DIARY – CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL – DAY 1
– TUESDAY 16 MARCH 2010
The first day of the 2010 Cheltenham Festival dawned bright and clear. As Cheltenham is around 100 miles away from my home and, obviously, traffic would begin to build around Oxford as the rush-hour approached, I decided to set out at 07:00 today. I was hoping for a lucky day, having seen 2 magpies as I was driving towards Hemel Hempstead. My journey then took me via Aylesbury, and I’d reached the outskirts of Bicester by 08:00, before heading down the A34 towards Oxford, the queue at the traffic lights at the M40 junction being minimal today. The first problem I encountered was when I exited at the A44 junction, the traffic being stationary on the roundabout and also all the way down the slip-road to the A40 junction.
Having turned onto the A40, traffic was the heaviest of the week through the first set of traffic lights, around the Eynsham roundabout, and through the second set of traffic lights too. But, as always, any holdups were quickly resolved once the dual carriageway began. Luckily there were no heavy lorries ahead of me when I reached the Minster Lovell roundabout, so the traffic flowed freely from there to Burford, the A40 travelling across a very bleak section of the Cotswolds at this point. There were no traffic problems either between there and the roundabout on the Stow/Cirencester road, or on the final section of the journey to Charlton Kings on the outskirts of Cheltenham.
The next holdup was encountered at the first set of traffic lights at the multi-way junction just prior to the shopping parade. There were minor holdups through the next two sets of lights, at the latter of which I turned right to head towards Prestbury Park. Paddy Power had erected a ‘Hollywood’ style sign on Cleeve Hill – how tacky was that? You can see the white signage in the above photograph, and evidently it did cause a stir within the town of Cheltenham! The bookmaker was hoping that the 50ft letters would remain a permanent fixture on the hillside but, luckily, Tewkesbury Borough Council took a dim view and it was removed on the Saturday following the end of the Festival.
Having been ‘trapped’ in the eastern coach park located off New Barn Lane following racing on both the first and second day of last year’s Festival, today I decided I’d cross the Evesham Road to park in the western car park (as I’d done on day 3 and 4 last year). Having pre-paid for my parking I was directed to park in the bottom field. It had taken 25 minutes to travel through from the outskirts of Cheltenham to the racecourse, and I parked up at 09:40.
As the turnstiles didn’t open until 10:30, I sat in my car for a while, and ate my lunch of 4 cheese-filled submarine rolls whilst listening to Cheltenham Festival radio, where guests included Sam Thomas (sidelined following an accident on the gallops at Paul Nicholls’ establishment) and Clerk of the Course Simon Claisse. It was mentioned that the final hurdle on both the Old and New courses had been moved far nearer to the winning post in an effort to make the races more exciting, and also to prevent jockeys being caught out by the ‘whip rule’. At around 10:10 I set off for the turnstiles and, once the gates had opened, made a beeline for the Parade Ring, purchasing a race-card en route.
Although a sunny day with fine whispy cloud, it was still quite chilly in the shade, so I went to sit in the sun on the far side of the Winners’ Enclosure, near to the Winners’ podium. Luckily, when going racing, my make-up routine includes Factor 50 facial sun lotion beneath L’Oreal True Match Minerals Foundation!
Whilst sitting Parade Ring side, I noticed Alan King standing just below the Weighing Room steps, and at 11:10 I was rewarded with my first glimpse of Choc as he returned from walking the course. He was wearing a long camel coloured coat, his green Hunter wellingtons, and he was carrying his ‘going stick’. He briefly chatted to Alan, presumably to discuss the going, before returning to the Weighing Room.
Shortly afterwards, outside the Weighing Room, Alan King was interviewed for radio. I also noticed Steve Mellish and Lydia Hislop from Racing UK in the Parade Ring. Choc reappeared a few minutes later, this time to be interviewed mid-Parade Ring by Alex Steedman of Racing UK. The interview lasted over 10 minutes and I have it on video too!
Each day before racing there is a presentation in the Winners’ Enclosure where the leading personalities of the day are interviewed by either Ian Carnaby or Jonathan Powell. Today’s interviewees included Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson, and Barry Geraghty. Derek Thompson (aka Tommo) presented a sing-along to the recently released Cheltenham song, which had been recorded a few weeks earlier in aid of a number of charities, with racing personalities recording the chorus line of ‘Cheltenham’. The tune is that of ‘Downtown’ recorded by Petula Clark during the 1960s, and on this occasion the song was performed by Laura Critchley.
