Cheltenham Festival must take chance to shine on the biggest stage

THE TIMES, March 16 2021

It will be the first Festival most of us will have missed, for me the first in 60 years. Many still feel we should have missed last year. In view of recent toxic, self-inflicted bad publicity, the challenge now is to prove that these few March days at Cheltenham should be unmissable not just for race fans but for the wider world.

To show that galloping half a ton of thoroughbred round this great green anvil of dreams is as fulfilling an act as it is exciting a spectacle. To demonstrate that in accepting the risk on behalf of their equine partners, riders and trainers are prepared like never before. To prove to a more sceptical public that the game is indeed worth the candle.

Of course this comes from an addict who saw Fred Winter win both the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle in 1961, and who first rode at the Festival in 1964. But I have been around a bit too. I have covered Olympics, World Cups, Test matches, British & Irish Lions tours, Las Vegas fights, Wimbledon and the Open golf, and believe that Cheltenham is entitled to share the same sentence. Indeed the reason it does has much to do with a sighting of a young man at St Andrews in 1984.

It was a couple of days before Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson battled out their epic closing duel but in the surprise of the sighting lay the key to the Festival’s future. Edward Gillespie may have been barely 30 but he was already four years into his stewardship at Cheltenham with another 28 to come before stepping away to take up a host of good work and serve as Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire.

Edward loved racing but he loved sport and theatre too. He was at St Andrews to see how other iconic events ran their show. He already had plenty of laurels: he had started managing Sandown at 21, but he was not resting on them. He sensed that the tide was going out on the national racing interest. Back in 1961, racing was the only major sport live on TV every Saturday, and national newspapers carried reports from even the most minor meetings. By 1984, the ebb was already under way to where racing is today challenged to the point of not making even the top six on the BBC Sport website. Yet Cheltenham has moved against the flow.

It has been well served by its stars in and around the saddle. By Istabraq, Best Mate, Kauto Star and Denman; Dunwoody, Swan, Walsh and McCoy. Training yards are unrecognisable in their accessibility and an enlightened board’s backing of their young impresario showed that racing could harness the warmest of modern welcomes to an old — and to what many had become an unfamiliar — pursuit. Cheltenham has actually grown its place in the national calendar.

But it has no guarantee of retaining it. However much those in the game may have felt betrayed by the callousness of those notorious dead horse images two weeks ago, however unfair the assumption that it was somehow racing’s rather than the government’s fault that the meeting went on its “super spreader” way last year, there is work to be done, truth to be told. For this is where humans and horses put their hearts on the line. All their efforts, all their dreams, all their lives have led to this.

Have a look at ITV’s “Home Schooling” clips and see how much it means from dawn to dusk, from cradle and, yes, sometimes even to grave. It’s a long, long time since I pulled the goggles down and set off to try to wing that Cheltenham birch. Great horses and far, far greater jockeys have done so since and their skill and courage is a match to the wonders that run beneath.

That why I will look in with pride as well as trepidation when that opening race sets off to what can only be a recorded version of the Cheltenham roar. There will be triumphs and disasters in the unscripted theatre ahead. Who knows, there may even be a turnover of the Willie Mullins hotpot Appreciate It in the first, Allmankind’s rocket-boost opening attack on the fences may even take the majestic but as yet not fully proven Shishkin out of his comfort zone, and in the Champion Hurdle we could have the ultimate of “ladies first”.

For while the mare Honeysuckle has an unbeaten record to extend, Rachael Blackmore has broken through an even tougher barrier. Her achievement in being second in the Irish jockeys’ table and the only one of her sex in the top 30 is exceptional. Its real importance is that her skill, strategy and steely, unflashy determination take any patronising disparagement out of the phrase “woman jockey”.

There is so much ahead of us but not before a tribute to someone to whom all Festival fans are in debt. Sam Vestey died last month. For 21 years he was Gillespie’s chairman and alter ego. He may have been Lord Vestey but no title ever had a more welcoming owner. The last race today is named in his honour. One of the favourites is called Next Destination. Let’s hope that Cheltenham can show that it and racing are heading in the right direction.

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