‘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
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