As had occurred at Sandown Park the previous Saturday, there was a ROR (Retraining of Racehorses) Parade, which included a number of horses which had appeared at the Surrey track, plus a few new ones. Brave Inca and Moscow Flyer representing the Irish equivalent organisation.
There was also the presentation of a cheque for monies raised during Festival Preview events. Dave Crosse, who was currently injured, made an appearance to receive the cheque on behalf of the Injured Jockeys’ Fund. Dave was being sponsored to grow his hair and a beard, and he wouldn’t be cutting his hair or shaving off his beard until he was passed fit to ride again, having broken his leg badly in a racing accident at Plumpton the previous autumn.
Andy Stewart was also interviewed in connection with raising funds for Spinal Research, who were the sponsors of the first race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Andy’s son, Paul, suffered a serious spinal injury in 2008 as a result of a snowboarding accident. Paul’s recuperation is ongoing and, as a result, he is no longer wheelchair bound, now being able to walk with the assistance of crutches. Having been an active guy prior to the accident, I believe he is aiming to compete in the next Para-Olympics.
It was soon time for the first race of the Festival, which was due off at 13:30. Choc didn’t have a riding engagement in this event. Once the horses had left the Parade Ring, I set off to find a vantage point as close to the course-side rails as possible.
As the race began at the far end of the home straight, the horses cantered up the all-weather track in front of the main stands before turning to set off down the course, entering the remaining section of the track to continue their journey. Races on the first 2 days of the Festival are run on the Old Course, with racing on the remaining 2 days taking place on the New Course.
As always happens at the Festival, the crowd cheered as the first race commenced. The field was led away by Cootehill, in mid-field General Miller blundered and unseated Andrew Tinkler at the first flight.
As the horses turned away from the stands, Cootehill had been joined by Fiulin at the head of affairs. The favourite, Dunguib, was held up on the outside of the field but, despite having a clear view of his obstacles, he rattled the top bars of both the 3rd and 5th flights.
Dan Breen assumed to lead after 3 out. However, as he approached 2 out, he jinked to his left, which had a knock-on effect on Menorah and Get Me Out of Here, who both appeared to mirror this manoeuvre! But all 3 horses cleared the obstacle without problem.
Richard Johnson (Menorah) sent his mount into the lead around the final bend, chased by AP McCoy aboard Get Me Out Of Here. Again, Menorah appeared to jink slightly before the last but, having cleared it, Richard drove him on to win from the fast closing Get Me Out Of Here, the former holding on to win by a head. Dunguib took 3rd, with Oscar Whisky, who had made a couple of jumping errors during the race, in 4th.
Following the race, the Stewards awarded a 4-day ban to Richard Johnson for overuse of the whip. Actor James Nesbitt presented the prizes in the Winners’ Enclosure.
I remained at the course-side rails, having found an empty spot immediately next to the rails when many of the spectators returned to the Winners’ Enclosure/Parade Ring area following completion of the first race.
Soon it was time for Choc’s first ride of the Festival, aboard the Henrietta Knight trained Somersby. My first view of him aboard the horse was as he cantered up the all weather track in front of me, before turning and heading for the 2 mile start, which was at the far end of the home straight. Favourite for this race was the JP McManus owned Captain Cee Bee, ridden by AP McCoy.
Then they were off. The field was led away by I’m Delilah, followed by Mad Max, Sizing Europe and Sports Line. The latter, under Ruby Walsh, was sent on as they headed away from the stands. Somersby was travelling mid-division, with Captain Cee Bee near the rear of the field.
Woolcombe Folly, in rear, pecked on landing at the 5th, and also hit the 8th. As they travelled down the back straight, Sports Line retained a slight advantage over Mad Max and Sizing Europe on his outside. However, he relinquished this with a slight blunder at the 8th. Captain Cee Bee blundered badly 3 out.
Down the hill they came. Mad Max and Sizing Europe cleared the notorious 2nd last together, but the former stumbled badly on landing, however his jockey Paul Carberry managed to remain in the saddle. This handed the initiative to Sizing Europe, with Osana moving through on the inside to mount his challenge. Somersby had cleared the 2nd last in 4th position and Choc urged his mount on around the bend, clearing the last obstacle half a length down in third.
Somersby stayed on, overtaking Osana and gaining ground on Sizing Europe all the way to the line, but was beaten by ¾ of a length. Mad Max completed in 4th, with Riverside Theatre staying on after the last to finish 5th. Captain Cee Bee weakened after the final obstacle to finish in 8th. His poor run having been due to a burst blood vessel.
