So the Cheltenham Festival of 2019 has drawn to a close.
After approx 260’000 pints of Guinness, 40’000 servings of Salmon, some 20’000 bottles of champagne, £7.2 million in gate receipts, not to mention approx 25’000 orders of strawberries and cream and some 266’775 spectators over the four days in the second week of March at the Prestbury Park venue in the Cotswold valley of Gloucestershire, you can now hear a pin drop.
From what will go down in history as one of the richest festivals ever by way of prize-money, there was most certainly nothing left behind as far as action-packed racing was concerned.
On the opening day and before the first race crowds gather to welcome the starter’s flag as it goes up in the air with the loudest cheer you could ever be likely to hear anywhere in any sport. This moment ranks alongside the likes of the pedestal that in footballing terms, fans and the viewing public would hold the hymn “Abide With Me” on when it is played before the F.A. Cup Final.
However, after this it is strictly down to business for everyone involved from the punter to the stable lads and lasses, to the jockeys to the trainers and to the owners, not forgetting, of course, the nemesis of racing, the bookmaker.
The betting ring can be at times the cauldron of heat that only gathers at Cheltenham and nowhere else. The pitting of wits of the form reader as he takes on the layer is generally what it is all about, however, this is not to take away the original love for the sport of national hunt racing.
The champion hurdle this year saw a result that gave the Irish highly respected national hunt genius Mr JP McManus his eight champion hurdle crown, however, not without folly.
Having won the race for the last two years with his Nicky Henderson trained and Barry Geraghty ridden Bouvier D’air, who went off the third favourite in this defense of his crown, sadly fell at the 5th hurdle after a mistake on landing, though this was not to be the be all of end all as far as JP was concerned.
His second string in the race Espoir De Allan trained by under the hands of the experienced Mark Walsh trained by Gavin Cromwell stayed on over the remainder of the race to run up the famous Cheltenham hill to lift the first prize of £225’000 for the winner at 25/1 in what turned out to be a shock result as the Willie Mullins trained second favourite Laurina only managed to finish in fourth and the Gordon Elliot trained Apples Jade who was favourite finished in a 7th place which was very much unseen beforehand.
The second day was all about one horse and one horse only. Altior trained by Nicky Henderson had won his last seventeen races and was trying to equal the Paul Nicholls trained Big Bucks record of eighteen straight wins over timber. He was to line up as the 2/5 favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase which he was defending after winning last year.
Altior right from the off never faulted to amaze and ran away with the race in the fashion of the great horse that he is. Reporters and television have stated that they feel he could, in fact, be the greatest national hunt horse we have ever seen.
On the third day, the Thursday, racing fans were not aware before the first race of the day what was to lay ahead of them, as far as racing excitement was concerned. The Ryanair Chase is run over two miles and five furlongs. It is seen as a race for horses who may not be guaranteed to stay the Gold Cup trip and also not have the speed for the Champion Chase.
This year there was a horse entered who when running last time had won the final prep race for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, however, the owners were just more inclined to go for the Ryanair. Frodon, trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by female jockey sensation Byrony Frost had had a fantastic season up until now. With four wins from four, the horse had shown tremendous guts in each race by outrunning his field in a great round of string fearless jumping from the front with a push at the end of each race that had grabbed the national hunt press and its readers and viewers by the heartstrings.
From the drop of the flag and until the second last fence in this championship race of all races, Byrony Frost was getting the greatest of rides from Frodon who again was at the forefront of dealings with his brilliant jumping and of course his courageous will to run his heart out, however, coming to the last fence it seemed that this was the day when the dream was just not going to come true for both horse and jockey never mind the connections.
Aso, trained by Jenny Webster and ridden by Noel Fehily jumped the last fence about a length in front of Frodon but in the words of Byrony Frost “He gave me a tug and said don’t you dare not throw me at this last fence, don’t you dare give up on me, I want this just as much as you do, now come on” and from there on until the finishing post Frodon gave Byrony Frost the thrill of a lifetime, never mind the millions of people who were watching around the world, not to mention the owners who were simply flattered in what was a moment of sheer emotional magic at the festival unrivaled in years for all the passion that national hunt racing, especially at the Cheltenham Festival, is all about.
