A feverish, life-affirming four days of hope and glory

THE TIMES, SPORT, Tuesday 10 March 2020

This year, more than ever, we need the Cheltenham Festival, not just as a race meeting but as a rite of spring. At the end of this soggiest of winters and on the eve of an epidemic for the ages, there will be real refuge in four days of hope against expectation when life must be judged at the gallop.

Of course, they are only horse races, but they can be career defining for the humans involved and are what the horses are bred and reared and trained for. Chacun Pour Soi started his own career at Emmanuel Clayeux’s equine academy deep in France’s Auvergne and back in August 2015 won the splendidly named Prix Bon Esprit at Dieppe at the first time of asking. Now based at Irish trainer Willie Mullins’ record breaking operation in County Carlow, Chacun Pour Soi was at Cheltenham yesterday morning, walking lean and hard and handsome at the head of the Mullins team and if composure was the criteria Wednesday’s Champion Chase will again ring to an Irish ovation.

Up in the saddle was Ruby Walsh, his face sculpted into just the same stone-eyed focus as in all the years that built the unsurpassable 49 winner total, that made him 11 times Festival leading rider confirming his status as the greatest rider to ever grace this great arena. Yesterday morning Walsh was issuing instructions in the role of trusted Mullins lieutenant which he now mixes with an increasingly influential media presence to be displayed this week as part of our team on ITV. To see him was to remember the great days, the subtle stillness of the figure bent behind the mane, the controlled flair of the leap and the compulsive drive of the finish. That’s Cheltenham in its glory but the place always threatens to come at a price.

In 2006 Ruby and Kauto Star were up in the Champion Chase pack drilling down to the third fence right in front of us. 13 horses hurtling at four foot of birch. Kauto Star guessed as it, somersaulted,  and fired his jockey into the turf. As Ruby tried to rise, you saw the pain racking through him. But rise he did, was fourth in the next, and was once again leading rider. It was not ever thus. For Walsh, on more than one occasion, it was to a hospital bed, and it can get worse. Five years ago, at a fence over there just 200 yards from us, the late and much lamented JT McNamara took a fall from which he never recovered. Cheltenham never was, never can be, a place for the faint hearted.

Yet look around and you can be uplifted by the sight of the people and horses who accept the challenge. Mullins has a 30 strong raiding party about to start their canters, whilst already spinning round the circular sand track are an almost equally numerous team bearing the GE initials on their exercise rugs of the Tiger Roll team of Gordon Elliott. Tiger Roll’s road to a historic third Grand National attempt will take in tomorrow’s Cross Country Chase where three of his rivals will come from the same Emmanuel Clayeux who was the first mentor of Chacun Pour Soi just as he was for the eight year old Al Boum Photo who on Friday defends the Gold Cup he won for Willie Mullins and stable jockey Paul Townend. In jump racing the links, like the rivalries, can be tight.

Yesterday morning Paul Townend was on the unswaggering shape of the brilliant mare Benie Des Dieux. She was an image of honed muscle, not gleaming gloss, with the white patch on the top of her tail the only thing exceptional of a talent that would threaten the Champion Hurdle itself if she ran there rather than taking on the unbeaten and equally talented Honeysuckle in the Mares Hurdle which may well prove the race of the day.

The Mullins’ Champion Hurdle candidate is the resurgent Cilaos Emery but looking at him is to think of all the home trained defenders, most particularly those trained by Mullins great rival Nicky Henderson in Lambourn 40 miles over the hill. 10 times Henderson has won the Champion Hurdle and with favourite Epatante heading up a four strong hand this afternoon he will be wanting to get one back over the man who has now taken his place as the Festival’s leading trainer.

Henderson first came to fame in 1985 by saddling the grumpy, teeth-ready, See You Then to win what were to become three Champion Hurdles. My own connection, though far lesser fame, goes back a lot longer. It was 60 years ago at Frenchy Nicholson’s yard right next to the top of the track that I first rode a thoroughbred racehorse, taking the long trek up to canter on the wild turf of Cleeve Hill. It was here that I saw Arkle beat Mill House in 1964 already dressed for my first Festival ride two races later – I was fourth behind Michael Scudamore, grandfather of Tom who at 37 is already a veteran today. In 1968 the powerful striding but clumsy jumping Black Justice ran on to get me third place in Persian War’s first Champion Hurdle, and while further involvement has come with the laptop and microphone, not the saddle, the place has not lost the magic of those first flickering images in black and white. 

 For there is something bigger and better that can be taken out of what in some depictions  is little more than a lot of champagne and conjecture on what will happen in four days of equestrian derring-do. For in these fevered and fearful times there is much to be said for being realistic about risk and then getting on with things. As the roar goes up this afternoon to record that the first cavalry charge is under way, let it signify that we accept not just the challenge of Cheltenham but of life itself.


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