I was in two minds as to whether to return to the Winners’ Enclosure in the hope of seeing Choc unsaddle his mount. So, unfortunately, I left it too late and was unable to get close enough even to catch a glimpse of him due to the already crowded steps area. This being the case, I returned to the course-side rails, where I remained until much later in the day.
Never mind, I thought, I’m bound to get further opportunities to see him in the Winners’ Enclosure today, or later in the week. Little did I know that this would be his one and only appearance in the Enclosure throughout the entire Festival L.
My next view of Choc was as he cantered up the all weather track aboard Bensalem, proceeded by Alan King’s other runner in this race, Nenuphar Collonges, ridden by Wayne Hutchinson. Bensalem was wearing a noseband for the first time today. The horses, having reached the top end of the straight, turned and cantered to the start which was located part way down the home straight.
Then they were off. The field was led away by Joe Lively. Bensalem, in rear, wasn’t foot perfect at the first, dust flying from the birch as a result. Joe Lively held the advantage from Chief Dan George and Comply or Die as they cleared the 2nd obstacle and set off down the back straight for the first time. Comply or Die jumped into the lead at the 5th, the open-ditch, where Ogee blundered.
At the next open ditch, Knowhere fell when in mid-field, bringing down Exmoor Ranger and Irish raider Casey Jones. Bensalem was still being held up near the rear of the field. There were no more mishaps as the field cleared the fences on the downhill section and proceeded up the home straight with one circuit to go.
Away from the stands for the final time, Comply or Die led from Joe Lively, Chief Dan George and Stan. Kicks For Free, who had already made a number of jumping mistakes, made another error at the uphill fence. Nenuphar Collonges was just off the pace, and Bensalem had started to make progress too.
The field was waived around the open ditch where 3 horses had come to grief on the previous circuit. Green screens had been erected around the stricken Casey Jones, who was to lose his life as a result of the incident. Niche Market led them down the hill, with Bensalem travelling easily in 5th place.
Chief Dan George, Ogee and Offshore Account cleared the notorious 2nd last in unison. Unfortunately Bensalem was caught out and fell; Tatenen travelling close behind unseated his jockey, Nick Scholfield, in an attempt to avoid the faller. Around the final bend, Ogee held the inside line, with Chief Dan George to his outside and Offshore Account close up in third.
Ogee led over the last, but was headed on the run-in by Chief Dan George, The Package closing fast to almost catch the latter on the line. The winning distance was a head. Ogee finished 3rd, with Offshore Account in 4th.
Having got to his feet, Bensalem found himself on the inside of the plastic running rail. He cantered off, but luckily soon found his way to the horse-walk entrance, where he was caught and led away unharmed. Nick Scholfield and Choc were driven back in a vehicle to the Weighing Room, to be passed by the doctor so as to continue riding for the remainder of the day.
As Choc was uninjured following his tumble from Bensalem during the previous race, it was now time for his third ride of the day, in the Champion Hurdle aboard the Alan King trained grey, Medermit.
This being the feature race on Day 1, the horses were led out onto the course, circling as they sorted themselves into number order. Then they set off up the course, No.1 Binocular leading the way, to parade in front of the stands, before turning to canter to the start which was located at the far end of the home straight.
There had been speculation that last year’s third placed horse, Binocular, might not run in this year’s race due to a mystery ‘lethargy’ which had afflicted him this season. However, following a schooling session the previous week, where he appeared to be back to his best, it was decided he’d take his chance! Binocular was a 9-1 shot, with Go Native starting as favourite.
Then they were off. The field was led away by first time blinkered Celestial Halo, Ruby Walsh sending him into a clear lead. Zaynar was a clear second, Punjabi in 3rd, with Medermit held up in 6th.
Away from the stands, Choc’s mount had moved up into 4th position. Down the back straight Zaynar had almost joined Celestial Halo, with Medermit and Punjabi disputing 3rd. By the far end of the course, AP McCoy had moved up into 5th aboard Binocular. Won In The Dark started to tail off.
Celestial Halo and Zaynar still led 3 out, but Choc began to get animated aboard Medermit and he subsequently dropped to the back of the main group. Binocular was going so well that he jumped into the lead at the 2nd last, AP taking a pull so as to remain alongside Celestial Halo as they turned in.
As they entered the home straight, Binocular was sent on, clearing the last and winning by 3½ lengths. He was chased home by Khyber Kim. Zaynar finished 3rd, with the long time leader Celestial Halo holding on in 4th from the fast finishing Starluck. Medermit ran on again to finish 7th.
As a postscript to this race, Alan King reported that on returning home, Medermit was found to have pulled muscles in his back.
