Emotions surge to boiling point in Cotswolds' sporting cauldron
Cheltenham 2011 was a deeply personal experience for many of its main players, writes Ian McClean
T he Festival. It needs no further descriptor or adjective, elaboration or explanation -- the definite article itself is enough. Like 'The Open' in golf, nobody is ever likely to ask you to which festival you are referring.
There have been many wonderful races and thrilling Festivals down the years and generations, but this year had something extra. Perhaps, juxtaposed as it was against events in stricken locations like Benghazi or Fukushima, Cheltenham's comparative irrelevance took on an even greater relevance and in certain moments last week it had echoes of Bill Shankly's 'matter of life and death' importance of football.
Racing (as opposed to football) in its essence is ultimately about two things: heritage and dreams. Past and future. Those involved in the sport know how to honour the heritage whilst cherishing the dream. The Festival amplifies this essence like nowhere else and when it matters that much it becomes deeply, deeply personal . . .
On the surface, The Festival is just a cluster of horses galloping around a clutch of acres in the Cotswolds but what else out there has the power to reduce a canny, wrought-iron airline magnate (Michael O'Leary) to the point of tears on television? Certainly not a Ryanair board meeting. No, Cheltenham last week was actually a cocktail of narratives about what moves humanity at a truly visceral level -- as compelling to those observing from without as it is for those directly affected within.
It was 25 years ago this year that Dawn Run became the only horse to complete the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double. For those not old enough to remember Arkle, Dawn Run is their likely beacon for National Hunt greatness with Peter O'Sullevan's "the mare's beginning to get up" the accompanying anthem.
Paddy Mullins didn't live to see son Willie crowned champion trainer at the 2011 Festival with four winners, or to see him engineer his first Champion Hurdle success with nervy 'rubber ball' Hurricane Fly. However, his son was ever mindful of The Boss's presence, saying afterwards: "I would have loved to have had him here. The preparation of this horse would have been half down to him. I imagined what he would have done in the same situation and tried to follow that . . . As the horses were galloping up the straight I was thinking we were here with a bit of help from him."
Hurricane Fly's immediate victim in the Champion Hurdle, Peddlers Cross, was in the process relinquishing his stainless one hundred per cent record of seven from seven (and one point-to-point).
For many it was the race of the week -- and the finishing battle of the week -- where there had to be a loser. The conclusion was enough to bring Peddlers Cross's trainer Donald McCain to tears. "I am not a bad loser but I am gutted for the horse," he said.
"He had the hardest race of his life today in defeat -- and I could not be prouder of him. I suppose if there's a good way of getting beaten then that's it."
Two amateur riders to have a vastly different experience of Festival 2011 were Derek O'Connor and Willie Twiston Davies. The most experienced and winning-most point-to-point rider in Ireland was a self-confessed Festival-sceptic before last week, but two wins on Chicago Grey and Zemsky served to alter that perception forever. Admitting that before his attitude was very much that he could "take it or leave it", O'Connor's reflection after the Foxhunters had modified along the lines of the "best week of my life".
By contrast, baby-faced 16-year-old Willie couldn't prevent the dam from bursting after he was decanted from Baby Run at the second-last in the same race having led the field for two circuits. After all, big brother Sam had won the same race on the same horse 12 months previously and blood runs thicker than tears. Willie, walking away with only his pride damaged, received a comforting shoulder from head-lad Fergal O'Brien who can now list sports coach on his CV.
"That is very special," was how Alan King summed up after Bensalem had battled like a freedom fighter to shade Carole's Legacy in the former Ritz Club Chase on Tuesday -- a race he should have won the previous year but for falling at the second last. King's non-verbals (not to mention the bear hug Choc Thornton received from owner Alan Marsh in the winners' enclosure) betrayed far more of what the victory truly meant for a horse which between times had almost died from pleurisy.
King recalled: "We thought we'd lost him. In fact, a couple of vets wanted to put him down but my vet Jeremy Swan said we'd still got a chance. He was at the vet's for weeks and they took litres of fluid off him." It was even more ironic that the race should be sponsored this year by the Stewart family on behalf of spinal research with the message of overcoming medical adversity.
Yet another for whom the Cotswolds' cauldron last week was one of emotional turmoil was Nicky Henderson. He must have felt mocked by the Festival by the time Friday came around. Beginning with the forced withdrawal of favourite Binocular from the Champion Hurdle after a grossly misjudged course of medication, he proceeded to hit the woodwork on day one before losing Lush Life on Thursday.
By Friday, he had sent out 36 consecutive losers before he saddled the one-two in the Albert Bartlett and just 40 minutes later he had saddled the winner of the Gold Cup -- a feat that had eluded him throughout the whole of 33 distinguished years holding a trainer's licence. Little wonder he appeared totally wrung-out in the aftermath. "We try to be grown-up in this game but it has been torture," Henderson said. "I actually had a bet at 16/1 last week that I wouldn't train a winner and I'd begun to believe that bookmaker would be paying me out."
The Waley-Cohens have been patrons at Seven Barrows for most of Henderson's tenure and Long Run's normally restrained owner Robert didn't spare on the occasion by roaring himself hoarse from the second-last. "I didn't know it was possible to do such damage to your voice from the second-last to the line," he croaked. Yet son Sam, with his film-star mop of hair, seemed as cool after the event as he had been before it.
"I wasn't born when Jim Wilson won as an amateur on Little Owl and I've never spoken to him about it," he said. "There has been advice from many quarters but the best advice was simply to enjoy it. It was rough out there. A Gold Cup is what it's all about."
The sight of the old kings of Denman and Kauto Star jumping the second-last in unison with young prince Long Run was the narrative everybody wished for, and even those connected to the vanquished were emotionally proud in defeat. Paul Barber was visibly touched by the performance of Denman. "That's six visits to the Festival and he's never been out of the first two. Everybody loves him and the cheer he got was almost as loud as for the winner. It's very emotional for me. I feel like pushing the wife over to one side of the bed and putting him in the middle."
If Cheltenham can have that sort of effect on a retiring gentleman West Country dairy farmer and his marital arrangements, we should never underestimate its power to move. Alan King, in spite of being without a runner in the Blue Riband event, remarked in the aftermath of the Gold Cup, "If that doesn't sell the sport, then nothing will."
It all reminds me of the old lager advertising slogan, Cheltenham reaches parts that other Festivals can't. It is said of Michael O'Leary that War Of Attrition was the most expensive horse he ever bought . . . because the experience made him buy all the other ones. With three Festival winners on the board last week, I am certain he can find it somewhere within himself to forgive the indulgence.
Sunday Indo Sport