After the race and in pulling up Byrony stated to the television cameras “He’s got his day, he’s Pegasus,” she also when asked about the last couple of fences said “He has wings and he is the most incredible battler. He traveled, and by God he jumps,”
Winning trainer of Frodon ten-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls, who has saddled racing greats such as Kauto Star and Denman, called it “one of the best days ever”.
This was just the first dish in what was to become known as what was declared by racing journalist as the last 50yrs or so Mr Brough Scott as perhaps the greatest hour of the festival that he has ever witnessed. Just thirty minutes after the thrill of the Ryanair Chase the racing public was to witness another heart-wrenching moment as the Andrew Gemmell, blind from birth, listened to his charge and favourite for the Stayers Hurdle run away with the race after literally coming up the famous hill like a bolt of light after meeting some trouble in cutting his way through the field.
Having had a fantastic season up until the festival Paisley Park was the well-backed winner of the race which when shown on the big screens when his owner, who as fore stated has been blind since birth was enough to grab the hearts of many viewers and racegoers on course.
When interviewed after the race about how this had made him feel to own a winner at Cheltenham Gemmel said
“I can’t believe it’s happened,” an emotional Mr. Gemmell also said “It’s fantastic. I’m in tears. Wow. I couldn’t see the race but that roar is incredible!”
The Friday of the meeting is about one race and that is the Blue Riband race of the meeting, the championship, the world cup of steeplechasing, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
On the day there was plenty of liking for last years winner the Colin Tizzard trained Native Prince who would go off the third favourite. However, when leaving the start line the favourite for the race was to be the Irish trained Presenting Percy.
Going out for the second circuit of the Prestbury Park racecourse the race was slowly but surely getting underway. The time had come to sort the men out from the boys.
Coming to the top of the hill there was a number of horses still in with a chance, however, it was then very shortly after they had come to the final turn and reaching three out that there was only a small select going to be in with a chance of landing the 2019 Gold Cup.
On coming to the second last Al Boum Photo trained by the Irish genius Willie Mullins had gone a couple of lengths clear of the field which was led by Bristol DeMai and then followed by Clan Des Obeaux. When jumping the last three lengths in front it was evident that Willie Mullins was going to become the new record holder of having trained the most winners at the festival by this being his 64th winner and what better way to do it by celebrating alongside winning Jockey Paul Townsend in the winners enclosure to a rapturous noise of cheers and applause and rightfully so.
When being interviewed after the race, winning trainer Willie Mullins stated “Not winning the Gold Cup used to bug me. The first, second, third one and then the fourth – then I was thinking maybe it is not to be,” he then said, “I have some fantastic owners, staff, a wonderful wife in Jackie who runs the yard, so racing has been good to me.”
Winning jockey Paul Townends was ecstatic, understandably, and when asked how this made him feel that he had finally won aGold Cup he said “I grew up with racing all my life and I remember rushing off the school bus to try to make it home to see the Gold Cup.
“My memories of Cheltenham growing up are really Charlie Swan and Baracouda and the great Best Mate (who completed a Gold Cup hat-trick 15 years ago).
“Racing is full of disappointments and you really have to enjoy the big days, but it’s important to keep as level as you can.”
National hunt racing, especially the Cheltenham Festival, is not just about horses racing, it is more than that. It brings together nationalities of people who share the same love for that one moment of excitement on the racecourse that stems their blood with enough to keep them interested until the next year and until the next festival.
The Cheltenham Festival is a religion to many people, it is embedded in their memory and their future aspirations. It is what the second week of March is all about.
Heres to a great festival of 2019 and for many they are already looking forward to the Cheltenham festival of 2020 where hopefully the meeting can live up to the thrills and the spills of the Cheltenham Festival of 2019.