It was hard to believe how fast they were going. After all those squelching months of winter the runners for that first race at Cheltenham drilled down and over the hurdle and swept up and away leaving the gunfire rattle of the hurdles ringing in your ears. It was the firmest of reminders. Risk is at the heart of it.
There is a lot of risk at Cheltenham. Risks for the horses, the jockeys, the punters, and even for those idiot footballers that damned themselves into eternity for their cup filling antics on Tuesday. Risks are a good thing for they demand that you respect. They enhance life as well as threaten it. If you come for those four days in the Cotswolds you need to be ready to face them.
Altior was. He was the Henderson banker against Min, the Mullins hotpot. He had “Young Lochinvar” Nico de Boinville up against “Old Maestro” Ruby Walsh. As Nico punched the air in victory you thought how far he had come from winning the Gold Cup on Coneygree twelve months earlier. Far, and the next day on Sprinter Sacre he would have his second moment of immortality, but on Tuesday it only took one race to show it was not far enough.
Nico on Vaniteau attacking a coasting Ruby on Douvan at the second last and getting decked for his pains. At the same fence on Thursday he committed too soon on L’Ami Serge and found himself outgunned up the hill by Ruby on Black Hercules. There was no disgrace. Ruby Walsh is the greatest Festival rider the game has ever seen. Of course his three winners on Tuesday were all hot favourites but even the least trained eye would have noticed the absolute mastery of both tactics and technique.
In the saddle even John Francome never developed so complete a balance around a horse in and over an obstacle. And when it comes to strategy, front-running dominance as with Douvan and Annie Power, can as easily be switched to ice-cool waiting game as with Vroum Vroum Mag’s stealthy and deadly progress through the field to bring up Tuesday’s treble in the green spotted silks of Susannah Ricci. When Ruby took his record breaking total to 50 on Black Hercules Willie Mullins stood back and said; “From the time I first saw him as a seven-pound claimer he was different gravy and he still is.”
But this 10th Festival jockeys’ title did not come without a cost. There may have been seven winners from Ruby’s 18 rides over the four days but he also hit the ground three times including a truly shocking last hurdle crash on Wednesday alongside an equally somersaulting Barry Geraghty from which both jockeys and horses somehow staggered away intact. Not all did last week. For seven was another much unhappier number. The number of horses who died over the four days. The risks can be fatal. Should they be facing them?
It’s not a question that should be either ducked or dissembled. Anybody who cares about horses needs to answer it and the truth that is understandably hard for outsiders to swallow is that those who care most are those closest to the action. For it is knowing what your horse has to face that makes you take the most care in his education, preparation and, when possible, recuperation. We take the choice to send horses to the racetrack just as we do to have them born in the first place. All the more reason to respect them as horses and if they get injured do what is kindest for a sentient creature with no imagination. Which in most cases of fracture, means as swift a euthanasia as possible. Those may be harsh facts but they are true ones.
It is also what makes a triumph like Sprinter Sacre’s so overwhelming. In his pomp of three years ago he was as awesome an athletic creature as ever trod the earth. Then his heart problems intervened and doubts about the wisdom of a return to the racetrack climaxed last March as he cut a forlorn figure trailing in after the other finishers in the Champion Chase he had once dominated. That Nicky Henderson and his team persevered to get him back to a close image of his former self is not only testament to their skill and patience but of the fortune that can favour the brave.
For me no moment all week bettered the sight of Sprinter Sacre being washed off and led round by the testing boxes on Wednesday. On the loudspeaker you could hear the announcement and applause as Nico De Boinville stepped up to get his trophy. In front of us there was this very symbol of vitality, of dominance revived, the head upright, the eyes clear and the blue ear plugs now hanging down. Behind him walked Un De Sceaux and Special Tiara, talented enough but now dutiful in defeat. Up from his own award reception rushes Sarwar Mohammed and immediately straightens Sprinter’s rug and unbuckles his noseband with the care and dexterity that only a devoted, and in this horse’s fast toothed days, a wary stable lad can.
Mind you quite a few other moments ran it close. Wednesday was a fight back for the locals with five winners for the home side including a first for Paul Nicholls to remind us that he would not surrender his trainer’s title to the marauding Mullins without a fight. Three of those winners were honed in the Cotswolds, the cross country hero Any Currency by Martin Keighley at Condicote and Blaklion and Ballyandy by Nigel Twiston-Davies at Guiting Power. That last, along with the Nicholls saddled Diego de Charmil, were handled with characteristic dash and determination by Nigel’s son Sam whose route to the very top will only be improved if he can clamp his lower leg tighter into his horse during the finish rather than whirling it back and forth like a flailing paddle.
