The Magic of the Cheltenham Festival
There is something magical, even mystical about the Cheltenham Festival, a place where thousands of Irish punters take the annual pilgrimage every March to the Cotswolds.
Tales of betting, gambles, whispers of a 'sure thing', and punts on horses Barney Curley would be proud of. Put simply, Cheltenham is the highlight in any national hunt fans calendar, it's the Olympics of horse racing.
As you enter Prestbury Park, you immediately get a sense of the history and tradition of the racecourse. Statues of the legendary Arkle and Best Mate greet you as you walk through the famous gates. Murals of iconic racehorses are splashed across the walls as amble your way through the bars.
What strikes you about the place is the sheer scale and size of everything: the massive Club stand, the colosseum-like parade ring, the pre-race buzz in the Guinness village, all set in the idyllic and picturesque shadow of Cleeve Hill. The recent redevelopments of Prestbury Park have only added to the prestige and sense of occasion that is, the Cheltenham Festival.
Part of Cheltenham's magic lies in its examination of the thoroughbred racehorse. It is a true test of an equine steeplechaser. The rise and fall of the terrain, the hidden undulations of the track, the descent down the hill two out, with the infamous Cheltenham hill that leads up to the winning post. Nowhere else does a race course ask questions of a national hunt horse like Cheltenham.
Having been to Cheltenham festival for the last number of years, I've felt real pride over there about being Irish, seeing winning jockey's holding the tri-colour, the Irish trad music playing in the Guinness Village, the Irish trainers roaring on their Irish bred horses, while Irish punters roar home their equine heroes. Cheltenham has even put on an 'Irish Thursday' in honour of our pilgrimage across the Irish sea every year.
Speaking of equine heroes, Arkle was the horse who started our love affair with the Cheltenham festival. The Anglo-Irish battles between 'Himself' and the English trained Millhouse were the stuff of legend. Arkle came out on top, instantly becoming a national treasure after winning 3 Gold Cups in 1966.
The slogan 'Arkle for President' once scribbled on a wall in Dublin, and items of fan mail simply addressed to 'Himself, Ireland.' He became a household name and to this day is still the highest rated steeplechaser in National Hunt racing with a rating of 212.
There is something about the place that draws you back to Cheltenham every year in March. The sense of anticipation before hearing the infamous ‘roar’ as the Supreme Novice Hurdle goes off, the sound of hooves thundering by as you watch the Cross Country race from inside the track, the crescendo of noise as a horse walks back into the parade ring after passing the winning post. These elements all add to the theatre and drama that is, Cheltenham.
As Ruby Walsh said: "The Cheltenham roar is like nothing else in National Hunt racing. It's that bit louder. That bit more boisterous". 119 decibels to be precise.
Cheltenham is the Mecca, says breeder Aidan Aherne
Aidan Aherne, the breeder of Grand National Winner, the late Many Clouds, and joint Ryanair favourite Monalee, says Cheltenham is the “Mecca” of horse racing.
“It was an unbelievable feeling to breed the Grand National winner Many Clouds, who won twice around Cheltenham beating Thistlecrack in what would sadly be, his final race. He was a warrior, who always gave his all every day of his life.
Not all your horses will win in Cheltenham. It would be great if they all did, especially for the business I’m in. I'm hoping Monalee will be a lively contender in this year's Ryanair.”
A win at the Cheltenham festival makes all the early mornings and late nights worthwhile for any trainer and their connections. Pat Kelly is a great recent example of this having trained Mall Dini and Presenting Percy to three festival wins in the last three years. A small trainer from Galway with a stable of no more than 15 horses, Kelly is bidding for a third win in a row with Presenting Percy favourite for The Gold Cup after his win the in the Pertemps and RSA last year.
Cheltenham, an 'old friend'
Cheltenham is a place where mere mortals can put themselves in the gambling hall of fame. Where amateur jockeys who grew up dreaming of riding a Cheltenham winner on their armchair at home, can live out their dream of a festival winner. The small trainer from the Galway can beat the big boys. The breeder from West Cork can produce a Gold Cup Winner.
As the brilliant horse racing journalist Alistair Down describes it "Cheltenham and the madcappery of its Festival has become one of my oldest friends. I have seen it grow up alongside me, heard its laughter, felt its tears, revelled in its affections and, as you do with those you love, forgiven plenty of shortcomings and the days it let you down".
Cheltenham, as Alistair eloquently puts it, is like an old friend. You start the week as best friends full of hope and anticipation before the Supreme Novice Hurdles kicks off proceedings. Day two starts with arguments over which horse will win the next race, as you scan through your race card. By day three you start to feel the tension after another loser. Day four is Gold Cup day, as the week catches up with you and the bank balance has taken a significant hit. You power on in search a final winner in the last race, The Grand Annual, again, no luck. But in the end, whether you leave the track with a full wallet or empty pockets, you remember why you became friends with The Festival in the first place, its water under the bridge. You patch things up thinking ahead to next year, where you will renew rivalries.
I can't sign off without giving a few tips for this year's festival before I take the pilgrimage over. No short priced tipped favourites here. Yes, Sir Erec, Altior, Tiger Roll and Benie Des Dieux will all probably win. These four horses will give you a run for your each-way money. Battleoverdoyen in the Ballymore, Ask For Glory in the Champion Bumper, Dallas Des Pictons in the Martin Pipe, and Derinross in the Albert Bartlett. Do the four horses in a €1 yankee bet. You can thank me later when the bet comes in. Who said beginners luck was dead?