The turf

The magic of Cheltenham Festival

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

Every time the Cheltenham Festival looms, I recall a remarkable experience. It was already 25 years since Dawn Run’s recovery from a seemingly impossible position to win the Gold Cup of 1986, becoming the only horse ever to add victory in our greatest steeplechase to a triumph in the Champion Hurdle, when, for my Festival history, I interviewed her jockey.

Jonjo O’Neill took me through every stride of the race as if it had been the day before: ‘We were flying down the hill and
I could hear them coming behind us. I thought we’d gone a right gallop and couldn’t believe they were so close to us. We jumped the third last and they were jumping up my backside and I thought, “Jesus, if we don’t ping the second last we’re going to get beat.” She did ping the second last but they passed me as if I was stopped. I thought, “Oh, we’re beaten,’ so I left her alone for a few strides. Then, just between the second last and the last, I could feel her filling up and I thought, “We ain’t done yet.”… she came up the hill like a tyrant.’

‘Magic’ was the word he used several times during our conversation. Some might say that the 1986 Gold Cup was ‘just a race’ but don’t believe them. Ever since that day, Jonjo, who himself nearly lost a leg to racecourse injury and battled through cancer, has met people who have told him what inspiration Dawn Run’s feat gave them when they have been down in their lives.

As I write we can’t even be sure, thanks to coronavirus, that there will be a Festival in 2020 but what with that scourge and the ravages of storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge how badly we need the Cheltenham gathering and the kind of lift it gave us last year. Few will forget the glorious magic hour of the Thursday, when Bryony Frost, the bubbly, smiling, stream- of-consciousness Frankie Dettori of jump racing won from the front on her beloved Frodon and somehow made us all feel we had been in the saddle with her. This was followed by the triumph in the Stayers’ Hurdle of Emma Lavelle’s gutsy Paisley Park, cheered on by ebullient owner Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth and who has not let that stop him becoming a world-roaming fan of racing, tennis, Test Match cricket and football. If you could not share the emotion that day you might as well have been dead.

The 2019 Festival gave us more too: fate had seemed determined to prevent the ever-polite Irish training genius Willie Mullins, who has won everything else worth winning, from adding a Gold Cup to his collection. Of his four entrants last year, Kemboy unseated at the first, Invitation Only fell and Bellshill had to be pulled up. Same old story…. But then Paul Townend drove Al Boum Photo up the hill to victory and the English contingent cheered him on, along with the Irish, for Willie’s sake. Nor should we forget that on the day Bryony Frost triumphed on Frodon England’s Lizzie Kelly won too on Siruh Du Lac and Ireland’s Rachael Blackmore scored the next day on the 50–1 Minella Indo to underline finally the irrelevance of gender in racing. Not ‘good female jockeys’; just ‘good jockeys’.

Flat and jumps, of course, are different worlds. Last Saturday the race programme at the King Abdulaziz racecourse in Riyadh offered $29 million in prize money. Soon after Cheltenham comes the Dubai World Cup card with prize money worth $35 million. For those with deep pockets, paying eye-watering sums for potential contestants in those contests can make sense not just for the prize money but because winners are worth even more at stud. At Cheltenham the total prize money for the 28 races, richly generous by UK standards, will amount to £4.5 million and virtually all the non-mares competing will be geldings, worth nothing after their racing days are done. There won’t be any shortage of runners and we should be grateful for all the jumping owners who buy into the dream of Festival glory for sport rather than profit.

Purchasing ready-made racehorses off the Flat will cost you an average of £45,000. Jumping-bred ‘store’ horses, bought young to prepare over several seasons, will set you back more, and all will cost more than £16,000 a year in training. Thank God, then, for owners such as J.P. McManus who, for example, paid £556,500 for Garde Champetre in the hope he might become a Gold Cup winner. He didn’t, but before sadly breaking a leg Garde Champetre did become a specialist star winning regularly over Cheltenham’s different cross-country obstacles.

Last year Darren Yates beat J.P.’s record and paid £620,000 for Interconnected, a point-to-point winner now in Dan Skelton’s yard. Records show that Interconnected’s winnings under Rules in his one race so far amounted to £1,336. Let us hope that Mr Yates’s duck, too, turns into a swan./>

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