Racing Life is all about judgment and I got one thing right at Cheltenham last Saturday after the overnight rain. Waved on to soggy grass by a parking attendant, I demurred, insisting that anyone who parked there would never drive off. I was waved on impatiently and foolishly let her win. When it came to leaving, I managed to start slithering across the grass towards safety, only for a 4 x 4 driving up the hard core to refuse to let me in. As I braked, I knew I was doomed. It must be something about being so high up that makes 4 x 4 drivers so arrogant but at least the arrival of the tractor 50 minutes later taught me where to find the bolt-on towbar for my car.
My assessment of the carpark going was the only thing I did get right on Festival Trials Day: in all seven races I managed to back the second. In the Triumph Hurdle Trial, I wavered between Paul Nicholls’s Clan Des Obeaux and Nicky Henderson’s Consul De Thaix. I went down the Nicholls route, only for Nicky to win with his other runner, the 25–1 Protek Des Flos. These French imports all seem to love the mud.
So do Venetia Williams’s horses, so in the second I went for her Waldorf Salad. He was one of two who came clear of the field but was outgunned by Evan Williams’s King’s Odyssey in the blue and pink colours of Mr and Mrs William Rucker. From a point-to-point background, the Ruckers are true chasing folk. ‘I regard hurdling just as a necessary evil,’ William Rucker told me. But Trials day was already producing more fog than sunlight: by winning that race King’s Odyssey had smoked himself out of his original target at the Festival, a novices’ handicap. That did not worry his trainer; King’s Odyssey cheered up a week that saw the stable down in the dumps. With Evan’s stable jockey already out with a broken leg they lost a good horse in a fall that broke the collarbone of Adam Wedge, the No. 2 at the yard who has been riding them in Paul Moloney’s absence. Hailing ‘a proper winter horse’ who had relished the soft ground, Evan declared, ‘If he never turned up anywhere in the spring it wouldn’t worry Mr and Mrs Rucker or myself.’ When someone mentioned the words ‘Grand National’ with regard to King’s Odyssey’s future he declared, ‘You don’t win those kinds of races if you keep rushing them to Cheltenham. I don’t have to chase those buggers round here in March. I’ve got to earn my living for 12 months of the year.’ He said he was lucky to have owners like the Ruckers; they are lucky to have a trainer with perspective.
By the time you read this, I will be on a cruise ship somewhere between Peru and Tahiti — someone has to do these things — giving talks about politics and racing. A parallel I often draw is that between racing folk and the parachute commander who was asked at his retirement party what it was he loved about jumping out of planes. ‘I hate jumping out of planes,’ he replied. ‘It makes me sick to the stomach. I just love being with the kind of people who do like jumping out of planes.’ The sheer good fellowship of jumping was in evidence once again as my selection, the Grand National winner Many Clouds, and Hennessy Gold Cup winner Smad Place came clear in the BetBright Trial Chase. Many Clouds had won the race last year, with Smad Place second. This time it was the other way round, but the first man with a congratulatory arm around King’s shoulders was Many Clouds trainer Oliver Sherwood, who added a cheery cry of ‘15 all’. As a Gold Cup trial, though, there was more fog. Alan King declared himself more confused than ever over whether to run Smad Place in the Gold Cup while the co-favourite for that race, Willie Mullins’s Djakadam, fell at the tenth.
I never know quite what makes horses like particular courses. Perhaps it is a bit like humans who return to holiday destinations, but horses that run well at Cheltenham often defy their form to repeat the feat. Annacotty had won the Paddy Power Gold Cup at the Gloucestershire venue in the autumn but lacked sparkle last time out so I sided with Venetia Williams’s Tenor Nivernais. Again the two came 30 lengths clear of the field, but it was of course Annacotty who won the thrilling duel. Again, though, the winner will probably now be weighted out of what would have been his best Festival target.
The next two races, however, did give us Festival pointers. Thistlecrack, the best-looking jumper in training, demolished his field in the Cleeve Hurdle and is a banker for the World Hurdle and Alan King’s Yanworth did the same in beating Shantou Village, one of this column’s Twelve to Follow, by seven lengths in the novices’ hurdle. Back them both in March.