Early success brings the pressure of extended expectations and few will have felt it heavier during those first two days than Bryan Cooper as he several times loomed up in his contracted Gigginstown colours only for victory to prove elusive. In repose his face had a lean and worried look. Come Friday and Don Cossack would he be hero or zero? The relief in his smile when Empire Of Dirt broke the O’Leary brothers duck on Thursday would have melted a snowman.
Experience in a sportsman is a treasured asset only to be betrayed as the mind makes appointments the ageing body cannot meet. But for the jockey, dependent on not his legs but those of his horse, the mid-thirties can be the true flourishing of the talent not the fading of the rose. No one personifies it more than Tom Scudamore and no one has explained it better than he after returning teary eyed with happiness from that wonder round on Thistlecrack in The World Hurdle.
“That was the thrill of a lifetime,” he said. “How he looked was how he felt. It was wonderful. I have never ridden anything like him but I was very calm before the race. I am older and wiser and you think these things will never happen. To have a winner like this here is very special. Cheltenham is like nothing else. It is a brilliant arena.”
As with all sport the lure of the great stadia brings big money to the pitch and the statistics which show Rich Ricci (and his wife Susannah), Gigginstown Stud (Michael O’Leary) and J.P.McManus in the three top positions in both Britain and Ireland, can conjure the image and problems of the oligarchs and the oil money men in the Premier League. Especially in Ireland where Gigginstown have 130 winners this season, McManus 111 and only three others besides the top three owners are into double figures.
Potential resentment is softened by three factors: that the likes of Thistlecrack’s farming owners John and Heather Snook can still win the biggest of races and decline all offers however many noughts might be attached, that the economics of the jumping game demand that you have to be in for fun rather than the hope of profit, and that the central attraction of the whole madness is the redeeming family feel of it.
You could see that on Friday morning where for one final time Willie Mullins stood in the middle of the largest and most brilliant Festival invading force ever assembled. His son Patrick was amongst the riders as was Ruby Walsh who is as good as family after all these years. Cantering separately on Foxhunters’ favourite On The Fringe was Nina Carberry married to Ruby’s brother Ted. No one should suggest that racing is one big happy family but once you get into it, family you become.
On Friday it was the turn of the O’Leary clan. Their maroon and white colours can sometimes so block out the card so that just two runners in the Gold Cup seemed almost under-representation. But their enthusiasm for the game and support for the Irish jumping horse is as unquestioned as now is the excellence of Don Cossack. Few Gold Cup winners have moved so serenely through the race and it will take a very good contender to dethrone him next year.
Championship races should be defining moments and this should certainly prove one for Bryan Cooper and Gordon Elliott. Bryan is now set to climb towards the peaks to which he was destined before a terrible fracture in the Triumph Hurdle all but lost him his leg three years ago. Gordon Elliott is a force of self-starting nature. Ten years back he had 12 horses, two Polish lads both called Joseph, and was about to saddle his first ever winner in – of all races – the Grand National. Four years ago he borrowed heavily, moved bases and doubled both his size and his success. It was a risk but it was worth it.
Which leads us, where else, but to Victoria Pendleton. In the Press Room on Friday morning, the accomplished Paul Kelso of Sky News worried about the balance of that day’s reporting. “It may not be correct in sporting terms,” he said, “but I can’t see the studio wanting less than 75% Pendleton, 25% Gold Cup.” If the new Gold Cup sponsor Timico’s Tim Radford was not so genial you would think he might have sent someone into the ladies changing room to poison La Pendleton’s tea.
That the outcome was instead such a happy one speaks volumes for all concerned around the “Switching Saddles” venture but most particularly to Alan and Lawney Hill for their mentoring, for Paul Nicholls for producing the masterstroke that was Pacha Du Polder, and most of all to Victoria herself. Never was the steel beneath the smile, the strength beneath the frail looking physique more heavily tested and don’t anyone in hindsight pretend that we did not all collectively hold our breath.
As she circled behind the starter amongst the 24 strong pack, a former knight of the pigskin opened his wallet to show what he felt to be a prized possession – a £50 bet at odds on for Victoria to fail to finish. As she landed dead last and rather awkwardly, reins un-slipped over the second fence right in front of us, there was a sympathetic if slightly smug smile on his face. It was still there after a circuit but so was a growing realisation that this beginner might just know what it was doing. As she and Pacha swept over the final fence now in serious pursuit of the placings the smile had changed into one of admiring delight.
It was a hell of a risk. One that it would be very stupid to try and replicate unless you could clone someone as focussed and brave and now smitten with the racing game as is Victoria Pendleton. But then Cheltenham is riddled with risk. That’s the point, that’s the glory of it.