DIARY – CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL DAY 4
FRIDAY 13 MARCH 2009
Today it was the turn of my friend Lesley to accompany me to Cheltenham races. So I left home at 07:05, driving to the village where she lives on the Bedfordshire/Buckinghamshire border. Having picked her up at 07:35, we drove out via the Leighton Buzzard bypass and down to Aylesbury, where we encountered no long holdups today. As always, our route then took us via the A41 to Bicester, and southwards on the A34 to Oxford before joining the A40 to travel across the Cotswolds. It always amazes me that the bleakest area of the route across the hills is just after you leave the dual-carriageway and before you reach Burford. I always imagine it should be further west! But I suppose it appears like that because the road travels along a ridge at this point, with few trees to provide protection.
As we were early, there were no traffic build-ups within Cheltenham, and we arrived at the course at around 09:45, again parking in the West Car Park, in row D5 today. Lesley and I then walked across to the south entrance, but we had to wait outside along with a crowd of other ticketholders, as the gates didn’t open until 10:25. Once we were through the turnstiles, our bags were searched, and we noticed a camera crew filming the punters as they entered the course. We purchased race-cards and then went in search of refreshments, before settling beside the Parade Ring. We noticed Choc’s fiancée, Meally, standing on the steps of the Weighing Room – she was very easy to spot today as she was wearing her yellow coat, with a mini skirt (or dress) and boots.
After some time had passed, we paid a visit to the Cheltenham Superstore, where I purchased a tea towel (which has Choc’s autograph, amongst others, printed on it), a Cheltenham pen, and 2 postcards featuring a young and very cute Choc.
The Guinness presentation today included an interview with Michael Dickinson, famous for training the first 5 horses past the post in the Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1983. Following his training career in the UK he emigrated to the USA where he continued to train, before giving up this career to concentrate on his business of synthetic racetrack surfacing. There was also a presentation to Tony McCoy to mark his 3,000 career winner, which was presented to him by Peter O’Sullevan and Lester Piggott.
Her Majesty The Queen also arrived at around midday as her horse, Barber’s Shop, was running in today’s Gold Cup. However, as we were situated at the bottom of the Parade Ring steppings, we didn’t actually see her, but we did stand when the National Anthem was played.
It was soon time for the first race of the day, in which Choc would be riding Alan King’s Walkon. Wayne Hutchison was aboard Alan’s second runner, Trenchant.
Walkon went off as favourite for this race. One of his main rivals, Zaynar, was wearing cheek pieces today and after being the ante-post favourite had drifted out in the betting. The start of the race was at the beginning of the home straight so the horses cantered up the horse-walk in front of the stands before turning and heading down the course. There were concerns about Jumbo Rio at the start, where he was trotted up for the vet before being allowed to take his place in the line-up. Then they were off, to the roar of the crowd.
The field was led off by Stow, Reve de Sivola, Silk Drum, Ebadiyan and Jumbo Rio. Choc aboard Walkon took a mid-line in around 6th. Starluck with Timmy Murphy aboard, took a wide line down the back straight, with Zaynar being ridden up the outside to take close order. Three flights from home Trenchant came under pressure.
As they approached the 2nd last flight, Choc was just in behind the leaders, but the fancied Irish runner, Ebadiyan, cocked his jaw and ran out at that hurdle when disputing the lead. Zaynar lead into the final straight, Starluck on his outer, Walkon on his inner. But despite Choc’s urgings, Walkon could never quite catch the leader, going down by ¾ of a length on the line. Mourad stayed on to finish 3rd, with Starluck fading into 4th. Trenchant stayed on to finish in 5th place.
Leaving Lesley to hold our place at the course-side rails, I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to see Choc return, unsaddle, speak with connections and walk back to the Weighing Room. I then returned to the course-side rails in preparation for the 2nd race of the day, although Choc had no ride in this event.
Ruby Walsh was riding the grey, American Trilogy, a 20-1 shot which had been very disappointing on his previous runs. Dave’s Dream went off as favourite. Gloucester was running again, having competed in Tuesday’s Supreme Novices.
Initially the field was led off by Culcabock, with Working Title making a slight error at the back of the field. By the time they had reached the top bend, Khyber Kim, running keenly in first time blinkers, had taken up the lead and was 3 lengths clear. Aachen flattened the 2nd flight down the back. American Trilogy could be seen improving effortlessly as they reached the end of the back straight, with Sunnyhillboy prominent on the outside too.
Down the hill they came, initially still led by Khyber Kim, but with Sky Hall and Gloucester taking over as they entered the straight. Kandari was now prominent on the outside, but Ruby was already on the premises and drove American Trilogy between the leaders and went on to win by 11 lengths. Stradbrook stayed on late for 2nd, Kandari fading on the run-in. Ruby’s 6th winner of the Festival. Top weight, Clopf, nearly unseated his rider at the last.
