The Times 14th March 2023
Racing is in a not often organized retreat from the heady times when it was the premier sport in the land, jockeys were today’s football stars and Parliament never sat on Derby Day. But each March the sporting world again takes notice and the pride returns. Cheltenham calls.
For all their much-improved marketing and facilities the other great events in the racing calendar are slipping down in the public consciousness. Within the game Royal Ascot is still recognized as the best five-day meeting in the world, but the public still thinks of fashion as much as form. The Grand National remains a once-a-year lottery bet but the lesser fences make it something of a mountain with a lower peak. Derby Day has its history but has a job to lead the sporting news. Cheltenham doesn’t.
While the others have slipped, Cheltenham has thrived. This is jump racing’s annual championships – please don’t say Olympics, that’s every four years and entirely different. This is the one meeting to which the general sports writers come and to which the public flock in such numbers that the management flirted with the idea of a fifth day to fit them all in.
But beneath this week’s celebrations it will be easy to pick up a sense of gloom and not just from the fear of the Irish outgunning us about as comprehensively as the French did at Twickenham on Saturday. The finances don’t begin to add up and jump racing in particular remains fearful of how it handles the risks and stress inherent in its competition.
Even a successful horse rarely makes anyone but punters a profit. Mark Of Gold, a hurdler in whom I have an interest and who runs in the Martin Pipe on Friday, has won six of the 12 races he has run since Gary Moore bought him for £30,000 18 months ago His £37,000 of prize money sounds good until you factor in another £30,000 of training fees. A lot of horses cost a lot more, most of them don’t win anything at all.
As for risk, everyone has moved far away from the days when press, public and professionals were excited by pictures of vertical falls at Becher’s Brook and limitless use of the whip. But in adjusting to a happily more sensitive world there is a sense of caution which has led to a lack of confidence in the game itself. Racing and in particular jump racing will always be a very dangerous game which is exactly why those involved need to be highly trained and tested. That, of course, applies as much to the horses as to the riders.
At Cheltenham there will be falls. In most of them horse and jockey will get up unscathed. But in some cases the riders will go to hospital and while their fractures and trauma can be rehabilitated, the same rarely applies to their four legged partners. A horse is a sentient creature which can feel pain but has no imagination and it’s a harsh truth that euthanasia is often the kindest option.
Which is exactly why those closest feel the most responsible. Beyond all the hoopla and hassle of the packed stands and steaming bars, what happens out there on the track can stand scrutiny against any of the wonders of any sport. Riders who have spent years honing mind and muscle are the top half of soaring centaurs. Horses have been bred and reared and trained for these moments. As a jockey it’s as if you are on a living, jumping motorbike with a will you have to bend with your own. It’s a thrill that can be shared by the ownership of a bet on the outcome. But it’s dangerous. As a rider and now a watcher I still believe that this danger is worth taking.
It’s also competitive. Winning really matters and since the horse does not know where the winning post is the rider’s duty is to impart the maximum sense of urgency to the four legs beneath. To that end, judicious cracks of a branch of padded foam remain the most effective way of a 10 stone pilot energising an 80 stone animal as the line approaches. There is now worldwide acceptance that those cracks need to be strictly limited and while Britain’s new rules have been clumsily implemented, jockeys will have to adjust or pay the penalty just as they do in other, even tougher jurisdictions.
Cheltenham is a festival to be proud of. Read Rick Broadbent’s piece on Rachael Blackmore on Saturday and Michael Atherton on Constitution Hill tomorrow and you will see it has stars writing their own pages in history. This massive rite of spring in the Cotswolds offers an ultimate test of man and beast – and punters’ livers. But it is also a glorious absurdity. “All that fuss” scoffed Andrew Mellon the father of Mill Reef’s owner, “about some horses running round a field.”
But what is life you don’t risk the absurd in search for glory? More than 50 years ago I rode the favourite in the last race of the meeting only to be fired off at the first.
It lives with me still.