Cheltenham: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

That’s it, all over, the Cheltenham Festival 2016 done and dusted. Time’s flying! The build-up, twelve month long, the Festival fever, and then, blink with an eye and you miss the whole thing. This is my personal review of the week, calling out the moments that caught my attention; positive and negative, beyond all the the self-adulation of an industry that can be prone to turn a blind eye on some things.

Sprinter brings the house Down

All that was good about the week is unified in the this one horse, Sprinter Sacre. It can’t be any different. The old warrior made dreams come true. Dreams many have dreamt but few dared to believe could become reality. And yet here he was, the ex Champion Chaser, jumping the third from home, niggling along but suddenly finding another gear, under  pressure called on for a big effort, jockey De Boinville not shy to ask for everything.

The comeback of comebacks. It’s what makes racing so beautiful. The only sport that can deliver a drama as rich as this, where the red hot favourite find himself overturned by a horse that only twelve month ago looked finished. But Sprinter Sacre is no ordinary horse. He’s an individual full of heart and class. To see him jumping the last ,clear and striding on to win his second Champion Chase – it one of those moments that make this place, Cheltenham, so special. It makes or brakes you. It makes you a legend.

Yes, we could discuss whether this Champion Chase was a vintage renewal, whether it was a below par race, whether the favourite was caught up in  a battle for the lead and therefore racing way too early, whether the eventual winners performance was the performance of a true Champion or not. But no, let’s not do that. Let’s enjoy it for what is was: a moment of magic, a moment where dreams came true,  a moment that made usbelieve in the beauty of the sport.

Victoria silences the Doubters

Personally I never doubted Victoria Pendelton’s ability to ride in the Foxhunter Chase. What I saw from her in advance was clearly good enough to ride in the race. Her credentials weren’t any worse or better than the ones of most of other amateur riders in the field.

In the race itself, she did a good enough job. You can’t ask much more from someone who’s only riding for a year. She looked good for most parts of the race, she showed balls going on the inner, saving ground and waiting for a gap to open. Other than that is was not an outstanding ride or anything close to it in my opinion. She started riding when it was way too late. Any other day and she may have been even called in by the stewards to explain herself under the non-trier rule.

But then, she is an amateur, never rode at Cheltenham before. She reflected afterwards and what she learned and could have done better. This ability to analyzise and reflect is what you expect from a professional athlete as she is. I really liked the way she conducted herself. Open, honest and  transparent.

As such it was good to have her there, it brought unparalleled PR to the sport. It was a feel good story, which was much needed after the death of seven horses during the week.

But I also would have preferred the media to be a bit less VP obsessed in the immediate aftermath of the race. It was attention which the actual winner, On The Fringe, given a peach of a ride by arguably  the best amateur rider around, Nina Carberry, deserved.

On the other hand it is understandable why Pendelton got the full winners treatment. Channel 4 interview, ovations entering the parade ring, all of that. She deserves it. But so does any other amateur riding in the race. It an achievement for all of them to make it there, to ride, to get over the line. We shouldn’t forget that.

Bryan Cooper flipped the right Coin

It must have been some sleepless nights for Bryan Cooper leading up to the Festival. He had to make a difficult decision. Who to ride in the Gold Cup? Stick with Don Cossack – the highest rated chaser in trainer? Who may not be totally suited by Cheltenham, and with whom Cooper – in the opinion of some – didn’t seem to get on well with? Instead should he switch to Don Poli, the up-and-coming star chaser? Twice a winner at the Festival, the horse Cooper won the Lexus Chase with earlier the season?

Cooper stuck to the form book. Decided to ride Don Cossack. It turned out to be the right decision. Young Cooper gave his mount a brilliant ride, patient, waiting for the right moment to press the button. Maybe advantaged by the fact that Cue Card fell, nonetheless Don Cossack looked so classy on Friday, stayed up the hill in the manner of  a true champ – he put the doubters to bed.

So did Bryan Cooper. Not getting on well with Don Cossack? Well, both just won the pinnacle of jump racing! And Don Poli? Cynics where quick to make fun of “Slow Poli” in the aftermath, but seem to forget that he remains a young and promising chaser, who finished 3rd in the Gold Cup, nonetheless. He got rolling when it was too late, that’s for sure, though.

That might have been down to an ultra patient ride by Davy Russell. From my armchair position I’d say with a slightly more aggressive ride Don Poli would have finished closer. However no other ride would have made any difference about the winner of the race. Don Cossack is the best chaser in training.

Mike Cattermole ruins the Gold Cup

I felt Racing UK did an okay job throughout the week. The build-up to the racing every day in the morning was excellent. The coverage in the afternoon was decent, without being really good. Opinions are always divided, but personally I feel RUK’s coverage of the 2015 Royal Ascot meeting was far superior. Somehow the spark was missing this time.

