The most colourful sight at Sandown on the Saturday before the Cheltenham Festival was not the jockeys’ silks but the vivid bruising around Ruby Walsh’s eye as he returned on his first winner since breaking his leg in November. The blues, reds and yellows visible on his stitched-up face were the result of a fall on King of the Refs at Naas three days before. Had he feared the worst as his mount had gone down? Oh, no, said Ruby matter-of-factly, in a jump jockey’s life there is all the difference in the world between ordinary nuisance pain and ‘oh, my God, I’ve broken it’ pain.
We’ll have had plenty of glory at Cheltenham by the time you read this — producing words before the four-day extravaganza that won’t be read until after it isn’t the racing scribe’s easiest task — but sometimes we should remember the privations these gladiators endure to give us our thrills.
Not far away at Sandown on Saturday was Brendan Powell. When he quit the saddle more or less in one piece to take up training, I remember, he declared, ‘I’ve been pretty lucky with injuries.’ His idea of ‘pretty lucky’ was that he had had only two broken legs, a broken arm, both collarbones shattered in repeated fractures and a ruptured stomach causing massive internal bleeding. Those who’ve had success at Cheltenham this week deserve their applause.
As well as the cheers for Ruby’s resumption of the winning trail there was an especially warm reception for Dominic Elsworth’s victory in the big race, the Imperial Cup, on Lucy Wadham’s Alarazi. Dominic has had to work his way back again after being 14 months out of the saddle with head injuries sustained at Ffos Las which at one stage threatened to leave him unable to drive again, let alone to handle hefty chasers and nifty hurdlers over obstacles at speed. As he says, ‘The game is so competitive, which is good. Every jockey in that weighing room absolutely works his socks off. There is no chance to sit back and relax, you have to graft away.’
If you are reading this on Friday morning and Alarazi has made the cut for the County Hurdle at the Festival, then he is probably worth another punt. He is a classy animal with an excellent cruising speed, and though he used to take some handling, racing very keenly, Dominic seems to have found the knack of settling him. At Sandown he had been ordered to keep Alarazi to the outside because his trainer felt he didn’t like being hemmed in. But after a false start Alarazi’s jockey lined him up on the inside. Said the grateful trainer, ‘That’s why he’s such a great jockey. He did his own thing. Alarazi settled beautifully on the inside. He knows best.’
The only sad part is that with all the interest in Ruby’s resumption and the forward focus on Cheltenham, the Wadhams didn’t really get the notice they would normally have received for clinching an important victory. Lucy and Justin Wadham have come close to winning the race before and this was a deserved victory for what is to me one of the outstanding smaller stables. And of course the fact that I had taken the 10–1 about Alarazi and provided myself with a decent little punting pot for Cheltenham has nothing to do with that opinion…
One who warmed up well for the Festival was Nicky Henderson’s jockey Barry Geraghty, who brought home Paul Murphy’s Skint by a nose in the novices’ handicap hurdle. It was an example of sheer determination. Coming to the last, Skint was so tired he was almost going up and down on the spot. I wrote off his chances entirely but Geraghty was not to be denied, driving home his wandering mount to hold off Mic’s Delight. Skint is destined for a chasing career and one who should have a shining future over the big obstacles is the horse who gave Ruby his comeback win.
Paul Nicholls is very straight about his horses and he genuinely believed that Mon Parrain, a French import, would need the run in the handicap chase. Instead, Mon Parrain, who was allowed to start at 9–2, jumped like a stag, went clear of his field at the Pond fence and stayed on to win by 22 lengths. Ruby has had harder times turning over in bed than seeing this one home.
If I had missed some obvious signals then so, too, did the fellow on a mobile phone next to me who was telling his girlfriend how to find him. ‘I’m by the parade ring,’ he told her, ‘and I’m wearing a green hat.’ Which would have been fine if it were not for the fact that race sponsors Paddy Power had been handing out green hats as freebies and there were at least a couple of hundred of them being worn around the parade ring.
Robin Oakley’s new book The Cheltenham Festival: a centenary history is published by Aurum Press at £20.