I can’t wait to get started on Tuesday. Cheltenham is the pinnacle of our sport and these four days are what we are working towards all winter. It’s been seven years now since my first ride there, but it doesn’t get any less exciting and it will be even better this year with the crowds back.
It’s brilliant to just be a part of it. Just to ride there is a privilege, and I’m one of the lucky ones who has ridden winners there. I’ve got chances again too, starting with Frodon and Martello Sky on day one, followed by Thyme White on day two. The rest of the week is up in the air still, but I’ll fill you in more as we go along on both my own rides and on my other fancies in what will be a daily column this week.
Besides my own rides, I’m buzzing about some of the big clashes we’ve got to look forward to between some of the sport’s supreme athletes.
Constitution Hill and Jonbon against Dysart Dynamo and Kilcruit in the first race of the week is a hell of an opener, and then I’m especially looking forward to seeing Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle, Bravemansgame in the Brown Advisory, and Shishkin against Energumene and Chacun Pour Soi in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. And that’s just the first two days. The last two days aren’t too bad either!
So much to look forward to
While it will always be the championship races that I’m most excited about, I’m also looking forward to seeing if Tiger Roll can sign off with yet another win in the Cross Country Chase. I’ll also be taking a lot of interest in the Bumper, as those rising stars like Facile Vega and American Mike are the future of our sport and they are so cool.
I’ll also be taking a lot of interest in the Bumper, as those horses are the future of our sport and they are so cool.
I’m also looking forward to seeing where the winners are going to come from in the big handicaps, and it’s in those races in particular where an exceptional ride might make all the difference.
It’s a combination of hundreds of little things all coming together to make it the best week of the year.
The more you ride at the festival the more you learn
I’ve done quite a few Festivals now but I remember there being so much noise and buzz that for my first couple that I was in a complete fog and kind of stumbling through things until I got out there racing. It’s different from even the biggest Saturday meetings.
You are kind of in a whirlwind, getting pushed around and dragged around. It only becomes more normal again when you are out there riding, and even then it was all happening much faster than usual and I couldn’t believe how tight everybody was going around.
I think your first couple of Festivals are a bit like your first couple of falls – they happen so fast you don’t know which way you’ve gone – but then you have a few more and you learn to slow things down and keep it all a bit calmer.
You know what to expect and where to go, and you learn how to control the different pressures, the hype, and how the horses are going to react to the crowds, which of course we didn’t have last year.
You know how to keep your head and keep your cool, hoping it all goes right and keeping a lid on expectations, although still maybe dreaming a little too much. You know what the starts are going to be like and you know what pace to expect.
You also know what to expect from the ground and the course layout because I always walk the course every morning, having probably ridden out as usual in the mornings. It’s important to see where the fresh ground is after any rail movements, and to see if any markers have been moved. It’s all part of the routine.
I completely messed up my first ride
It was way before my time when dad was riding big winners at the Festival like Morley Street and Forest Sun, so my first proper personal memory of the meeting is of seeing my brother Hadden win the Pertemps Hurdle on Buena Vista.
I watched it at home with mum and dad and I remember we got closer and closer to the TV the more he looked like winning.
We had our hearts in our mouths when he took a right chance at the last, but then we all went off like rockets when he won. He came home that night and I remember painting a ‘welcome home’ bed sheet, complete with Buena Vista in his blinkers.
Only five years later I was riding there for the first time myself on Current Event in the Foxhunters, and I’m afraid I completely messed it up. I simply wasn’t prepared for how quick everything happens – the pressures and the intensity of it all – and I messed it up at the start.
I discovered there that you only get seconds to get in position, unlike the day-to-day I was more used to, where you might have several minutes down at the start getting your girths checked and so on and everything is much more settled.
It was one of my biggest lessons, and when I went back two years later for the same race on Pacha Du Polder I was much better prepared.
There’s so much history in that trophy – it is the Gold Cup for amateurs – and just to go out and ride a horse like ‘Pacha’ for the champion trainer in the silks of the late Andy Stewart was an incredible moment for me, having seen Ruby Walsh win so many big races in the same colours.
Then to win the race the way we did, having never left the rail, was absolutely massive.
Joining Hadden and my dad as a Festival winner was probably one of the very few moments I’ve really been proud of myself. I’d spent my whole life trying to keep up with those guys and I’d never thought I’d be joining them at that level
It was mega.
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