Sunday 22 September 2019

Greg Wood: 'Priceless moments make it Festival to remember'

Bryony Frost became the first female rider to win a Grade One race at the Festival over jumps. Photo: PA
Bryony Frost became the first female rider to win a Grade One race at the Festival over jumps. Photo: PA

Greg Wood

For a few minutes on Tuesday evening at Cheltenham, the chance that we would head home three days later riding even a gentle wave of positivity seemed to be receding by the second. The screens were up on the landing side of three of the fences after the National Hunt Chase as fallers were attended to by vets, while out in the Atlantic, Storm Gareth seemed poised to wipe out the second day altogether.

There were, of course, downs as well as ups over the course of the next three days. The death of Sir Erec in the Triumph Hurdle was the most difficult blow to absorb, not least because of the connection he made with racegoers and television viewers as he waited patiently to be re-plated before setting off on the race that would be his last. Invitation Only was then killed in a fall in the Gold Cup, the third and last fatal injury of the week from a total of 497 runners, the highest number of starters at a Festival since 2009 and 50 more than went to post in 2018, when there were twice as many fatalities.

As a result, the overall fatality rate - 0.6 per cent - was down by more than a half compared to 2018 (1.34 per cent), the lowest rate since 2015. On the face of it, fate was at least moderately kind to the 2019 Festival. But since the horses killed on Friday were running in two of the races with the biggest audiences of the week, while Sir Erec was one of the shortest-priced favourites of the week, their deaths seem to make a deeper impression.

Yet the fact still remains that for every horse that suffers a fatal injury at Cheltenham, there are about 150 more that go out and do what they were bred, raised and trained to do. Without racing, these thoroughbreds would not exist in the first place and a record crowd of 266,779 would not have found its way to the West Country over the course of the week.

It was the second Festival in a row with a record attendance, which suggests that for all the gloom and uneasy defensiveness that followed last year's meeting, the meeting's popularity with the sporting public continues to rise. All four days had a record crowd under the current format, and few can have left disappointed. Altior was an impressive and popular winner in Wednesday's Champion Chase and the remarkable Tiger Roll even more so in the Cross Country later the same day, while Willie Mullins's long-overdue first success in the Gold Cup was a fine way to close the week on Friday.

But above all, there were 45 thrilling minutes on Thursday when the Festival behaved itself and followed the script, delivering on the build-up with two of the most memorable victories of recent years.

First, there was Bryony Frost and her winning ride from the front on Frodon in the Ryanair Chase. Making much or all the running to win at Cheltenham requires split-second judgment of pace, an intuitive connection with your horse and immense self-confidence. No one is ever gifted a soft lead at the Festival, and Frost also had to contend with a 66/1 outsider, harrying her at the head of affairs for much of the way.

It was a ride that any of the great Festival jockeys of the last 30 years would have been proud to call their own, and the roar from the stands as Frodon responded to his jockey and fought his way back into the lead after the last was the most stirring and heartfelt of the week.

Racing, where men and women can compete on equal terms, is unique among the major spectator sports in creating a moment like this and in Frost it also has a natural communicator. She was able to put the experience and emotions into words for ITV's viewers within seconds of the finish: "He grabbed me by the hands and said: "Don't you dare give up"."

Frost was the first female rider to win a Grade One race at the Festival over jumps, but she did not have sole ownership of the feat for long. A day later, Rachael Blackmore matched her achievement on the 50/1 shot Minella Indo in the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle, her second winner of the meeting. Minella Indo was also the fourth winner of the meeting for a female rider - Lizzie Kelly, in the Plate, had the other - equalling the record total at last year's meeting. The strike rate of female riders at this year's meeting - four wins from 46 starts, or 8.7 per cent - was better than the 5.3 per cent (24 from 452) of their male counterparts.

No sooner had Frost left the podium than Andrew Gemmell, rightly the focus of many dozens of pre-Festival features, was stepping up to receive the owner's prize after Paisley Park's hugely popular win in the Stayers' Hurdle. Blind since birth, Gemmell has never seen a racehorse and fell in love with racing by listening to radio commentaries in the '60s and as a small-scale owner with the immense good fortune to buy a Festival-class horse for relatively minor money, he is also an example of a species that had seemed on the verge of extinction.

Gemmell's win does not, of course, hint at a new, more egalitarian age in jumping. Money does not work like that, and the colours of Michael O'Leary and JP McManus will be as ubiquitous as always at Cheltenham 2020. But very few, if any, former trade union officials have walked into the Festival winner's enclosure over the course of the last 90 years, and none with the unbridled joy of Gemmell.

Cheltenham spends heavily to publicise its biggest meeting but moments and memories like these are beyond price and the ones that will endure. "Is the Festival's future on the line?" was a headline on one newspaper feature last week. The answer, as so often when a headline ends with a question mark, is undoubtedly a resounding "no". Observer

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