It was now time for Choc’s 2nd ride of the day. He was aboard Thetwincamdrift, presumably very disappointed that his intended ride, Bensalem, was unable to run today due to a ‘dirty scope’. Alan King’s 2nd runner was Midnight Sail ridden by Wayne Hutchinson. Also in the race was Picture in the Sky for trainer Martin Keighley.
The race started at the beginning of the back straight, so the horses cantered across course and up around the bend to reach it. I noticed that Choc was chatting to Warren Marston at the start, the rider of Picture in the Sky. Then they were off.
The field was led off by Pride of Dulcote, Den of Iniquity, and Alpha Ridge, with Thetwincamdrift near the back taking a mid to inner line. Picture in the Sky was running on the inside in mid-field, and a little too freely in blinkers. Alpha Ridge, Den of Iniquity and Cape Tribulation leading up the straight for the first time. Choc’s mount made a little ground on the inside, but Picture in the Sky started to tail off as they galloped down the back straight, eventually pulling up. Choc then started to lose his place again. Midnight Sail, Alan’s other runner, was going well in 5th under Wayne Hutchinson.
At the top of the final hill, the lead was being disputed by Pride of Dulcote, Cape Tribulation, Den of Iniquity and On Raglan Road. Into the final straight it was still Pride of Dulcote, accompanied by Cape Tribulation, Midnight Sail, On Raglan Road and Weapon’s Amnesty. Then as they galloped up towards the line, Weapon’s Amnesty, under the inscrutable Davy Russell, was driven past his rivals and held off the rallying Pride of Dulcote under Ruby Walsh. Midnight Sail finished in 6th. Choc aboard Thetwincamdrift, having been just behind the leading group as they came down the hill, weakened to finish in 8th.
As Choc had finished unplaced in the Albert Bartlett and thus would not be returning to the Winners’ Enclosure, I remained at the course-side rails to hold our place in preparation for the next race, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, whilst Lesley went in search of refreshments.
Choc’s ride this year was Halcon Genelardais, which he had also ridden in last year’s race. The horse was wearing cheek-pieces for the first time in public today. 5 of the runners in today’s race were trained by Paul Nicholls.
Being the feature race of the day, or I should say of the Festival, the horses paraded in front of the stands, headed by Noel Fehily aboard Air Force One, before cantering to the start, which was two-thirds of the way down the home straight.
A couple of the horses were a little wayward at the start, but they were allowed to go first time. The field was led off by Neptune Collonges, with Madison du Berlais and Snoopy Loopy close behind. Choc rode on the outside of the field, near to the back. Exotic Dancer was held up in last place under AP McCoy. Roll Along was also near the back of the field. Unfortunately Halcon Genelardais was already struggling to go with the field by the time they had reached the top of the hill for the first time.
Kauto Star, Denman and Barbers Shop were close behind the leader as they galloped down the hill. Halcon Genelardais looked like tailing off at this early stage, and although Choc drove him a little nearer to the tail-end of the field, he pulled the horse up as they galloped away from the stands having completed just over one circuit.
Kauto Star raced on the inside throughout and there was a group of 7 horses which drew away from the remainder as they reached the top of the hill for the final time – Neptune Collonges, Denman, Kauto Star, Barbers Shop, Albertas Run, Roll Along and tagging on at the back of these was Exotic Dancer. Miko de Beauchene fell at the 4th last.
As they turned into the straight Kauto Star (inside rail) and Denman disputed the lead, with the former galloping on to win impressively by 13 lengths. The horse’s 11th Grade 1 victory and first horse to regain the Cheltenham Gold Cup crown. Denman battled on bravely up the straight to take 2nd place, a fabulous training feat to get the horse fit to do himself justice after his health scare last year. Exotic Dancer finished 3rd, with Neptune Collonges 4th. Another Nicholls runner, My Will, finished 5th. The Queen’s horse, Barber’s Shop, finished in 7th place.
As Halcon Genelardais was Choc’s last ride at this year’s Festival, his endeavours had failed to provide him with a winner, the first time this had happened since 2003, which was sad and I was disappointed for him.
Having seen Ruby and Kauto Star walk back in, it was time for us to give up our position on the rails and seek refreshments.
We remained paddock side, watching this race on the big screen. There were 3 horses in with a chance at the final fence, with Cappa Bleu (making his English debut under rules) running on to triumph by 12 lengths on the line. The winning jockey was Richard Burton, and I expect he had lots of support from the Weighing Room where he has many friends, including Choc. He is also Godfather to Martin Keighley’s son, Freddie.
The Queen left after the Foxhunters’ final and I didn’t see her once - despite the Royal Box being situated right behind where I was standing at the course-side rails. It just goes to show that I am more interested in the racing (and in Choc of course!).
