Another year has passed, and we find ourselves standing on the eve of the wonderful Cheltenham Festival once again.
The 12 months past has delivered relatively little in terms of sporting memories in comparison to recent years; the likes of the London Olympics and the Miracle in Medinah start to fade into the bookcase of spectacular chapters in an exclusive back catalogue of the greatest feats, no longer lingering moments draped in a cloak of awe and incredulity. There was Hamilton vs Rosberg, but that feels strangely like a Barcelona vs Real Madrid soap opera, mildly dramatised by the instigating puppeteers (both politician and press) who stand to gain most from these detached rivalries that bear little relevance to the their contemporaries. Engaging as it is, it lacks a kind of integrity, realism, romance. It’s pretending to be something serious, genuine and grown up, but with a moderately direct gaze you can’t help feel slightly conned and undersold. Like sitting down to a Michelin starred meal ringside to watch a WWE clash.
Nonetheless, every twelve months we are guaranteed the opening of the gates at Prestbury Park for the Cheltenham Festival.
The four days will open to a tsunami of passion, emotion, intrigue and hope. Rich emotions shared in different ways by different people, be they owners, bookmakers, car parking attendants, royalty, punters, trainers or even just plain old jockeys. All will undoubtedly share in the tapestry of emotions weaved in the wonderful Cotswold bowl. Action and top quality sport are guaranteed, not matter what has gone before it for the past 12 months.
The racing industry has had its own share of stories over the past year. On the level track we saw the high class Kingman deliver master classes over one mile. Although lacking the once-in-a-generation freakish abilities of his stablemate Frankel, we cannot hold that against him, and it was a joy to see him romping up the home up the straight.
There was also the diminutive Tiggy Wiggy, a 2 year old filly of minute proportions who, for every inch shorter she was, her heart was bigger. With an uncanny ability to start her races in such fashion as to make it look as though her competitors were asleep, she was (and still may be as a three year old) blindingly quick, and it will be a joy to see her return when the weather is a little fairer in the months ahead.
The dominating story of the year in the racing world, and certainly for this year’s Festival, is the retirement of the 19-times champion jockey, AP McCoy, a man who has been crowned Champion every season since turning professional at the age of 21. The Northern Irishman is peerless, both in his day and in history, and he will leave a huge hole at the very heart of the sport. His application, desire and thirst is matched only by his ability. It is utterly remarkable that he has been at the very top of his sport for so long, with unerring consistency, breaking record after record with winners that flow as regularly as an Amazonian tributary.
He has many contemporaries who in another time would have been worthy champions in their own right, and although the racing world will find another champion and another story, his tenure as Emperor has been the stuff of legend.
McCoy has wholly dominated a generation. For this author, I have never in my lifetime as a National Hunt racing fanatic seen a different champion jockey. That’s ludicrous, I’m the wrong side off 30! What other sportsman can that be said of with such certainty and conviction? I bet the answer is “none”, and if nothing else, I am sure that I have one winning bet for the week.
As such this year’s Cheltenham Festival will be that bit more special. The stories that make the sport so wonderful are always there, but this isn’t another story as in other years, this is a blockbuster, stop the press, Hollywood-esc tale that has been built into the blood and bones of the sport. It will be the end of an era, and it will be celebrated!
Even with his unrivalled accomplishments, it would take a brave man to back the Champ to be top jockey for the week. The arsenal assembled by Willie Mullins, the cream of which will be ridden by Ruby Walsh, is staggering. Many of them run in the the Mr Blobby-styled colours of Mrs Rich Ricci (so wealthy they named her twice). As they go to bed this evening the Ricci’s will be dreaming of their charges soaring mightily up the Cheltenham hill, and with the likes of Faugheen, Champagne Fever and Annie Power, to name but a few of their stellar stable, they have the right to be very excited. Some claim it could be the greatest string of horses ever brought to Cheltenham by an owner – only time will tell.
Day One is dominated by Mullins and Walsh, with red-hot favourites in almost every race. In a sport though where horse and pilot have to contest with an unending list of challenges and uncertainties, almost anything can happen, and we can be sure there will be no dominance in the fashion of Real Madrid or Lewis Hamilton.
Immovable birch fences are only the first impediment. A stumble and peck upon landing, the jockey dropping his whip, being taken out by a loose horse or being brought down by a faller amongst a thirty-strong field, missing the break, getting trapped in on the rail, ground which is too fast, ground which is too slow, or even just the atmosphere getting to you and your charge and boiling over on the day, anything can happen as the poetic story of the race unfolds.
One small further threat is 30 or so other wily, steel-willed partnerships of horse and jockey, hell bent on victory and glory, aiming to raise their own colours on the flag at the finish line at the expense of yours. The path to victory is more a mine-strewn gauntlet along the edge of a precipice than the walk in the park such short odds would have you expect for many of the favourites. Going to Cheltenham with a team of Galacticos is one thing; coming out unscathed and victorious is something else altogether.
No matter how impressive the likes of Faugheen have been in sauntering to victory in every challenge they have faced, or how spectacular Un de Sceaux has looked in galloping relentlessly, choke out, and slamming rival after rival, Champions are not made until they have crossed the line at Presbury Hill, and there is a lot to overcome between now and then.
As such in many races we will be taking on these red-hot favourites, and approaching our gentleman’s gentleman, Mr Paddy Power, with belief and confidence. The favourites are worthy in their own right, but such short prices allow value elsewhere, and this is what we will be searching for. The men and the boys will be sorted, like wheat from chaff, and over the next 4 days we will publish our tips and fancies, with the necessary fact, fiction, opinion and hearsay to try and galvanise our charges over the line.
The quality of the racing, its width and depth, is only further testament to the size of the achievements of AP McCoy. With so many hurdles to overcome, so many competitors jostling for victory themselves, not mention the physical risks and injuries encapsulated at the centre of this unforgivingly dangerous sport, his unquestionable dominance in the face of both risk and luck is quite simply spectacular. We will feast on the sport and on the qualities of its main protagonists.
We may win. We may lose. But whilst there is a contest there is a story, a reason for debate and differences of opinion. All we know for sure is that we have a feast of four wonderful days in front of us, where we will witness some truly spectacular sport.
I am delighted to announce, ladies and gentleman, that the Cheltenham Festival is once more upon us, and it has served up mouth-watering contests, heart-warming stories and perplexing mysteries at every turn. Bring on the roar of the crowd as the tapes go up!
By The Ferret
The Ferret will be offering tips all week in his daily column, brought to you by Paddy Power, bookmaker of choice for gentlemen and the Irish. Check here every morning for the day’s fancies and GOOD LUCK!