As it was now time for the Cross Country race, I decided to relinquish my vantage point beside the rails and set off into the great unknown which is the centre of the racecourse. Last Festival I’d walked across the course to stand on the mound beside the home straight, but this time I ventured further afield so that I could view more of the action. The crowds seemed larger than last year too. Whilst we were waiting for the race to commence, a fox ran across in front of us, heading for the hills!
Then they were off. The field was led away by Heads on the Ground, with Silver Birch a close second. Four of the JP McManus’ owned horses were travelling in mid-field (a total of five runners belonging to him, including Heads on the Ground). As they cleared the ‘cheese-wedges’ these runners were noticeably closer to the pace. A New Story pecked at the 19th obstacle. Prolific Cheltenham cross country winner, Garde Champetre, blundered 6 out, as did Sizing Australia.
Heads on the Ground conceded the lead to the Philip Hobbs trained grey, Lacdoudal, 5 out. Around the final bend there were around a dozen horses in with a chance, the closely packed field resulting in a number of horses being hampered as those on the outside lugged in towards the rails. Those affected on the inside included Garde Champetre and Freneys Well, and resulted in Sizing Australia stumbling as he was squeezed out, almost unshipping his jockey.
Having avoided any trouble, the JP McManus owned L’Ami led the field over the last, but was overtaken by A New Story on the run in, the latter winning by 2½ lengths. The horse’s first victory for a number of seasons. L’Ami finished 2nd, with Lacdoudal in 3rd, and Another Jewel 4th. An Irish winner, but not for trainer Enda Bolger, who has had a stranglehold on this race for the past few seasons.
As a large crowd had gathered centre course, it took ages to file back to the stands side of the track. Having reached it, I decided to go to the Parade Ring to see Choc arrive for his fourth ride of the day, aboard the Paul Nicholls trained Pepite De Soleil. As many of the spectators had dispersed by late afternoon, I found a good vantage point to take photographs, before returning once again to the course-side rails. As the start of this event was in the mid-course chute, upon exiting the horse-walk, Choc cantered across the home straight and up around the top bend to reach it.
Then they were off. The field was led away by Stravinsky Dance, with amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen aboard. Sway, ridden by AP McCoy, hit the first. Here Comes Sally was disputing 2nd with No One Tells Me. Also handy were Amber Brook, Aura About You and Carole’s Legacy. Choc’s mount, Pepite De Soleil, took a keen hold near the rear of the field.
Stravinsky Dance had a 15 length lead as they galloped up the straight with one circuit to go. The Ruby Walsh ridden favourite, Quevega, was in mid-field. Heading away from the stands, Princess Rainbow was in rear. As the long-time leader faded, No One Tells Me and Carole’s Legacy took over. Voler La Vedette was going well just in behind, with Quevega in her slipstream. Having made progress on the outside after the 7th flight, Pepite De Soleil jumped out to the right 3 out, losing some ground. Still prominent on the outside, she again jumped right at the 2nd last and lost further ground.
Carole’s Legacy had a narrow lead around the final bend, with Amber Brook on her inner and Quevega on her outside, Voler La Vedette being tapped for toe in 4th. Quevega took the lead as they approached the last and ran on strongly to win. Carole’s Legacy held on for 2nd, with Voler La Vedette in 3rd and Amber Brook 4th. Pepite De Soleil had faded into 12th place on the line.
Having returned to the Parade Ring and waited for Choc to return to the Weighing Room, it was now time to leave. I set off up the concourse to exit via the main gates. Having crossed the Evesham Road to reach my car, I sat inside it for a while, eating chocolate and making a few diary notes, before joining the queue to leave. Once outside the gate, cars were directed to the right, so I turned down Tommy Taylors Lane to reach St Paul’s Road, where I turned left and headed in the direction of the town centre. Following the one-way system I found my way out onto the A40 London Road and set off eastwards for home.
The traffic was lighter than expected through the shopping parade area, and I was soon driving up into the Cotswold Hills and past Andoversford. I recall the journey went smoothly, apart from encountering huge dollops of mud on the road as I was nearing Oxford. I retraced my route via Bicester and Aylesbury, returning along the A41 bypass to join the M25 so as to fill up with petrol at the local retail park before returning home. As I filled up the car, it became apparent that my beautifully clean car was now covered with mud along the lower edge of the front doors – that must have been the Oxford ‘mud’ incident then! Drat.
I arrived home at 20:50, ate a quick snack, uploaded my photos, updated my blog, and charged my camera battery before retiring at 23:15 with the prospect of another long day before me.