CHELTENHAM 2009 REVIEW
On Friday morning a lone horse with what looked like a child rider walked on to the exercise track at Cheltenham . “What’s that?” we asked. “Don’t know,” the child replied. Was this ignorance or subterfuge? By the time the sun had set on what had been one of the very greatest and most needed of Festivals, it remained just about the only mystery unresolved.
The solving of the others was proof that records do not lie, that competition is more intense, horses much fitter, jockeys better and media coverage infinitely wider than it ever was before. I first watched the Festival in 1952, first rode there in the 1964 Cathcart two races after Arkle beat Mill House in that most famous of all Gold Cups; and I presented the first broadcast when Channel Four took over in 1995. But you will have no “things aren’t what they used to be” from this quarter. Believe me, they are better, and in Walsh and Nicholls, Master Minded and Kauto Star, we have champions who will rightly take their place in history.
But, being Cheltenham, their successes have always hung by a tenuous thread. For Walsh it could easily have ended before it had hardly begun. At the first flight of the very first race the much fancied Kempes snatched at the hurdle and for a millisecond Ruby was “twixt the stirrup and the ground.” Any check or collision at that moment and he would have been on the floor with hooves hammering all over him. In the next race, the Arkle, the favourite put him exactly there. Right in front of us he lay; a huddled, hands-on-head figure with Tatenen giving him a final hefty kick as he departed.
It could have been the end of Ruby’s Festival. Instead it was the start of the greatest glory run Cheltenham has ever seen. Quevegal, Mikael D’Haguenet, Cooldine, Master Minded, Big Buck’s, American Trilogy, and Kauto Star- what a list, what a pub quiz challenge. But looking back should only be the start of it. Looking forward is what keeps Walsh, Nicholls and all the rest of us alive. And that means wondering about next year, and first whether Celestial Halo can do better for trainer and jockey than second in the Champion Hurdle, the only one, incredibly, of the “Big Four” races, that “got away.”
It is a question with which, thanks to the attitude of the trainers involved, every racing fan can wrestle. Nicholls has not just set a new benchmark for fitness, his openness about his horses has made the traditional, sly, tap-the-nose-to-show-you’re-cunning, stereotype look as out of date as it is counter productive. Nicky Henderson has become just as good, and so we all knew about Punjabi’s cut before his reappearance at Wincanton, about Celestial Halo’s need for an end-to-end gallop, and about Henderson and McCoy’s concern that Binocular might be one gallop short of perfection.
That last will be what the Binocular team hang their hopes on. Since they only got beat half a length, they may well be right. But the personal impression remains that at Cheltenham their horse may always be vulnerable to aggressively ridden opponents who take the sting out of his acceleration. By contrast Celestial Halo will always need others to share the pace setting as Osana and Hardy Eustace did on Tuesday, and so Punjabi may well have a better chance of defending his crown than most pundits immediately said.
For Master Minded it seems that the two mile throne remains his for the asking provided his trainer can keep him at a peak which is clearly not that easy. Nicholls talks of the horse being prone to “tieing up” and “not being that straightforward” and Master Minded has become another example that the intensity of new training regimes mean that many top horses need campaigning very sparingly – this was only his third run of the season – if their careers are to last. Only a few years back Henrietta Knight got roundly castigated for Best Mate “being wrapped in cotton wool.” The more we look at it, the more impressive the feat of three consecutive Gold Cups becomes.
The unfortunate corollary to this is that promoters of major pre-Cheltenham races like the Betfair Chase at Ascot in February are likely to struggle to get top horses to turn up. Watching Voy Por Ustedes show several signs of fragility before that terrible mistake coming down the hill in The Ryanair on Thursday, suggests that Alan King will now privately regret the huge effort his horse produced four weeks earlier in Berkshire.
Incidentally anyone interested in balance, bravery, strength, and gymnastics, let alone all around horsemanship, should help themselves to the replay of Robert Thornton’s recovery when a full-pelt Voy Por Ustedes galloped slap into that fourth last on Thursday. Purists may always dislike his toe-in-the-iron short stirrups, but let no one say that “Choc” is easily shifted. Nor that, having been hospitalized after a fearful smacking from Big Zeb in the Queen Mother on Wednesday, he lacks anything in the way of courage or endurance. It was very definitely the losing ride of the meeting.
For the winning one nothing could better the inspired implacability of McCoy on Wichita Lineman on the first day. For a half reluctant hero like this horse, there never has been, never will be a jockey to match him. But as A.P. battled vainly on with setbacks which included being wiped out by another faller four out in the Ryan Air and getting buried at the last in the Queen Mother on Briareus, Ruby Walsh took centre stage. McCoy is a one-off phenomenon whom no young jockey should or could try to model themselves on. Walsh is a wonder to whom they should all aspire.
He folds his body not just on top but around a horse, he lets them flow beneath him but will squeeze and push to make them work. As with all classy sportsmen there is a lot of “ars concela artem” (art conceals the art) but in his two most crucial moments the iron fist came very visibly out of the velvet glove. Three times he switched his whip from one hand to the other as he drove the gangling Big Bucks up the World Hurdle run-in, and three insistent times he slapped Kauto Star down the shoulder for the final strides to perfect take off at the last in the Gold Cup.
The aftermath of that race, indeed of the whole meeting, had an element of treasured delight about it in which we should not be ashamed to share. At a crucially difficult time for our two economies, and after a weekend of horribly backward looking murder, this greatest of Anglo/Irish jamborees had come together in the Cotswolds to celebrate for exactly the right reasons – that life should be lived boldly with both a laugh and a cheer.
Some half an hour after the Gold Cup Kauto Star and Denman were circling one behind the other next to the dope test area and a sudden ripple of spontaneous applause broke out from the gaggle of spectators gathered along the rail. The sun was coming through on this very best of Cheltenhams. It was easy to remember the lines of PG Wodehouse about another gilded place. “Being there,” he wrote, “was like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying.” Amen to that.