Thursday 15 March 2018

The Cheltenham Festival – The Ace in the Pack. It’s Certainly Bigger, But Is It Better?

My wife and I went along to The Centaur at Prestbury Park on Sunday to listen to an excellent OLBG-sponsored preview evening chaired by Jeremy Kyle, with the panel consisting of Ruby Walsh, A.P. McCoy, John Francome and Fergal O’Brien. John was definitely the star of the evening – informative and witty in equal measure. I believe, probably like many people, that he’s the finest NH jockey I’ve seen and certainly the one with the best sense of humour. Throughout the evening he was the butt of lots of Kyle comments, but he wafted them away with wit and aplomb, even at the interval when Kyle kept emphasising that the show had to stop to enable John to go to the toilet. Rather grossly, when he came back, he enquired whether he’d had time to “empty his bag”. We all know that Mr. Kyle spends lots of time with losers, so he’s probably not used to dealing with one of the all-time stars of the game. At one point during the evening John was reflecting on how, in the early days, he had to fill in a form stating who he wanted contacting in the event of a serious accident on the course. He just wrote on the form, “a doctor”. Oh, for the days when racing was more light-hearted, and real characters dominated the stage.

Listening to John also had me thinking back to the first time I went to the Festival in 1981. What was the big talking point on Day One that year? Anyone who was there will immediately say it was the famous Francome pull on Sea Pigeon going into the last hurdle. The horse was travelling so well, he didn’t want to hit the front too early, so the brakes were put on before he scampered away from the magnificent Monksfield to win by seven lengths at the top of the hill – the most breathtaking piece of riding I’ve seen in National Hunt.

Nothing like nostalgia in our sport, is there, and all the debates on who the greatest horses of all time would be, and the best trainers, jockeys and dare I say it, even owners. Mentioning Monksfield is what the marketing and media types call a “segue” – a link to another subject. He wasn’t a big horse at all, but an incredibly game battler who had a huge, raking stride on him. In Owners for Owners, we’re in the really fortunate position to have a horse with a similar and almost freakish action in Acey Milan, who at the time of writing this blog is 3rd favourite for the Champion Bumper and on form, having won two Listed bumpers at Cheltenham and Newbury, is the second top rated horse in the race and the highest rated bumper in Great Britain. He’s had quite a long season now, with four races – three wins and one second – so how well he does depends on whether he has held his form going into the Festival. As he can only have a fifth bumper run in a Listed race, we didn’t really have any choice but to head into the Champion, and once he’d won the top-quality Newbury bumper by 11 lengths we all decided that he had to take his chance. No matter what happens this week, he looks a lovely prospect for the future.

The only similarity I have with John Francome is age, and the four days of the current Festival certainly take their toll – on the liver and the aching knees as I rack up miles of walking around the course and mountainous climbs up the various stands. It sometimes feels like a test of endurance, with similarities to the 4m National Hunt Chase on Day One, which hopefully Anthony Honeyball (trainer of Acey Milan) will win with Ms Parfois.

One of the recurring themes throughout the week is bound to be whether the predominance of Cheltenham is sometimes to the detriment of National Hunt racing. Superficially it seems obvious that the whole Festival frenzy is a most wonderful promotion of racing as well as a huge revenue-generator. When I saw Sea Pigeon the attendance was a quarter of what it is now, and the facilities were dreadful in comparison. This week, over a quarter of a million people are likely to attend. If they all spend, say, £100 minimum getting in and having a few drinks on the course, then as the Americans would say, “do the math”. Indeed with Guinness at a fiver and a glass of wine at a tenner, it doesn’t take long to get past that minimum figure.

It’s probably inevitable that the four-day Festival will soon span five days, with the Gold Cup on Saturday. For the large numbers of people for whom the Festival is all about being at a big occasion and drinking yourself horizontal, it doesn’t really matter. If you’re an afficionado who wants to see the most competitive, highest quality racing, then the risk is dilution of that through a wider range of additional races that trainers can pick and mix from. As we’re now in an era where four trainers in Messrs. Elliott, Henderson, Mullins and Nicholls, and prime owners such as Gigginstown, J.P. McManus, Simon Munir / Isaac Suede and Rich Ricci, there is an increasing risk that trainers and owners with their top horses can avoid the competition that genuinely produces champions. However, I’m sure that economics will prevail and that the mighty, heroic clashes of yesteryear become less frequent, which is a real pity.

In the last blog I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed going over to Leopardstown for the two-day Dublin Festival. Even in my dotage I think that I could survive a two-day Cheltenham Festival, which of course is never going to happen, but that would be my absolute ideal. Three days I thought was excellent; I’m dubious about four; and I definitely wouldn’t attend five. Of course, if Acey Milan has ended up by winning the Champion Bumper, then I can probably invest in a top-of-the-range zimmer frame.

Enjoy the week, everyone.

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