Sunday 18 February 2018

James Lawton: Unique sporting drama will stir emotions again

Mullins leads Irish invasion that's at heart of Cheltenham's extraordinary ambience

Ruby Walsh and Annie Power lead out Team Mullins on the Cheltenham gallops yesterday. Picture: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Ruby Walsh and Annie Power lead out Team Mullins on the Cheltenham gallops yesterday. Picture: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Owner Charmian Hill and son Oliver lead in Dawn Run and jockey Jonjo O’Neill after the pair’s victory in the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Photo: Bernard Parkin
James Lawton

James Lawton

Anyone who says that returning here after a certain absence is rather like coming home has, for one thing, led a life of dangerously heightened emotion. Indeed, it also probably true he has done well to keep hold of his train fare.

Three days of it at any one time, all reasonable analysis insisted, was enough and the four we have now is a stretch because as the sun warmed the valley yesterday and Willie Mullins in his proud but also self-effacing way sent on to the course the first phalanx of perhaps another equine army of occupation, it was the occasion of the latest reminder.

No, this isn't coming home. This is re-opening a vein of uniquely enduring experience.

It's to feel again, as I first did in 1987 after a seven-year stint in North America, the weight of extraordinary deeds and imperishable memory.

Then, it was in the wake of Dawn Run's astonishing triumph the year before and now, after three years away, it is precisely the same sensation.

In 1987, there was snow on the hills and the thunder bequeathed by Dawn Run was still in the air.

Yesterday there was another stirring of the blood. Again it was provoked by the mysterious but irrefutable reality that each year there is here a capacity to move grown men and women in a manner that is, you have to suspect, simply not to be transferred in all those great events of the sporting life that do not involve the dreams of horsemen and the courage and the brilliance of their charges.

Great fights lay their own claims on the memory and if you are very lucky you may have seen such waged by men like Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard or Roberto Duran.

You may have been moved to tears of emotion by the deeds of the bike riders in the Pyrenees or the Massif Central in those days which were not so clouded by suspicion. You may have been entranced as recently as yesterday by the virtuosity of a Lionel Messi.

But you have not, the submission is here, quite had that feeling of exhilaration, of pure joy, when the collective roar has swept the valley and there is an Arkle or a Dawn Run or a Kauto Star devouring the rising ground.

Ah, Dawn Run. Of course one reviewed the video. It was an obligation after that first return to the extraordinary ambience of the great festival after being away for so long.

I saw a Cork man stand on a bar-room stool, a glass of Bushmills in a steady hand, reciting word for word the commentary of Dawn Run and Jonjo O'Neill making it up the hill and then, almost gently, falling to the floor.


It was soon after this there was the announcement of Mass in a hotel room along the corridor.

Not intended here is any parody of the Irish invasion of Cheltenham which brandishes such steel approaching these next four days but simply recognition of emotion generated here that, at least in my experience, is not to been found in any other sporting environment, however rarified.

If you are sceptical there are supporting witnesses and the not the least of them Olympic gold medal-winning rower Katherine Grainger, who after a batch of silver finally struck out for the great prize in 2012.

She said that Kauto Star's historic achievement of regaining the Gold Cup had been a powerful inspiration.

"It struck a nerve with me, the determination of a great competitor never to accept the possibility of being beaten. For a while I had been depressed and discouraged, and then than I saw this example of not accepting that you were done, finished. It was the most powerful inspiration."

The great crowd in the valley were similarly moved when Ruby Walsh, protecting his great partner, acknowledged the hopelessness of the last challenge and eased him from the arena in which he had always fought so thrillingly.

It was an expression of something more than mere admiration. It was a reaching out for something of mystical power, of aspiration and we know with certainty that it is something that will emerge again in the course of this week.

Today, Mullins, another heir to a great family tradition, will seek out his fifth Cheltenham ascendency in six years in a mood of unforced confidence.

Yesterday he was delighted with the look and the stride of his Champion Hurdle contender Annie Power.

"She was great this morning, I was very pleased with her," he declared, while everybody else was intrigued by his strategy in a race which was defying most rational analysis last night.

Walsh will, of course, seek to maintain his own astonishing hold on mastery of the great meeting. He has been paying his respects to the Tony McCoy who for so long filled this place with his own relentless ambition, his willingness to go to the very limits of physical endurance for the sake of another win, another surge of the blood.

Such is the quality of legend that crowds this place with such intensity. One remembers a meeting with the young McCoy at Ludlow. He had been carried off on a stretcher but within minutes he was talking of his passions and ambition before his next race.

Coming home to Cheltenham, did we say? It will never be some comfortable, nostalgic retreat. It is, the more you think about it, quite the opposite.

It is to be reminded, and this can be said as unequivocally as ever, before the first walk to the start, the first fight to the finish, that life is indeed dangerous and uncharted and that so often courage is demanded without any guarantees.

Except, perhaps, the one that makes the heart beat that much faster when you come back to the valley.

It is the knowledge that the brave horses and their riders are again preparing to go to their limits.

Inevitably, the effect is not the welcome mat of old familiarity. It is of nothing less than a reviving heartbeat.

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