Irish racing guru Ted Walsh was asked at the start of Gold Cup day if retiring champion jockey Tony McCoy could win his last Cheltenham Festival race. ‘No,’ came the unsentimental reply. ‘This is Cheltenham, not Disneyland.’ But within three hours, racing’s raucous pilgrims cheered home a fairytale winner: the novice Coneygree ran his rivals ragged from the front in the hands of the young jockey Nico de Boinville and collected the Betfred Gold Cup for the ten-horse stable of Mark and Sara Bradstock, recently profiled here.
Said former trainer Charlie Brooks, ‘That was the best victory ever in the history of horse-racing,’ and his opinion had plenty of takers. The Bradstock family have suffered enough afflictions to engage a clinic-full of consultants and stretch their meagre resources to twanging point to keep their small show on their excellent gallops. The Bradstocks, and Sara’s mother Chicky, had bought Coneygree’s mother Plaid Maid to give Sara’s father, the late John Oaksey, for many of us the instigator of our joy in racing, some breeding fun in retirement. Now here they were at the summit of the jumping Olympics and some of the toughest cheeks you will ever encounter bore tears of joy.
Cheltenham had already showcased fantastic quality, notably on the first day when Douvan, Un De Sceaux and the Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen, all from the powerhouse Willie Mullins operation, dominated their fields. When Mullins’s Annie Power came to the last hurdle leading in the mares’ championship, it looked as though the bookies were about to take their biggest pasting ever. Sadly, Annie Power took off too soon and somersaulted. With many accumulators riding on her, the fall saved the bookmakers £70 million.
Douvan, Faugheen and Annie Power all raced in the pink with green spots of Rich Ricci, rich by name and rich by nurture from his years as a big wheel at Barclays Bank. The owner, too, of Vautour, whose athletic jumping in the JLT Novices’ Chase stamped him as an outstanding prospect, Mr Ricci became that rarity a popular banker when he declared that his best moment of the week was seeing Annie Power get up after her fall. None of us resented his success nor those of Michael O’Leary and J.P. McManus, others who keep the sport going by pouring squillions into finding the best equine talent and having it trained by maestros such as Willie Mullins, Paul Nicholls or Nicky Henderson, but it is vital for the sport’s appeal that the little guys sometimes win too.
There were many magic moments, not least for this column when Cole Harden, in our Twelve to Follow, took the World Hurdle at 14–1 for Warren Greatrex in the hands of Gavin Sheehan, the pair of them noted as names to watch.
Then there was the classic Pipe stable operation when The Package, in our Twelve two or three seasons ago, won the Kim Muir Chase for amateur riders, wearing blinkers for the first time at the age of 12. When David Pipe met Jamie Codd, the top Irish amateur he’d booked to ride him this year, his instructions were simple: ‘He’ll win.’ Luckily, he’d said much the same to my best racecourse source.
Then there was the reply when we asked Dermot Weld how long it took him to target a horse for Cheltenham after his Windsor Park had won the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle: ‘About a year,’ he said with a gentle smile. Always beware the quiet Irishman.
Before that race, I had been chatting to a new-found Irish friend who was incredulous that Irish jockey Davy Russell, Windsor Park’s partner, had only four rides booked for the week. OK, he turned out to be Davy’s dad, but how short some trainers’ memories are: his victory on Windsor Park was Davy’s fifth Cheltenham win in as many rides, including the 2014 Gold Cup.
Then there was the bubbling Frankie Dettori after Dodging Bullets, whom he bred, had won the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Challenged about his rakish hat, he insisted, ‘I’m not really a trilby man but Barry Hills gave it to me and said he’d take it back if I didn’t wear it.’
The true achievement for the Cheltenham authorities was that racing pleasures were in no way disrupted by the massive building operation while somehow they have managed to find more space for record crowds. Hats off to the planners, although some things are changing. Former chairman Sam Vestey noted wistfully as we watched one victory ceremony, ‘Have you noticed they no longer take their hats off when they go up for a prize?’
Some things, alas, will always stay the same. After the Betfred Gold Cup, I was chatting to the sponsors’ chairman Fred Done and a companion when I dropped a betting slip. As I bent to retrieve it, we all spotted a £20 note on the floor. ‘Mine, I think,’ said the companion. ‘Oh no,’ said Fred, swiftly producing a note from his pocket. ‘It’s from someone who had a bet with me in the box.’ In the end, we know, the money always finishes up in the bookies’ hands.