Climbing off the Festival crazy train doesn’t mean I’m back to earth quite yet. Or that I’m done with funfair-ride metaphors. Just like blinking back into daylight after a twist on Disneyland’s Aerosmith Rock n Rollercoaster (the chair ride at Alton Towers wasn’t quite the imagery I was looking for…), re-acclimatisation is needed. The head has to stop spinning and the brain needs to recognise its surroundings.
The sun was out on a beautiful post-Gold Cup Saturday morning. Time to pause for breath.
For me, the relative success of a festival is judged by the interplay of a number of factors across the full four days: the ebb and flow of financial fortunes, the heart-stopping spectacle of the racing in the championship events, the mouth-watering illumination of potential in the novice events… and of course, the craic, the banter, and the company. Balancing all those criteria, I’ve never had a bad one. And this year was up there with the best.
On the wider stage, however, I recognise that the true barometer of success comes down to one race: The Cheltenham Gold Cup. Sat in the garden, welcome sunshine was making the newsprint of my Racing Post dazzle and glare. This was as much about the quality of the writing as the weather conditions. For a change. The RP exploits its dominance of the market place to dish up some pretty average, hackneyed, shallow and at times, I’d argue, partial reporting. But if there is a need to understand the significance of Friday’s Gold Cup to the industry and to the majority of the public, then it was writ large in this edition. I noted the sage remarks of Robert Whaley-Cohen, the owner of new champion Long Run,
“This is the greatest four days of jump racing, this is the most important day of the four, that’s the most important race of the day. What can be better than to win the best race on the best day at the best meeting.”
And if you have the stomach for unashamedly dramatic and touchingly sentimental race reviews, Alastair Down’s tour de force is an absolute joy. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But as a journo, he knows when to switch on the humility and needs no second invitation to go for the emotional jugular. In this piece he blasted both barrels in order to stake a claim for the race’s place in history.
“…at Cheltenham yesterday an absolute epic of a Gold Cup lifted our sport to heights you might dream of reaching perhaps once or twice in a lucky generation.”
But my own festival experience always has more twists and turns than this one great race. I was back home on Thursday morning easily in time for the first race of the third day. I can’t remember the last occasion I was at home for a day of the festival. At least 12 years ago. But I enjoyed the change.
I enjoyed the pattern of the afternoon: baying at the telly in the Jewson, urging the gorgeous and talented Noble Prince up that lush hill and away from the stout Wishfull Thinking to land me a win single and the last leg of an each way Lucky 15. Then having to open the door to the dining room and apologise to Mrs A and Steve for disturbing their important music businessing.
The pattern, sadly, became the baying and the apologising. Less so the winning: my hollering was insufficient to see Kalahari King collar Albertas Run in the Ryanair, nor to urge Fiveforthree to threaten the remarkable Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle. “Sorry guys! Bit exciting in here”.
This wasn’t the only repeating pattern either. Both Albertas Run and Big Buck’s had won their respective races on the same afternoon last year. Buena Vista leading the field a merry dance in the Pertemps final – as he had also done last year – gave the day an eerie feeling of déjà vu. How I failed to back Buena Vista in that is a mystery to me. I was all over him last year and nearly chewed the long suffering Bacchy’s ear off about how thrilled and stunned I was to have finally cracked the Pertemps conundrum.
Fantasy Festival was warming up nicely about now. Nev, perennial bridesmaid, was desperate to win this year. He had backed Albertas Run and Big Buck’s to open up a £200 quid lead on the rest of us, but Colin, also courtesy of Big Buck’s was handy in 2nd. I was off the pace, but had notched the first leg of double through that lovely Noble Prince. Landing the 2nd leg would put me back in the mix. Nick was lurking. He’s good at that. Colin was well aware of all this and was on the text to me:
“Who’s the second leg on, mate?”
“Sorry, not declaring that til tomoz afternoon. Adds spice don’t it?”
“I don’t want f**king spice in my afternoon!”
The banter on Facebook was quality. On Bacchy’s wall:
Bryn: “Nev will blow it, he won't be able to resist a hefty punt along the way and then the pressure and booze will get to him.”
Colin: “I will psyche him out, get inside his head space, take him to uncomfortable places.”
Uncomfortable places! What Guantanamo talk is this? Cracking stuff! With this chilling encounter in prospect, I arrived at the Barley Mow. Nick and Colin were already there and had baggsied the comfy leather sofas in front of the giant drop down screen. Nev was next and then the rest of the lads arrived and the action at Prestbury Park began to unfold.
Despite my own extensive personal punting strategy for the afternoon, Fantasy Festival always dominates this day. It’s not the money, it’s the pride, the thrill and the matey competition. The lead often swaps faster than a Coalition Government policy position. Indeed the psychological warfare that Colin and Bryn have alluded to is something that party strategists could learn a lot from.
