A real test on the cards with heavy set to feature for first time since 1989
The man who rode Desert Orchid to victory in the last Cheltenham Gold Cup run on heavy ground expects races at this week's festival to be run at the same ferocious gallop as any other year but believes accurate jumping and saving a little extra for the final climb to the line will be the difference between winning and losing.
Around 45mm of rainfall in the last ten days has left the festival going with heavy in the description on the Old and New courses for the first time in 29 years and Simon Sherwood, the man who nursed Desert Orchid to that famous Gold Cup win in 1989, is expecting stamina-sapping conditions again at Prestbury Park.
Asked what jockeys this week can expect riding in championship races on heavy ground, Sherwood said: “It comes down to attrition because you’re still going to go a good gallop.
"Your accuracy of jumping is tested that much more on heavier ground because the fences become a bit bigger and your feet are never as sturdy as they would be on better ground.
“In Desert Orchid’s Gold Cup there were a lot of fallers [five] and it came down to attrition. From a riding perspective you’ve got to realise it’s going to take some getting but because Cheltenham is so competitive, you’ll always have that ferocious pace. You’ve got to keep that bit up your sleeve, which Dessie did that day.”
With the ground described as heavy, soft in places on the eve of this year’s opening day, and more rain forecast later in the week, the festival is sailing into uncharted territory in the modern era.
In 1995 the ground remained soft for all three days, with Master Oats triumphing by 15 lengths in that year’s Gold Cup, but the last time heavy featured in a Gold Cup going description was when Desert Orchid overcame snow, a deluge of rain and the mudlark Yahoo to take the feature race of the week.
“I won the Champion Chase on Barnbrook Again the day before the 1989 Gold Cup and the ground wasn’t that bad [officially soft],” recalled Sherwood.
“The way it was riding I thought it would be fine for Desert Orchid. But the next morning I remember waking to hear cars going past Nigel Twiston-Davies’s house where I was staying as though they were in trouble.
"So I looked out and there was snow which wasn’t forecasted. There was a hell of a lot rain in a short amount of time too. One of my biggest memories was the fire engines on the course trying to pump the water off. There was standing water in places and although it was wet they slopped through it.”
Clearly Cheltenham is a different beast to the one that was saturated and covered in standing water that afternoon, with the course now recognised as one of the best in the country when it comes to drainage.
However, heavy ground is heavy ground and Sherwood, now clerk of the course at Ludlow, can see the going only getting tougher as the week progresses.
“It’s such a well-drained course it’s not going to be like a Chepstow or Ffos Las heavy,” he said. “It’s always a blessing when you’re racing on fresh ground too but as the week goes on and with more rain forecast, that will really sink in so it’s sure to be testing.
"I used to ride a horse called Mrs Muck, she was like Nijinsky when the ground became heavy and a horse with form in that ground is the important thing.”
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