Cheltenham Festival: The greatest show on turf

Paul Howarth

With the Cheltenham Festival just days away, it’s time to look back as well as forward…

The Olympics of Jump racing.  The Greatest Show On Turf.  The biggest orgy of gambling, drinking and cavorting of the year.  Call it what you will, it’s the Cheltenham Festival next week.  If you’re a sports fan and you’ve never been, you really must.  If, on the other hand, you’re intending to have a punt and you “hate losing more than you enjoy winning” – in the words of my all-time hero Clement Freud – then find another hobby.

Here are a few memories from the last decade that make the losing tolerable.

Voy Por Ustedes lead the To 300x225 Cheltenham Festival: The greatest show on turf

Voy Por Ustedes leads over the last fence to land The Irish Independent Arkle in 2006

Voy Por Ustedes – Arkle 2006

Ante-post betting is a mug’s game.  I remember visiting my favourite trainer Alan King’s yard in 2008.  The other guests that morning were all owners and one asked me if I was going to buy a horse for Alan to train.  “Well,” I said, calling to mind an early-season bet that I’d struck, “if Nenuphar Collonges wins this season’s stayers’ hurdle at the Festival, I might think about it.”  Without looking up from his Racing Post, King muttered: “You’ll be lucky, he’s not going for that race.”  As a friend of mine is fond of saying: “Bang goes another dream.”  The rule ‘never bet ante-post’ is a sensible one to adhere to.

But rules have exceptions.  In my case, it was Voy Por Ustedes in the 2006 Arkle.  I’d seen the French-bred with the Spanish name (it means ‘I go for you’) win a novice chase at Warwick the previous November.  Impressive, I thought, and wondered what price he might be for the two-mile championship race at the Festival, named after the legendary three-times Irish winner of the Gold Cup in the 1960s.  I was surprised to see he was trading at just shy of 50/1 on Betfair.  Worth a few pennies.  As the season wore on, the horse’s odds contracted, and I continued to back him, but he was still widely available at 10/1 or better the week before the race.  On the Friday, after a few Guinnesses in a mate’s pub, I was willing to tell anyone who’d listen: “The first word is ‘Voy’, the second is ‘Por’ and the third is ‘Ustedes’.”  I was tolerated at best.

Cut to the following Tuesday and the Arkle itself.  A friend of mine tells me I was “as quiet as a church mouse” as Voy Por traded blows up front with the classy grey Monet’s Garden, neither touching a twig in a beautiful display of jumping at pace.  Apparently, I continued this silence as my fancy pulled out a little more in the closing stages to win by a length and a half.  Then the shouting started.

Katchit – 2008 Champion Hurdle

Some horses love Cheltenham.  It’s an idiosyncratic, undulating track with a brute of an uphill finish.  One such animal was Katchit, not much bigger than a pony, but with a “heart as big as his body”, as his trainer – that man Alan King again – once put it.

He’d won at the course several times, including in the juvenile championship race, the Triumph Hurdle, the previous year.  Historically, though, winners of this race had a very poor record in the Champion.  Undeterred, I backed Katchit at some nice double-figure prices.

In the race itself, Katchit was his usual stylish but nuggety self.  Travelling strongly on the home bend, he appeared to eyeball favourite Sizing Europe out of it (although, to be fair, Sizing was later found to have burst a blood vessel) before blasting up his beloved hill to take the crown.

One idiot in the grandstand made a right spectacle of himself.  “They said it couldn’t be done!” he yelled, as parents hid small children and edged away.  “They said a Triumph hurdler couldn’t do it!  They said a five-year-old couldn’t do it!  They were wrong!!”  To anyone who was there, I can only apologise.

Katchit sadly died of colic in January.  RIP, little fella.

As an aside, jockey Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton – who rode both Voy Por Ustedes and Katchit to the victories described above – is injured and will miss this year’s Festival.  Thoughts are with you, Choc.

Moscow Flyer – 2005 Champion Chase

“My wife drove me to drink,” the old joke goes, “and I never thanked her.”  I owe a similar debt of gratitude to Moscow Flyer.  This wonderful Irish two-mile chaser is the reason I fell in love with racing.  It was 2003, the first time I’d done the Festival properly, and I’d had my biggest ever bet on the Jessica Harrington-trained gelding.  He won, thank God, and in the process cemented a unique place in my heart and made me vow to return to the Festival every year until I die.

2004 didn’t go quite as well for Moscow.  Seeking to retain his crown, he unseated his rider.  When he returned the following year at the age of eleven, many thought his best days were behind him.  Blinded by love (another golden rule that I regularly flout is to bet with the head not the heart), I kept the faith and backed him as if defeat were out of the question.

In a pulsating renewal, Moscow set sail for home three fences out.  His market rival, the 2004 champion Azertyuiop, had placed a back hoof in the water jump, effectively putting paid to his challenge.  But the young pretender Well Chief, five years Moscow’s junior, was still in menacing pursuit.  As Moscow rounded the bend to the home straight with one fence left to jump, a tsunami of sound rose right across Prestbury Park and, seemingly blown up the hill by the crowd’s collective will, he crossed the line with two lengths to spare.  “And Moscow Flyer is magnificent!” said the course commentator.  He certainly was.

My 2013 Cheltenham Festival tips (caution advised).  Tuesday Champion Hurdle: Grandouet.  Wednesday Champion Chase: Sprinter Sacre (I recommend backing him to win by 20 lengths or more at 4/1).  Thursday World Hurdle: Oscar Whisky.  Friday Gold Cup: Captain Chris.

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  • daniel lawrence

    The Drever’s third World Hurdle….What’s that coming over The Hill….?

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