‘A Fes­ti­val win­ner is ev­ery­thing– it’s why we do it’

The Chel­tenham Fes­ti­val is a theatre of dreams in which David takes on Go­liath and of­ten wins. Catherine Austen ex­plains why this an­nual Na­tional Hunt rac­ing ex­trav­a­ganza is held in such af­fec­tion­ate rev­er­ence

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

When nico de Boinville com­pared Chel­tenham to the Coli­seum af­ter steer­ing Sprinter Sacre to an emo­tion-drenched vic­tory in the Queen Mother Cham­pion Chase last year, the Brad­field-ed­u­cated jockey con­jured an im­age that per­fectly en­cap­su­lates na­tional hunt rac­ing’s fore­most fes­ti­val.

The race­course, sand­wiched be­tween the Ge­or­gian spa town and loom­ing Cleeve hill, is a mod­ern am­phithe­atre in which scenes dra­matic enough to please any An­cient Ro­man are played out, filled with an­tic­i­pa­tion, thrill, fear, ex­ul­ta­tion, blood, sweat and tears. De Boinville had been hit by the death of his mother just a fort­night pre­vi­ously and the mag­nif­i­cent Sprinter Sacre, a bat­tered war­rior re­turn­ing to the scene of for­mer tri­umph, seemed to know that he had to find one last piece of bril­liance.

‘A Fes­ti­val win­ner is ev­ery­thing— it’s why we do it,’ says pretty much ev­ery­one who has ever trained, rid­den or owned a horse that has strained ev­ery sinew to pass the Chel­tenham win­ning post first.

From the top of the stands, the en­clo­sures are a swirling sea of tweed, the fabric of the coun­try per­son. The Chel­tenham Fes­ti­val is for coun­try peo­ple—ain­tree and As­cot have a quite dif­fer­ent, ur­ban feel. Chel­tenham is crowded and high oc­tane, but race­go­ers smile at each other, wait pa­tiently for the oblig­a­tory pint of Guin­ness and, if there’s a mo­ment of un­sightly lad­dish ex­cess, it makes news for be­ing so un­usual.

The thou­sands of Ir­ish who flood in for the four days are in­te­gral to the at­mos­phere. Much is made of the ‘ri­valry’ be­tween the Ir­ish and the Bri­tish dur­ing the meet­ing, but it’s in­tensely good-na­tured; the Co Kil­dare trainer Jes­sica har­ring­ton al­ways stays with nicky hen­der­son for the week and, for many years, the two cham­pion train­ers on ei­ther side of the Ir­ish sea, Wil­lie Mullins and Paul nicholls, shared a jockey, the in­com­pa­ra­ble Ruby Walsh.

There are ebul­lient own­ers, draped in scarves in the colours of their silks, who have spent mil­lions on horse­flesh; there are shy Devon farm­ers who breed one horse a year out of a mare on which they once won the mem­bers’ race at their lo­cal point-to-point. Both are fêted by equally loud hur­rahs from a warm-hearted pub­lic crowd­ing the steps of the win­ner’s en­clo­sure.

In a highly pol­ished, pro­fes­sional sport, the am­a­teur is still cel­e­brated at Chel­tenham. When Sam Wa­l­ey­co­hen, who has a chain of den­tal surg­eries, cap­tured the 2011 Gold Cup on his fa­ther’s Long Run, he wasn’t seen as a rich man’s son in­dulging his hobby, but as a pas­sion­ate, tal­ented Corinthian who had taken on the best and won fair and square.

Jour­nal­ist Mar­cus Army­tage rode three Chel­tenham Fes­ti­val win­ners in his am­a­teur-jockey days. he ad­mits that, be­fore the first of them, he was more in­ter­ested in Ain­tree, the sub­ject of all his child­hood dreams and where he had won the 1990 Grand na­tional. ‘Then I rode my first Fes­ti­val win­ner—tug of Gold in the 1992 Fulke Wal­wyn Kim Muir Chase. Sud­denly, I got it,’ he ad­mits. ‘There’s noth­ing like rid­ing into the win­ner’s en­clo­sure there. Ain­tree had been a bit of a blur and was over so quickly, whereas it takes time to ride down the hill and up into the win­ner’s en­clo­sure at Chel­tenham. It’s prac­ti­cally a daily oc­cur­rence for the likes of Ruby Walsh, but, for an am­a­teur, it’s in­cred­i­bly spe­cial and sat­is­fy­ing.’

Any­one with even the most ten­u­ous con­nec­tion to rac­ing will be asked by their friends to tip them a Chel­tenham win­ner. The ‘safe’ bets are those trained by Mr hen­der­son, Mr Mullins and Ire­land’s other pro­lific win­ning trainer, Gor­don el­liott—but which horses in which races? Is the Mullinstrained Dou­van, odds-on for the Queen Mother Cham­pion Chase on Wed­nes­day, the dead cert he seems? Is Al­tior, strong favourite for the Arkle Chase (Tues­day), Mr hen­der­son’s new Sprinter Sacre?

‘His­tory is an im­por­tant part of why peo­ple are so de­voted to the Fes­ti­val

Golden mo­ment: Nico de Boinville ac­knowl­edges the crowd af­ter Sprinter Sacre’s stir­ring vic­tory

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