The Greatest Show on TurfCome March, the attentions of the racing world will be firmly focused on Cheltenham as its famous Festival takes centre stage. In actual fact, the Festival is never far from the mind of anyone involved in jump racing, no matter what the time of year, such is its importance and prestige. Gareth Bracken has been exploring the true meaning of this equine institution
There is nothing in racing quite like the Cheltenham Festival. The Grand National will always capture the attention and imagination of the nation, and is especially great for once-a-year gamblers or part-time punters, but anyone involved in the sport will tell you that the Festival is the pinnacle of jump racing, and arguably racing full stop. This year’s card will consist of 27 high quality contests, including the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and the showpiece, the Gold Cup. It’s not only about the action on the turf either, the crowd play their part too, with the amazing atmosphere they generate only adding to the occasion. Known as the ‘Olympics of the National Hunt’, this four-day feast is adored and revered throughout racing, with the biggest names in the sport queuing up to sing its praises.
Legendary jockey Richard Dunwoody (richarddunwoody.co.uk) won the Gold Cup on Charter Party in 1988. The five-time jump jockey of the year told Gambling just how central the Festival is to the racing calendar. “It’s the highlight of the year and the showcase of British steeplechasing,” he explained. “It’s four top days of the best racing around. The races are highly completive and that makes for a great spectacle.” He also says that a good Festival performance can put an entirely new complexion on a year. “Jockeys and trainers can wait a long time for a Festival success, so a win can really make a season - even if it might have been a bad one up to that point.”
Not only can a Festival victory make a season, it can also alter the path of a career. Another Gold Cup winner, Conor O’Dwyer, also spoke to Gambling, explaining just how much of an effect a Festival triumph can have on a jockey’s livelihood. “A win can make a young jockey’s career,” says the 1996 and 2006 victor. “My victory on Imperial Call in ‘96 certainly changed mine. Until that point I was freelancing. I had winners here and there and was going along ok, but after the Gold Cup I started to get spare rides on bigger horses and it all went from there.”
Such is the importance of the Festival that connections will begin readying their horses months in advance in an attempt to ensure that their top runners are in peak condition just as March approaches. Gold Cup winning trainer Tom Taaffe recalls adopting such an approach with a number of his horses as he looked to have them primed for their Cheltenham challenge. “Having horses in the pinnacle races is the optimum and we would sometimes plan even a year in advance,” he says. The Irishman, whose father Pat rode the famous Arkle to a triple Gold Cup success in the 1960s, says that a Festival victory represents a defining moment. “To get on the podium is good, but to take the ribbon is fantastic. Winning with Kicking King in 2005 was one of the greatest days of my life.”
Sharing in all of these great moments is the Festival crowd, with the 55-65,000 who are lucky enough to be in attendance each day making the most of the fantastic settings and top-class racing on offer. “You can feel the anticipation of what is to come when you first walk onto the course and you get that tingle that there will be some very special stories set to unfold over the following four days,” says Timeform Radio presenter Paul Jacobs, a two-time Racing Post Naps champion and regular Festival attendee.
This anticipation builds and builds until a wave of emotion is released upon the commencement of the first race of the week. “The greatest moment of the Festival is the famous roar of the grandstand as the tapes go up for the opening race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle,” says Tristan Wootton, racing editor at www.liveoddsandscores.com. Wootton is a member at Cheltenham and a regular visitor to the Festival, meaning he is well-placed to summarise the regard in which it is held. “For the thousands of us who have taken the week off work, the Festival is our Christmas,” he says.
The excitement isn’t contained solely to the course itself either. “What’s special for me is not only the atmosphere at the track, but also on the walk up to Prestbury Park and afterwards in Cheltenham’s town centre,” says Festival fan and racing expert Andy Newton of EasyOdds. “The place gets mobbed by racing fans from all over the country as well as a huge influx of followers from Ireland, and despite the crowd being made up of 80% males there’s never any trouble – just great racing banter!”
The social aspect is central to the Festival experience, as racing fan and recurring Festival-goer Ben Stokes explains. “The place is full of hardcore racing types, people who really know the sport,” he says. “It’s great to be able to just talk about racing for a week with such knowledgeable people.” Jacobs agrees, adding: “It’s an excellent forum to catch up with some old friends, some of whom you haven’t seen for the previous 12 months but with whom you bond with solely on the subject of the Cheltenham Festival.”
For some however, Cheltenham is as much about work as it is about socialising. Andy Clifton is communications manager at the course and has been attending the Festival in various capacities for over twenty years. He is clear on what makes the event so special. “It’s the combination of the setting, the history, the atmosphere and the chance to watch champions being made,” he says. It’s unique.” He is also able to offer insight into the scale of the operation that is undertaken during the four days. “We have around 65 permanent staff here, which swells to 1,000 for many of our meetings, but at the Festival there are 5,000 people working for us in catering, security, on the groundstaff, in tote areas and so on,” he reveals.
While the size of the Festival is impressive and the atmosphere striking, the greatest legacy of these mid-March contests is surely the stories that are created, the legends that are cemented and the stars that are born. Recalling his Gold Cup victory, Dunwoody says: “I’d already won the Triumph though it had still been an up and down week, but the Thursday put it all right. He wasn’t the favourite, he was maybe 7 or 8/1 [the starting price was actually 10/1] but he gave me a great ride. He’d been really well-trained by the late David Nicholson.”
O’Dwyer enjoyed the first of his victories eight years later, before making it a double in 2006. “In ’96 I thought we had a chance but I didn’t think we would win. When we did, there was so much excitement at the time that lots of it passed me by. It wasn’t until I sat down about two days later and it dawned on me what had happened,” he says. “In 2006 it was a lot different. I was close friends with the trainer Mouse Morris and it made it extra special knowing how much it meant to Michael O’Leary.”
The Cheltenham Festival offers the complete package. Top quality racing steeped in history, all played out in front of a crowd whose levels of anticipation and excitement have been growing over the previous 12 months until they’ve reached fever pitch. As Paul Jacobs puts it: “Like kids can’t wait for Christmas to come around, punters eye the Festival all through the year. You simply cannot get a better array of horses over timber and fences running at the same meeting for four consecutive days anywhere on the planet.” So roll on March – it should be something special.
We asked our contributor’s to give us their most memorable Festival moment. Here’s what they said:
The Thursday in 2008, which featured an unparalleled 10 race card, including a demolition from Master Minded in the Champion Chase and an emotional win for Inglis Drever in the World Hurdle.
Seeing Istabraq win three back-to-back Champion Hurdles and being present for all of Inglis Drever’s three World Hurdle wins was great, but being there for all three of Best Mate’s Gold Cup wins tops the lot.
Witnessing Best Mate win his third Gold Cup. A great ride from Jim Culloty – such a brave and willing partner – and then the reaction of undiluted joy from connections.
Denman winning the Gold Cup in 2008. It was amazing - such a powerful performance in beating a good field by seven lengths. That has to be the most dominant Gold Cup performance.
Although I didn’t fully appreciate or understand them until much later, my Father’s successes on Arkle were something special. They also made my own Gold Cup win even more satisfying.
When Desert Orchid won the 1989 Gold Cup I finished third – so had a great view of that. That was a really memorable day. When Dawn Run won in ‘86 I’d fallen at the fourth last – so I had a very different view of that!
I happened to be at the 2nd last when Viking Flagship won the Champion Chase in ‘95. I couldn’t believe it’s speed over the fence/hurdle. It really stuck in my mind.
When Tikram won the Byrne Group Plate a few years ago. He was owned by a good friend of mine and we'd all had a few quid on at decent prices.