THE TIMES SPORT, Friday 13 March 2020
There was chill in the air yesterday, plenty of doom promised up ahead. But today 12 horses will swing in to face the starter with three and a quarter miles and 20 fences between them and the most coveted prize in the game.
Yes, not as famous or as rich as the Grand National, nothing like as moneyed as the mega million sponsor stunts on the flat, but the Cheltenham Gold Cup is the race that you most want to win. For it says that you have ridden, trained, owned or even backed the horse that can for this year claim his or her place in the most illustrious of roll calls, that of the best steeplechaser in the land.
For it is here, and on this anvil that the story will be hammered into shape. There are shorter and faster races, longer tests and larger obstacles, but two sweeping circuits of Prestbury Park give us the Blue Riband event. It will be a gallop where no quarter will be asked or given. It is the setting which has seen all the great ones before. It has, with the possible exception of Newlands and Table Mountain, the greatest back drop in sport.
The sun shone cool and clear yesterday morning so the eye could run along the five fence challenge of the back straight but then lift up over the bushy green patchwork of fields and up to the timeless top of Cleeve Hill and the whole stone walled escarpment of the Cotswolds beyond. At the back of the grandstand Cheltenham has an ever-growing urban sprawl stretching almost to Gloucester including the now not so secret fortress that is GCHQ. But the view ahead is still the grass and birch of the rural world from which steeplechasing first sprung and in which its roots still flourish.
Looking out from this vantage point, race fans have seen the legends on the wing. It was here that the ruthless but clumsy jumping Golden Miller won five consecutive Gold Cups in the 30s for his eccentric eating owner Dorothy Paget. When her horses were trained by Frenchie Nicholson next to the course, she would park her Bentley outside the yard and scoff her own gargantuan breakfast in the car.
It was here between 1948 and 1950 that a quiet little man from Tipperary called Vincent O’Brien lifted jockey Aubrey Brabazon into the saddle on a horse called Cottage Rake to win three successive Gold Cups and give Irish literature the immortal lines “Aubrey’s up, the money’s down, the frightened bookies quake. Come on me lads and give a cheer. Begod ‘tis Cottage Rake.” Vincent O’Brien was to repeat the hat trick in both the Champion Hurdle and the Grand National before switching to the flat and cementing his reputation as the greatest trainer to ever tighten a girth.
Since Cottage Rake there have been 19 more Gold Cups for the Emerald Isle, most famously that ice cold afternoon in 1964 when British fans were adamant that the Lambourn trained Mill House could never be upstaged by an Irish upstart called Arkle. One of the treasured memories of my racing life is to have watched the moment when Arkle asserted and the steeplechasing world was changed for ever. His ascendancy gave Ireland something supreme at a time when life for many was still pretty grim. Since then the two-nation sporting rivalry has grown with an intensity of competition only matched by the scarcity of rancour. Even if today’s Gold Cup again goes back across what we Brits like to call “St George’s Channel,” it will be easy to remember that the line after “and when Irish eyes are smiling” is “sure, they steal your heart away.”
This afternoon there will be seven Irish horses, including last year’s hero Al Boum Photo amongst the 12 starters, and in tomorrow morning’s paper we will read how what now seems impenetrable will be brought to a simple conclusion in which all the elements are obvious at this moment if only we could see them. Willie Mullins had been six times runner up before last year’s success. Can Al Boum Photo strike again or will he be foiled by Mullins’ mighty Lambourn rival Nicky Henderson and the slugging Santini? Can Mullins son Patrick win on Kemboy for only a fifth ever success for an amateur rider? Can poster girl Rachael Blackmore coax the outsider Monalee to a victory for the ages?
My own hunch is that new tactics and a change of training regime with Clan Des Obeaux may give Paul Nicholls a Gold Cup to echo his glory days with Kauto Star and Denman. But all that will be passing in the hour and it is to history and to this setting that we should return. Come with me back to a morning on Cleeve Hill when 1960 had yet to make the calendar. Amongst the little posse cantering over the springy turf that has never felt the plough was a handsome, easy moving almost black animal called Buffer. Although he was never to fulfil his early promise, I still remember the frisson when someone looked across at him and said “one day he could be a Gold Cup horse.”
The Cheltenham thrill was as true then as it is true now. Welcome to the day that matters.