There was more than only the spark missing from Mike Cattermole commentary of the Gold Cup – the feature of the entire week! It was dismal, unworthy of such a big race. Sure, it’s always down to individual taste, but in this case I would have preferred no commentary rather than listening to an uninterested, unemotional, dreary sounding Cattermole who seemed to lose interest completely in the closing stages.

The Gold Cup deserves a commentary that brings the emotions and excitement across, that stands  up to the phenomenal performance of the winner. This after all is the race everyone wants to see. I would have much preferred Mark Johnson, who’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s one who always puts his all into calling a race.

Death is Jumping

Seven horses died this week: Long Dog, Pont Alexandre, Montdragon, No More Heroes, Niceonefrankie, The Govaness and Rezorbi. It’s the ugly part of our sport. In racing people don’t want to talk about it. Usually this topic is brushed away. “It is what it is.”

I’ve been contacted by friends this week, asking about what’s going on there with all the dead horses. The topic debated on national radio, it’s the one thing non-racing folks hear about, it’s what sticks in their mind; not Sprinter’s heroics.

“It’s cruel, how can you support this bullshit?” – It’s a relevant question. And I make the points – happily defending the sport I love – those horses didn’t suffer, they receive the best care in the world, live a happy & healthy life in a way the majority of the human population doesn’t do. It’s not necessarily racing that kills horses.Even leisure horses break their legs when taking  a wrong step on the field. It’s just happens, is what it is. And that is all true.

But even I have to admit – on Friday, two dead horse again – it sometimes gets difficult defending this, no? We bring these beautiful creatures into the world, care for them deeply, bond with them, just to see them getting destroyed jumping hurdles?

It’s a strange thing. I guess it’s one of the things why I prefer flat racing. Although I’m probably just a hypocrite in saying that. Death is less visible in flat racing. But who knows how young horses die before they ever make it to the racetrack? Well, it’s the ugly truth of our sport and Cheltenham gave it a face this week. It’s something I as a fan have to accept.

An over-hyped Festival

So this gets controversial now, and it goes against the general happiness that surrounds the Festival, which again was of course the greatest, the best ever, nothing like it…. everyone seems so freakin’ happy! Praise for yet another sublime festival on every corner, every tweet, blog, commentary. It’s Cheltenham after all!

I didn’t feel it this year. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it was always like that and I just never saw it, however I felt this year the whole thing was so dramatically over-hyped, hyped up so long before an actual race was even run. All this big talk, it drove up the excitement, the “bring it on I can’t wait for it” feeling from pretty much five, six months before the legendary roar of the crowd.

It all got me so early in a state of eager anticipation; I purchased several guides, listened to tons of podcasts, trainer interviews, visited preview nights – all leading up to the big week of course, which should be the culminating point of all the excitement.

It was the complete opposite. By Tuesday the 15th of March there was this empty, burned out feeling: All those details, tons of information, all the emotions created well in advance, already lived through the last number of months.There was nothing left.

There is nobody but myself to blame, of course. Nobody forces you to take part in this. Though this time it seemed more difficult than ever to not get soaked in by the wheels of the Cheltenham machinery. As a racing fan it’s hard to avoid it, isn’t it? As a racing fan I crave for all the details, all the thoughts of “is this a Cheltenham horse?” questions.

Obviously this in itself is nothing new. It been always hat way. But no, not THAT way. It was a different intensity this season, different in a sense of how Cheltenham was at the forefront of anyone’s mind, so much, so early. Everything’s about Cheltenham. A well oiled machinery, in top gear right from the start. Anything beside? Ornamental Art. Hennessy, King George….? Preliminaries. Nobody cares.

Admittedly, that might be slightly exaggerated and I’m not sure if I’m actually able to articulate properly what I really mean. But in short: the Cheltenham hype starts as early as the horses pass the line of Grand Annual. There is no break. It’s constant. Anyone’s caught up in the hype from the earliest moment. It’s like being on drugs constantly. The Festival drug!

To add one more thought: I generally like the idea of  having a season that goes out with a big bang, like you have it in jumps racing with the Cheltenham Festival. But I also like it the way the flat keeps the momentum over a full season with highlights here and then. And this diversity between the two codes is what I generally love about the sport.

And don’t get me wrong, I do love Cheltenham. I’ve been there myself in the past. It’s just this year, I – and I can only speak for myself – got caught up in the hype way to early, which meant when the actual event came around, it felt like all the races had been ran thousand times before.

Now, onwards and upwards I guess. Tomorrow the new Irish flat season starts. Up until now I haven’t really thought about it. But you know what? I’m mightily excited driving up to the Curragh tomorrow afternoon. #Theflatisback

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