Beautiful Cheltenham serves up another incredible experience
Brave battle for Gold Cup the highlight
Ten Cheltenham Festival reflections:
1 Let’s start with the hard one. The fatalities. Six of the 463 horses who raced at the festival did not return home to their boxes. This is, of course, six more than anybody would have wanted and some animal rights groups reacted accordingly.
But here’s my response to those who renewed their calls for the sport to be banned on cruelty grounds: racing brings far more life to the horse population than it takes away. And the quality of those lives is astonishingly high.
From the moment racehorses tumble from the womb to the straw they are cared for in a way that would make plenty of humans envious.
Racing can be proud of how it looks after its equine athletes. Watching the grooms yelling deliriously as their pride and joy scampered up the hill to victory, the consoling pats for the also-rans and the general magnificence of how the runners looked in the paddock shows just how much love is devoted by human to horse.
And even when horses do suffer injuries from which they cannot be saved, the procedures in place minimise pain and hasten the final breath.
My favourite sight of the week was not of a horse landing a bet for me but of Stormy Ireland’s pricked ears popping up above the screens that had surrounded her as she lay on the turf following a fall at the final flight of the Triumph Hurdle.
The screens had been up for many minutes but a ray of hope had first arrived when buckets of water were ferried to where she was being treated. You don’t douse dead horses so it had begun to look promising.
And sure enough as the screens were lowered, there she was, looking just fine. The cheer that went up from the stands told a story loud and clear of how much these marvellous animals are loved and admired not just by those associated with their yards but by the punters too.
So while work continues to make racing as safe as possible, racing professionals and fans should be proud of how the sport cares for its horses.
2 On the subject of deaths, congratulations to everyone who took part in the 2018 world after-timing championship. This was staged in the aftermath of the Grand Annual, the 28th and last race of the week, which accounted for three of the six fatal injuries.
It was disappointing to hear so many people claim this was a situation waiting to happen and that staging a 22-runner 2m chase at the end of the card and at a time when so many owners, trainers and jockeys were so desperate for a festival winner was asking for trouble.
Since the race was first moved to the climax of day four I cannot recall a single person having expressed safety reservations, and it was not pleasant to hear so many wise-after-the-event merchants having their say.
3 The Gold Cup was one of the best races I have ever seen. It was a battle that left me in awe as two horses slugged it out from the outset and served up a contest that summed up everything that makes racing great.
Might Bite, on ground softer than he would have liked, was one of the most honourable runners-up the sport has ever seen and Native River one of its bravest champions.
Richard Johnson’s ride on the winner was sensational. His judgement of pace and the accuracy with which he guided his mount over the 22 fences were perfect and the fact such a great person emerged victorious made the moment all the sweeter.
4 Cheltenham is beautiful. Not just the course and not just the famous backdrop of Cleeve Hill, but also the town and its surrounding countryside.
It’s a stunning place to visit and to watch top-class sport and last week it benefited from enormous luck with the weather. The meeting was bookended by unseasonal snow, and the rain that turned the car parks to sludge fell overnight, leaving surprisingly comfortable temperatures on three of the four days.
If you have never been to the festival do try to get there one day. It is an incredible experience.
5 Resilient Ruby is a miracle man. The legendary jockey had fought back from a broken leg to slip straight back into the old routine, riding a double on the opening day having had just a couple of warm-up spins the previous week.
But then he fractured a leg the following day when Al Boum Photo fell in the RSA. For most of us suffering two such injuries in the space of a few months would require a lengthy spell off work and a feeling that life isn’t particularly fair.
Walsh, by contrast, is looking to get back in the saddle just five weeks from now. Extraordinary.
More by Bruce Millington
6 The big screens are still too small. There was a time when racecourses, in response to correspondents to this paper’s letters page who said they had suffered a bad experience, would try to tell them they hadn’t actually had a bad experience.
A similar thing happened to me at Cheltenham last week when an employee of the course owners picked up on my pre-festival complaint about the inadequate size of the big screens and informed me they were actually the biggest screens used by any racecourse in the country.
That’s all well and good and I do not dispute that claim, but if you put something big sufficiently far from the people who want to look at it it looks smaller. And that’s the trouble with the ones at Cheltenham.
7 It’s never too early for a Cheltenham bet. Yes, there is nearly a year to go until the action recommences but the search for value starts now and I have found some value for 2019.
Summerville Boy should not be as big as 16-1 for the Champion Hurdle.
He was a more impressive winner of the Supreme than those odds suggest, having made a juddering error at the second-last and then been untidy over the final flight.
It was a phenomenal effort to collar Kalashnikov and given he has already been earmarked for a hurdling campaign and that Buveur D’Air was unimpressive when winning the big one two hours later (in an identical time) I am amazed Summerville Boy is a double-figure price to rule what looks a rather weak 2m hurdle sphere.
8 There seemed to be a younger crowd this year. This is a good thing. The traditional festival attendee, with old tweed and bright corduroy strides, was still out in force but the extra numbers in the impressive crowd figures looked to consist mainly of young lads with trendy tweed and Peaky Blinders caps.
Some of them left their socks at home, which is fine at no-fuss Cheltenham but won’t be at Ascot this summer with the newly-updated royal meeting dress code obliging men to cover their ankles.
Thankfully, everything seemed drunkenly happy everywhere I went throughout the four days, and there were no reports of significant aggro. The atmosphere was excellent throughout.
9 Well, I say that but it was not great for the Ryanair Chase, which was the disappointment of the meeting.
Admirable though Balko Des Flos was in capturing the first prize, it was a dull old affair with only six runners starting and the most popular of them, Cue Card, pulling up well before the end.
It is hard to think of a similarly big race finishing amid such quiet in recent years, which is a shame because the Ryanair is usually one of the highlights of the week.
10 If the Ryanair culminated to the sound of the sort of muted applause one associates with a leg bye being scored at Lord’s, the climax to the Champion Chase was a riot of sound as the mighty Altior, having looked in a spot of bother, came storming clear to win by seven lengths. Racing Posts were flung skywards in their scores.
Some two-mile champs look so full of speed there would be no point trying them at longer trips but this one looks like he is crying out for an extended test and it is to be hoped Nicky Henderson has the King George in the forefront of his thoughts for Altior’s 2018-19 campaign.
Great though it was to see him surge clear, however, I could not help but wonder what would have happened if Douvan had not fallen at the top of the hill.
He had looked like an F1 car waiting to have its accelerator pressed and we might just have been denied an epic contest by his departure.
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