Zarkander bolted up in the Triumph. Lovely looking prospect. He was lung-burstingly roared home by me, Nev and Nick. Exposed to this full force wind tunnel, the gaggle of young ladies and gentlemen who had been sat under the screen quietly moved elsewhere. In the County Hurdle, Final Approach somehow managed to get his lovely nose in front right on the line with a very late lunge. I’d backed him, but wasn’t celebrating. I couldn’t see that he’d got there in time. Even the cameraman was focusing on Get Me Out Of Here. I was already bemoaning my luck to Nick, “Every punter groans about the ones that get away and there’s another one to go with Rock On Ruby. Tssk.” I was still whinging, when the result of the photo was declared in favour of my boy. Colin said he heard me shriek from the bogs. Two out of two. In the Albert Bartlett, red hot favourite Bobs Worth showed real class and smoothly ran out a handy winner. I was three out of three at that stage, including the second leg of my Fantasy Festival double. That put me right in the frame.
Heady stuff. And although I didn’t get another winner for the rest of the afternoon, I was delirious. Gold Cup Fantasy Festival manoeuvres were by now in full swing. Nick had now overtaken Colin and was seriously in the hunt. Nick has previous in this event. Harder to crack than Nev, too. Colin’s prophecy came true, though. Nev’s uncomfortable place was an ill-judged, wide-eyed grab for glory at £150 notes each way on the Commander. The reigning champ burdened with the leader’s hopes and fears at 4-1. Madness we all thought. Infact I think we tried to talk him out of it. “Shit or bust. You know me Dave”. And we do.
The race, of course, is already seen as a classic. The brave old guard replaced by the new. The best horse in training landing an epic from two glorious ex-champions. Perfectly scripted. When Kauto Star led them out on the second circuit. Colin and I exchanged glances. “What’s he doing? This isn’t Kauto’s game!” But we were grinning. The 11 year old was serving it up to the field, pouring on the pressure. Imperial Commander was on his shoulder, Denman and Long Run tucked behind. Commander’s blunder at the fourth last provided the impetus for Denman to stake his claim. There was an audible gasp in the pub as the tank, absolutely flat to the boards, ranged up and past Kauto. “Gooo on Denman, Gooooo on son”, independent shouts of encouragement around the pub for this gutsy warrior that were inspired by sentiment, not profit. For a moment, we thought he might do it. And then Long Run swept through. He rose beautifully at every fence when asked big questions by his articulate, well-groomed and thoroughly likeable amateur jockey, Sam Whaley-Cohen. He sizzled up the hill and won in a track record time. We all knew we’d seen some race.
But only the briefest of respective pauses before we knuckle down again for the decider in the Fantasy Festival. Nev knew his chances had now gone after the Commander had been pulled up. This left me a tiny few quid in front with only the Grand Annual to go, the festival closer, at 5.15. Bacchy, architect of this Fantasy Festival feast arrived in the pub a little before the off. It was great to see him, his participation in the four days having been limited by a punishing work schedule.
So, we were all in, all in for the decider. It's done by secret selection to avoid any advantage being gained by the leader. bad news for Nick. He and I managed to select the same horse and to the same stake. In a field of 23, this is some feat. it was a crusher for Nick, who now couldn’t win. In the end, none of our selections got close. Nev’s Anquetta briefly threatened, but the frame was filled with outsiders. This meant that I’d managed to cling on to the FF trophy by a few spawny pennies.
Late afternoon became early and then late evening in a blur of Doom Bar, Brakspears and celebratory double-Glenmorangies. Time to head home from this marathon session which has been, by turns, exhilarating, satisfying and shattering. At the end, we made big promises of a mob-handed return to the live action on course next year, just like the old days. Bacchy’s missed it achingly this year, and has square jaw-edly taken it on the chin (how much more can I mangle this beautiful language of ours? I’m nearly at the end now, stick with it…). So we’ll both be there next year. Bryn put his hand up for a couple of days too and did I hear Nev say the same? I reckon my Bruv will be back as well. So that sounds to be very much like a formidable army to go to war with next March.
Sitting in that Saturday morning reflective sunshine, I noticed an unread text message on my phone. I checked it out: “I love u 2 Davoski”. Oh no. Warning bells. A quick flick to the sent box confirmed it. Yep, sure enough, a raft of emotional, sentimental, guff-filled texts has been dispatched late the previous evening, presumably on the train back home. “I really love you guys….what a brilliant day……great comp….love your enthusiasm….wouldn’t be the same….” As I say, the festival is a roller coaster. I guess that was the nauseous bit!
As a post-script, the schedule of shame financial analysis, updated for the final time that Saturday morning, revealed a rather pathetic bottom line: £515 staked in 53 separate bets covering ante-posts, wins, doubles, each-ways, accumulators, Lucky 15s, exactas and placepots to give an overall PROFIT of £14. FOURTEEN QUID. Blood, tears, toil and sweat. Good research, bad information, ugly judgement. Near things, sure things, things can only get better. And some exultation, redemption and reward too. Is it worth it? You bloody well bet it is!