). There is no Norton's Coin and no dairy farmer with a herd to milk before he sets off for the Cotswolds.
Look back even further, to the Fulke Walwyn, Fred Rimell and Fred Winter era, and the best horses tended to be owned by the landed classes who bred slow-maturing hulks.
Malcolm Jefferson, who trains Cape Tribulation in today's big contest, is a flat-capped northern trainer who brings a little democracy to the show.
But the horse is no Norton's Coin, whose sire cost 700 guineas and his dam £500. In recent years National Hunt racing has become a highly organised business.
Hardly surprising, given the business backgrounds of those now in charge. Michael O'Leary, the head of Ryanair, who owns Sir Des Champs, is certainly no laissez-faire Corinthian.
The charge of greed, though, is misplaced. Prize-money in jump racing ranges from the acceptable to the downright risible.
There is no stud value with horses which have lost their delicates to a vet's knife. The big Flat race owners chase huge stallion fees.
The Festival brigade seek only the thrill and the cachet of having Cheltenham winners.
Hiring the real experts and seizing on the best bloodstock (with the finest trainers on hand) is another form of being good at business.
Thus jump racing's top end becomes a private battle between the new aristocracy of entrepreneurs, who are rich from airlines, banking, golf courses and property.
These power games guarantee a spectacle at Cheltenham and a bright future for the elite. But it would still be nice to see the odd Gold Cup winner come from the milking sheds. (© Daily Telegraph, London)