Last Saturday morning, Mo Gawdat, former chief business officer at Google, was on the radio explaining his algorithm for happiness, apparently a publishing sensation. Happiness, it seems, is equal to or greater than the events of your life minus your expectations of how life should be.
That was a tricky proposition for the 20,000 of us on the way to Cheltenham Festival’s trials day likely to have a few bets and facing a fiendishly difficult racecard. Trials day is the final opportunity for trainers to test out their best prospects for a desperately prized win at the Festival in March. Could this one stay an extra four furlongs? Can that one cope with Cheltenham’s idiosyncratic undulations? Is my leading owner’s pride and joy just a decent handicapper or has he got that extra touch of class? The true optimists among us no doubt anticipated going home with a thick wallet; the rest expected the usual run of second places when we backed to win and fourths when we had backed each way. But pretty well all of us would return home happy as long as we saw fiercely contested races with some thrilling finishes.
For anybody with a dose of the winter glums, I can only say that there could not have been a more perfect antidote than last Saturday at Cheltenham. Listening to the joyous bubbling stream of consciousness from Bryony Frost after she has ridden a winner almost makes you feel you have been in the saddle with her. After Frodon, having led all the way, put himself into the Gold Cup picture by winning the Cotswold Chase, the crowd screaming their heroine home up the hill as the pair held off Elegant Escape, she was as ever giving all the credit to her mount. Grinning her way up the chute after the race, she told Frodon: ‘This is all for you, mate.’ She told us: ‘I’ve never ridden a horse who has a heart like him. You can see how brave he is for me. I call upon him and he answers me every time.’ But Bryony is as practical and canny as she is effervescent. Asked if it might not have been easier to wait at the back with Frodon, she was adamant: ‘This is trials day and we had to go and try him. If he had just crept into the race we would not have known he could stay this far. Now we know he can.’
It was a great day for the girls, and not for the first time Lizzie Kelly was unlucky that the limelight shone on Bryony on a day when she demonstrated her own abilities and determination by coming back to win the handicap chase on Siruh Du Lac, despite being headed after the last by the experienced Daryl Jacob on the favourite Janika. Siruh Du Lac’s immaculate jumping and his rider’s determined finish were generously applauded by the knowledgeable Cheltenham crowd. No one could have done the job better and it remains a puzzle that Lizzie hardly ever gets a ride outside the yards run by her mother Jane and stepfather Nick Williams. ‘I just don’t know why,’ Nick replied when I put the question to him.
There was a female lead, too, in the story of the day when, in the outstanding Festival trial, Paisley Park won the Cleeve Hurdle in commanding style for trainer Emma Lavelle to become the favourite for this year’s Stayers’ Hurdle. Already a first Grade One winner for Emma and jockey Aidan Coleman, Paisley Park had been a very sick horse who nearly died and his victory brought joy to his remarkable owner Andrew Gemmell. Despite having been blind since he was born, he could not be a more enthusiastic worldwide racing and sporting fan with a share in 20 horses. Says Emma: ‘He is the most extraordinarily brave, kind, nice man,’ adding: ‘He can drink better than anyone I know.’ Take the pleasures you can. Of Paisley Park Emma says: ‘He is a trainer’s dream — but ask me that in a few weeks. All we have to do — that little “all” — is to bring him here in the same form in March.’
As for the happiness algorithm, I drove home with a grin to make the average happy bunny look like Grumpy on a bad day. I had worried that Frodon might not stay the Gold Cup distance of 3m 1f, but after reading Paul Nicholls’s confident prediction, in his Betfair way blog, that he would I doubled my bet. I had fancied Paisley Park since he won the Long Walk at Ascot and when former champion jockey Peter Scudamore confided how much he liked Siruh Du Lac, I doubled up on him too. I fancied Ben Pauling’s improving Kildisart, who won the novices’ handicap chase, and I always take an interest in horses at Cheltenham trained nearby by Fergal O’Brien and ridden by that true horseman Paddy Brennan. So, unbelievably, with their 8–1 shot Benny’s Bridge, I finished up with five winners on trials day. I’ll never do that again, algorithm or no algorithm.