I can only be sorry for the 67,496,581 citizens of the UK who were not at Cheltenham last Saturday. For the 33,591 of us who were there, it could not have been a more heart-warming, thrilling and character-filled way of escaping from the insulting knavery of election politics and the sourness of the weather that it so perfectly reflects. There is nothing like being in a crowd of 30,000 enthusiasts who mostly like a bet but who will cheer courage, stamina or quality whether or not they have backed the winner.
Many in the crowd remembered how Kerry Lee’s Happy Diva had unluckily been brought down four fences out in the BetVictor Gold Cup a year before when travelling like a winner. This time it looked as though the mare might be denied again: there is nothing a jump jockey fears more than seeing Barry Geraghty in the McManus hoops looming up, driving for all he is worth as the winning post approaches. But the 3lb claimer Richard Patrick had kept to his game plan of sticking to the rail and had enough left in the tank to hold him off and win the day’s biggest prize for the Roseff family. Said the happy trainer of the owners, who started with her father Richard 30 years before: ‘If it’s a quiet day they say “There’ll always be another day”. If we’ve won, they say “Now we’re really going to celebrate.”’ That’s true National Hunt folk for you.
An equally popular success was that of amateur rider David Maxwell in the BetVictor handicap hurdle on the favourite Jatiluwih, trained by Philip Hobbs. There was no mistaking his fist-punching fervour as he rode into the winners’ enclosure in the increasingly familiar brown and red colours. After ten attempts this was a first-ever Cheltenham victory for the 41-year-old who has put a solid chunk of a fortune shrewdly acquired in the property world into the purchase of 20-plus racehorses which he rides himself.
Typically, when asked about his success, David declared: ‘I had a very nice horse and Philip had trained it well. All I had to do was not fall off on the way to the start, which is not a given.’ He had indeed suffered that indignity at Auteuil, although he did then win that Grade 3 on his first acquaintance with Cat Tiger, now trained by Paul Nicholls. There was nothing unpolished about his finish on Jatiluwih, nor on Dolphin Square when he beat Adrian Heskin by a short head at Wincanton. And the test is that the professionals genuinely welcome Maxwell’s enthusiasm in the weighing room. Jatiluwih, he says, ‘might be a proper horse’ having followed chase success in France with five hurdle victories in Britain. ‘I’m unimportant in the scheme of this sport. The horses are what matter and what make it so wonderful. They are such noble animals and, when you get a horse that tries like he does, my goodness, you just want to give them your all in response. This place is what it’s all about. It’s not the money, it’s the mud and the guts, the passion and the glory.’ I asked Nicky Henderson, a former leading amateur himself, if David had sent him any of his horses. ‘He jolly well should,’ said Nicky with feeling. ‘Every time he wins it’s one of mine he beats.’
It was quite a day for amateurs with the 21-year-old 7lb claimer Sam Lee winning the Spinal Injuries Association handicap hurdle on the 14–1 shot Golan Fortune for Phil Middleton. A Cheltenham member from a farming background who had done his turn with the cows that morning, Sam reflected in his interview on the winner’s rostrum that he was normally up on the steps in the crowd looking in. In trouble with the BHA for wearing a body protector that did not meet required standards, he is serving a 42-day ban from point to points and he added: ‘I’ve come back to racing through pointing after being a bit of a reprobate and hopefully this is the way to be good in future.’
Anybody who needed reminding how good the professionals can be should look at the replays of Robbie Power’s ride for Colin Tizzard on West Approach to win the BetVictor handicap chase. West Approach, although talented, hasn’t always seen things out to the line and has lost races he might have won. Though Tizzard normally likes his horses kept in the front four, Robbie Power told him: ‘You won’t see me until after the last’ and rode an ice-cool race to get up in the last 100 yards. Said a smiling Tizzard afterwards, ‘It takes a bit of nerve, riding a race like that, doesn’t it? It was poetry.’ But they say in politics that ‘You campaign in poetry and govern in prose’, and Robbie Power came to the second-last in the big race on Slate House looking like a winner, only to crumple to the ground. That, too, is jump racing.