At this point Ruby Walsh was presented with the Leading Jockey’s Trophy, for riding 7 winners at this year’s Festival. The Leading Trainer’s Trophy was awarded to Paul Nicholls.
Alan King’s runner in this race was Penn da Benn under Charlie Huxley. David Pipe having 7 representatives in the event. The field galloped around the top bend to reach the start. Then they were off.
The field was led off by Gaspara, having her 2nd run of the Festival, but she dived at the 2nd flight and unseated her rider. This left Carrickboy in the lead, and then Khachaturian took up the running. Big Eared Fran was near the back of the field. Little Shilling was also prominent, and Midnight Chase held a good position too. Penn da Benn was in mid-field.
As they turned away from the stands, the 3 grey horses were all at or near the back of the field. Little Shilling became the new leader. As they came down the hill Carrickboy moved up to dispute the lead with Leamington Lad, as Little Shilling dropped away. Andytown and Piraya were close up too.
The grey Leamington Lad led the field into the straight, with Andytown almost upsides, the latter being joined at the last by 100-1 shot Midnight Chase. However, Andytown jumped the flight better than his rival and ran on to win. Midnight Chase took 2nd place, with Big Eared Fran coming up the stand-side to take 3rd. A first Festival winner for Felix de Giles, the first non-Irish professional winning jockey this Cheltenham!
Although a long-shot at 100-1, I suppose it shouldn’t have been that surprising that Midnight Chase did well, as Choc has won aboard the Neil Mulholland trained horse on 3 occasions this year. Penn de Benn finished 16th.
We returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to watch the horses return, spotting Meally speaking with a friend as we walked across the tarmac area. Instead of returning to the course-side rails, Lesley and I then decided to cross the course to watch the final race of the day (and the Festival) from the mound beside the final fence.
Alan King had one runner in this final event - Oh Crick to be ridden by Wayne Hutchinson. Alan was seeking his first winner of this Festival.
This was Oh Crick’s first run in a Handicap Chase. He was awarded a minimum weight of 10 stones, but Choc cannot do less than 10 stones 2 or 3 lbs now, hence the reason that Wayne Hutchison got the ride. The field was led off by Lorient Express for Venetia Williams. Palarshan unseated his rider at the first. French Opera was travelling in second, and Oh Crick in 8th position as they galloped away from the stands.
As they travelled down the back straight, Moon Over Miami galloped up on the outside to join the leader, which remained Lorient Express. Pocquelin, under Ruby Walsh was not travelling well. As they turned to travel down the hill, Oh Crick was up into 5th place. Beggars Cap unseated Graham Lee 3 out.
As they approached the 2nd last Oh Crick was disputing the lead with Moon Over Miami and despite the latter’s efforts to hold off the challenge, Oh Crick won by ¾ of a length. Alan’s first winner of the 2009 Festival and Wayne’s first ever too. It was only when Wayne was jumping the final fence that I realised who it was, as it suddenly dawned on me that the jockey was wearing the same silks as for Araldur and therefore it must be Oh Crick!
Once the course was clear (literally!) we crossed back to the stands-side of the course and then headed for the Winners’ Enclosure to see Wayne unsaddle Oh Crick. Choc’s mum, dad, and I believe brother and sister-in-law were there to see the celebrations. Lesley was the first to spot Choc in the enclosure – he was dressed in black today, wearing a long black coat. He took a call on his mobile, before returning to the ‘press room’(?) with Alan King.
We sat at the side of the Parade Ring until it started to get dark, during which time Lesley was asked to take a photo for a group of punters as they stood on the Winners’ podium. Meally and Choc’s family appeared outside the Weighing Room, but waited ages for him to reappear, and then he stayed to chat with his colleagues for a while.
It was nearly dark by the time we returned to the car and, as there was still a lot of queuing traffic, we decided to tuck in to a packet of M & S cheese-straws I’d left in the car. Once the end of the queue was in sight, we joined it, and were directed to leave the course by taking a left turn at the gates. As we wished to travel back to Oxford, we took a left, then another left, then a right, and a left, before getting caught up in traffic. I took the wrong turning at one point but, fortuitously, we arrived back at the ‘long-about’ which we drive around on our usual route in, so took a right turn and arrived at the traffic lights on the A40. Any earlier build-up of traffic had cleared from this part of the route, and even our trip back through Charlton Kings was fairly free moving.
We followed a car pulling a caravan for much of our trip back, from just outside Cheltenham to just before the A34/M40 junction. And, surprisingly, it was keeping up a very good pace all the way! Our trip took us back along the A41 to Aylesbury, then around the ring-road and a left towards Leighton Buzzard where I dropped Lesley off in her village on the Bedfordshire/Buckinghamshire border. It was then home to Hertfordshire, arriving at 22:00.
I was disappointed for Choc that he didn’t ride any winners at this year’s Festival, but I hope I’ll be there next year to see him triumph again.