The turf

Comebacks, longshots and cruel disappointments: what makes Cheltenham Festival great

The stories that kept the crowd entranced

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

No sporting event anywhere compresses so much drama, emotion and character into a single venue as the Cheltenham Festival. It wasn’t just an extraordinary Gold Cup — in that six horses jumped the last with a chance of winning and at least two jockeys will go to their graves believing they were denied a victory that should have been theirs: the blanket finish had to be investigated fully by the stewards before the result was confirmed. What kept crowds of 60,000 or so entranced were the endless series of back stories, of comebacks that worked and comebacks that didn’t, of opportunities taken and cruel disappointments.

Jim Culloty, who had ridden Best Mate to his three victories in the race and who trained the Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere, hadn’t produced a winner for 196 days until his Spring Heeled won the day before. Davy Russell, who rode Lord Windermere, had been dropped as its top jockey by Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud. He kept his mouth shut about his demotion and responded the best way possible by riding a treble on Gold Cup day, including two for Gigginstown.

Others were not so lucky at a meeting that brought four horse deaths, including that of the brilliant Our Conor, and carnage among the jockeys. Daryl Jacob, top rider for Paul Nicholls, was desperate for a Festival winner. He was in tears when he drove Southfield Theatre across the line in the Pertemps Final only to find from the photo finish that Fingal Bay had beaten him by a whisker. On Gold Cup day Daryl missed winning the first on the fancied Calipto when his stirrup leather snapped. He finally gained his Nicholls Festival winner when he drove Lac Fontana up the hill to take the County Hurdle but the Force wasn’t with him. Going to post for the next race, his mount Port Melon jinked and deposited him forcefully on to a concrete viewing area, breaking Daryl’s elbow, leg and knee. In separate falls, Ireland’s champion Ruby Walsh broke his arm badly and Bryan Cooper, the brightest talent among Ireland’s younger generation, broke his leg about as thoroughly as is possible.

How hard it is to find winners at Cheltenham was demonstrated by champion jockey Tony McCoy, who has the pick of J.P. McManus’s horses. He chose My Tent or Yours for the Champion Hurdle and saw him beaten by Jezki, ridden by Barry Geraghty. He then chose At Fishers Cross for the World Hurdle and saw him, too, beaten by the Geraghty-ridden More Of That.

I had better luck. Holywell, from last year’s Twelve to Follow, won at the Festival again at 10–1 (last year it was 25–1). Fingal Bay, in our list two years ago, came back from a year off injured to win at 9–2 (I had taken the 6–1) and there were others. Had Daryl Jacob prevailed on Southfield Theatre, followers of this year’s dozen would have been in clover: I secured 28–1 for my each way on the course.

But Cheltenham was about so much more than the betting, and what was good this year was to see the training prize money spread further than usual. True, Willie Mullins had four winners from his 37 runners, but Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls unusually secured only one apiece. It was the turn of Holywell’s trainer Jonjo O’Neill and David Pipe, each with a Festival treble, to demonstrate their talents, while the most popular event of the week was the triumph of Sire de Grugy in the Queen Mother Champion Chase for trainer Gary Moore, with his son Jamie in the saddle. Theirs is a yard of yeoman salt-of-the-earth grafters: racing folk know it and love to see them with a class horse.

There are too many vivid memories from this year’s Festival for a single column, among them that of jockey Tom Scudamore, whose talents have flowered and made him as good a Cheltenham jockey as any you will find, pausing for a selfie in the winners’ enclosure with two delicious blondes as he dashed to weigh-in after winning on Dynaste. Tom told me that when he jumped the last in the Gold Cup on this column’s favourite The Giant Bolster he believed he would win. Their close third was the horse’s third appearance in the Gold Cup frame and typically Tom wanted all the credit for his mount.

Cheltenham is all contrasts: one moment you are with a couple complaining that fog prevented their helicopter taking off, the next you are in the gents between two punters who have perfected that curious skill of grasping a full pint mug between their teeth while attending to other business below. I loved owner Andy Stewart greeting the retirement of Big Buck’s after the World Hurdle with the announcement: ‘We’re going to buy him a Polo factory,’ but it was all summed up best by Jonjo, who trained More Of That to win it. ‘Yes, I did ride him over the last two,’ he admitted. ‘If you don’t still get that kick out of it, there’s no point in doing it, is there?’

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