Racing folk sometimes wince as the whiskered commentator John McCririck, a professional chauvinist, refers to his wife Jenny as ‘The Booby’. He was at it again in the racecards for this year’s Cheltenham Festival, but I will worry on her behalf no more. Two days after the Gold Cup, I was lecturing on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 as we steamed through the South China Sea en route from Hong Kong to Vietnam.
Those on board were treated to an unmissable aeronautical display alongside the liner as a hundred big birds soared, dived, skimmed within an inch of the waves, wheeled, glided and co-ordinated flight tracks with the precision of the Red Arrows.They were, the commodore confirmed, Red-footed Boobies. Quite how such a resourceful, graceful bird acquired such an insulting name I will never understand.
Recollecting this year’s Festival highlights in High Seas tranquillity has been hampered somewhat, like my lecture programme, because when a jet-lagged Mrs Oakley and I arrived in Hong Kong the laptop with my Cheltenham notes was still languishing somewhere in an Indian airport, having failed to make it back into my carry-on baggage after the security check when we changed planes at 1 a.m. Even allowing for Mumbai’s midnight mêlée, Mrs Oakley was not impressed, and when I countered that she, too, has been known to lose things I was reminded sharply that two pashminas and a cardigan in four years hardly equals my tally of a laptop, a pair of Swarovski binoculars, three mobile phones and my best cuff links. Though they were expensive pashminas…
It was nonetheless a vintage Cheltenham and the lessons were clear. Never let statistics dominate your winner-search. No six-year-old had won the Gold Cup since 1963 Long Run’s doubters pointed out before the race. But he did. Horses sired by Montjeu are unsuited to Cheltenham, said the sages, 40 of his progeny having run there without a single success. But that didn’t stop his son Noble Prince winning brilliantly in the hands of Tony McCoy.
Above all else, the Festival was a reminder that horses that have run well over the undulating Gloucestershire track go on doing so and that age isn’t necessarily a barrier to them repeating their feats. Alberta’s Run, a previous course winner, in the Ryanair Chase, was my banker bet at the 2010 Festival, winning at 7–1. This year, looking at his early-season form, I decided he was past it at the age of ten and deserted him, only for McCoy to bring him home first once again. Then there was another ten-year-old, Buena Vista, in the Pertemps Final, the race we used to know as the Coral Golden Hurdle. Since he was carrying five pounds more, I doubted his ability one year on to win the race again, only to watch him dominate his field under conditional jockey Conor O’Farrell and coast to victory at 20–1. Buena Vista’s seven successive years at the Festival have now yielded two victories, one second and one third. He has never finished below sixth place.
I still managed to have a financially succesful Festival, having taken the view that hungry fighters are the best fighters and that, with the Irish economy in dire straits, Irish raiders would do well. So they did, taking a record 13 of the 27 races. As noted before the Festival, the Irish trainer to watch now, alongside the incomparable Willie Mullins, is Gordon Elliott, who signalled his progress with a brace of winners.
The richest moment for me came when an emotional Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair chief who pours sackfuls of his own money into the jumping game, was asked by a young lady, who clearly hadn’t been to many Festivals, ‘What is it that you like about horse-racing?’ He replied simply, ‘I’m Irish,’ going on to add, ‘We Irish love girls, drink and racing, though we sometimes get the order wrong.’ For those across the water it really is in their DNA, and what was especially cheering to note was that it was an unmistakably Irish voice which led the three cheers for the English-trained three-time winner of the World Hurdle, Big Buck’s.
The other message from this year’s Festival was the importance of confidence. Without it opportunities were missed, races lost.We saw it in the very first race with Ruby Walsh. After three months off with a broken leg he won on the grey Al Ferof, noting afterwards that ‘he needed a bit of riding’. What he meant was that his horse couldn’t go the early pace, he had been right out at the back and he had had to nurse him then drive him through the pack. Having had only the handful of rides he has done since getting back in the saddle, few others would have believed they could have done that. He never doubted that he would.
But sometimes others are needed to boost that confidence. Young Conor O’Farrell’s nerve might have been destroyed a month before the Festival when he came off after the last on the Pipe stable’s Arrayan with a race seemingly won. He wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. The Pipes just told him to forget it and move on. They put him up at Cheltenham and the niggles in his mind disappeared. Now watch him go.