I’m young, immature and an idealist. They say it’ll rub off, they say I’ll be a cynic too, soon enough, but until then humour my quixotism.
We need to talk about Cheltenham. Whether it’s sunny weather or rainy weather, the four-day carnival in Gloucester is glorious. That’s just what it is. That’s what the media have told us, that’s what the long-range ante-post markets have told us and that’s what we have internalised. It’s a kind of conditioning; Pavlov’s dog would think Cheltenham was glorious had we repeated it to him often enough. It is awesome of course; we get to see the best against the best, the Olympics of jump racing, and aren’t we lucky it happens more than twice a decade.
The excitement is intoxicating. On Monday, I sat in bed doing nothing productive. Feverish. On Tuesday, I went to university completely distracted, utterly delirious to the prospect of seeing equine greatness, gaining precious pounds to supplement the silly student loan and eager to share in the delight of our four-legged sport with great friends. That’s superb. I love, relish, adore that feeling.
But it’s not real is it. Kennedy said Churchill ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’. We’ve mobilised Cheltenham Festival utopianism and sent it into every part of racing society. In similar fashion, the words I scribble here can create a world that is entirely imaginary, you could get swept away in to believing something far distant from what you know as veracity and reality. It’s dangerous. It’s created the very real reality of four days in March as the be-all-and-end-all.
It’s not just us fans and punters. Look at the pressure on trainers to have a Cheltenham winner. Nicholls’ relief at getting Pacha du Polder up in a race that really should be restricted to amateurs; pilots, trainers and owners alike. He’s our second-best trainer in the country. Looking back now, you’d giggle at the suggestion that Jack Kennedy had anything to prove, but some were claiming his position was wobbly before Cheltenham. It makes or breaks you.
So if Cheltenham is it; the pinnacle, the everything, the four days of it all, why do only a handful get to drink from the fountain? How do McCain, Twiston-Davies, Hobbs, King, Mulholland and O’Neill leave Cheltenham? They failed, didn’t they? They’ll have to come back next year. Twenty-eight races, shared by twelve. Twenty-one of those, shared by five.
The point is not about Irish domination, it’s about big owner’s and big trainer’s domination.
Take visuals, for example. I’m a visual learner. I like to be joyed by the expression of colour; different and jubilant mixtures of dye on a jockey’s chest. JP’s yellow-and-green, Gigginstown’s maroon and Ricci’s pink-and-green… I glaze over at the ordinary, the unremarkableness of it all. It’s affected the horses, too, their personalities lost in the machine – it takes a great one to overcome that curse. Douvan, to me, is still yet to shed the corporate tag. My boy, My Tent Or Yours, was fortunate in that he cemented his name in my heart before he succumbed to the yellow-and-green.
As soon as they passed the line after the Ryanair, I dubbed it the most boring race I’d ever seen at Cheltenham. Disappointing, bloodless and colourless; it’s already a memory lost in the swathe of maroon. Let’s be fair though, I was biased in the belief that Cue Card, sparkling in colour, could call it a happy ending.
Yet it could get worse. Remember the day Dessie won at Cheltenham? I don’t… I wasn’t even an embryo. But I’ve heard the roars. They broke the microphones, turning exalted cheers into fuzzy crackles. Why? Because he was the people’s horse, the horse that raced. Seventy starts to his name. You can see why they loved him; they felt like they knew him.
Do you feel the same about Penhill? He hadn’t run at all this season before victory on Thursday. Native River and Altior ran once apiece, while Buveur d’Air had swerved anything of equal ability until Tuesday, taking on just nine opponents in three races.
Could jump racing lose its greatest pull? We adore seeing our horses come back, year after year, but our adoration comes from seeing and conversing with them as frequently as possible. Would Balthazar King, Hello Bud and Knockara Beau have carved a place in my memories forever had they raced only once a year? The flat has The Tatling and Megalala, but we have so many more. We don’t care for unbeaten records over the sticks, just give us a champion with a personality. Kauto only won 56% of his races, do we question him? He showed so much more than overrated invincibility in defeat to Denman, still fighting to the line to repel Neptune for second. Please don’t let our sport become indistinguishable from the flat (a homonymic word with more than just the one meaning).
Did you see those scenes in Somerset on Saturday? That’s my definition of Glorious. Real racing fans came out to see their champion in the flesh. No action, no money changing hands, just appreciation of equine achievement. Glorious.
Then there’s the other consequence: desperation. I don’t think it was the sole factor in this year’s Grand Annual – and correlation doesn’t mean causation – but there was something wretched about the chaos that ensued. Cheltenham has reached such an elevated status that it is leading to the pushing of boundaries; we’re asking for that little bit more, an unsafe and dangerous ‘extra’.
And it is ultimately the consequences of three Grand Annual deaths that we are leaving our favourite festival, the carnival we have been waiting for all season, in a depressed, ruminative state. The BHA felt the need to release a short statement of sadness and sympathy, imagine the Football Association doing that after a successful FA Cup.
Unless you are devoid of emotion, unequipped for empathy or simply indifferent to ethics, you can’t only look back with elation. Usually it may be a mixture of sadness – 362 days to go – and exhaustion, but don’t confuse them this year with emotions far more distressing. Our mind might try to block out the unpleasant – its human nature – but we can’t truly forget what we saw.
And then we lose the public debate. It doesn’t even need to be lazy journalists anymore; social media influencers can throw about words without lucidity or wisdom, the retweets still come. How do we respond? We too are upset and aggrieved. We know why they’re wrong, but that doesn’t fit into 280 characters. They can block out reason, too.
Finally, I shall now pen something entirely against my overarching values and beliefs. I hated the lack of true, committed racing fans at Cheltenham last week. The roar felt fake, an imitation fed by those unclear about the meaning of National Hunt racing. It was a roar without value, used superfluously and fallaciously. You’ve already got Royal Ascot, please don’t take another from us. Writing such a statement is against my loudest convictions: I want everyone to go and enjoy racing. However, last week, in my own selfish sense, I wanted to share equine perfection with those that truly appreciate, empathise and comprehend my own feelings. The feeling of being at one with the crowd, 70,000 heads but one racing heart.
We need to remove Cheltenham’s pedestal. Allow it to become just another festival, remove the pressure, desperation and significance. We won’t, but we should. For safety, for our health and for the industry’s future.
I’ll be that angry young man if that’s what you want to label this outpouring, but I count myself so lucky to have found this sport. I want to help it grow, nurture it into what I know it can be. It can be Glorious. In the very real sense.