WHEN the coronavirus pandemic emerged in the early months of 2020, few could have imagined the disruption it would cause to almost every single aspect of human endeavour.
Horse racing was thrust firmly into the spectrum of public opprobrium when the 2020 Cheltenham Festival became the poster boy for dithering on the road to the original lockdown. When this insidious virus started to gain a significant foothold among the masses, the sight of people milling together in large crowds made for uncomfortable viewing. The UK lockdown was announced just days after the 2020 Festival had ended but questions persisted as to why it had gone ahead in the first place. And when you’re explaining, you’re losing.
As lots of people all across the world were struggling to breathe, sport was pushed way down the list of things that really matter. And rightly so.
Professional sport was allowed to continue under stringent protocols and it was against this backdrop that the 2021 Cheltenham Festival took place behind closed doors. At that time, most sporting events were taking place in soulless empty stadiums, but it was the sport itself that kept most of us sane as the tedium of lockdown began to bite hard.
The unusual 2021 Cheltenham Festival was no different. It was an historic staging of a festival that has taken place since 1860 and apart from a few years during the latter stages of World War II, and the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 when it was cancelled, it has always had spectators present.
An empty Prestbury Park was a massive blow for the local economy with a projected cost of £100 million from the loss of the UK’s fourth largest sports event, but when huge sacrifices are being made by almost everyone around the world, nobody dared to demur.
As it turned out, the 2021 Festival was historic not only for the empty enclosures at this iconic sporting venue but it turned out to be the year that a woman would take the festival by storm while her boss completed one of the greatest training feats of all time. Their achievements did not require a crowd to endorse them. They made plenty of noise in their own right.
With six victories, Rachael Blackmore would end up riding more winners at a single Cheltenham Festival than anyone else had ever done with the exception of the Festival’s most decorated rider, Ruby Walsh, who had recorded seven winners while at the height of his powers in both 2009 and 2016.
If that wasn’t historic enough, Henry de Bromhead trained the winner of the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup at a single Festival for the very first time. As part of that outstanding feat, Henry’s Put The Kettle On became the first mare to ever win a Champion Chase. In many ways, it was an absolute shame that these historic feats were witnessed in person by just a few hundred people. But for those lucky enough to be present, it was a never-to-be-forgotten Festival for so many different reasons.
While one woman deservedly grabbed most of the headlines on the track, there were three women working diligently behind the scenes to make sure the Irish challenge at the festival ran smoothly in these bizarre times. Irish-trained horses had their own stable yard and the Irish stable staff operated from within their own ‘bubble’ on the opposite side of the track to the main stand.
They had their own sleeping pods beside the stable yard with a hot shower in each pod. Meals were served in their own dedicated canteen from 6am - 9pm. Irish trainers and jockeys all stayed together in a hotel situated on the course and a regular shuttle bus operated between the hotel and the stable yard.
Dr Jennifer Pugh, who was presented with the Irish Racing Hero Award at the 2021 HRI Awards, led a three-person administrative crew that included her IHRB colleague Jennifer Walsh and Barbara White, HRI’s PR & Events Manager.
They were roundly praised by all concerned for their sterling efforts in making the Festival, operating under the highest level of restriction, such a easily navigable event for everyone involved.
“Our principal aim was that by the end of the Festival, people would be talking about the racing rather than the Covid” said Dr. Pugh. “The sense of us all being in this together was palpable. I hope that we don’t ever have to face in to a week as complex as that ever again.
“Everyone had to be extremely organised but there was full cooperation from absolutely everyone. It was utterly exhausting but adrenaline carried us through and the respect that everyone showed was tremendous – behaviour was impeccable.”
It was indeed a huge undertaking, agreed Barbara White: “We were all going in to the great unknown. Planning for the Festival started at least three weeks beforehand and there was a massive amount of paperwork involved.
“Only essential staff were allowed to travel, one trainer, one trainer’s assistant, one groom per horse and the jockeys. The Cheltenham Festival was classed as an elite sporting event. All Irish participants stayed in an Irish zone and did not mix with their English counterparts. Jennifer Pugh’s work was incredible.
“She led, we followed. The camaraderie among everyone in the Irish bubble was just special and it was a real privilege to witness the dedication of stable staff in such unusual circumstances.”
Jennifer Walsh commented: “Racing is not generally a team sport but there was an incredible team spirit that week. It was pouring rain on the Sunday night before the Festival as most of the horses arrived and everyone just mucked in to help unload the boxes and get the horses settled in to their new surroundings.
“There were approximately 180 Irish people in total at the Festival. We were all in this magic bubble together and we just wanted the Festival to be a great success from an Irish point of view.”
Jennifer would not be disappointed. Overall, there were an incredible 23 Irish-trained victories from the 28 races over the course of the four days. That is 82% of the winners from 40% of the runners. The Irish stable staff were hoarse shouting them home from the steps of the Best Mate enclosure – a brilliant vantage point.
Appreciate It’s 26-length win in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle set the tone for the whole four days. And it was not just the big yards that provided the winners. Some smaller yards had their days in the sun too. Gowran’s Paul Hennessy is best known for his outstanding achievements with greyhounds, but the man who trained just three horses at the time, joined in the party when his mare, Heaven Help Us, flew home by nine lengths to win the Coral Cup under Richie Condon at odds of 33/1.
Paul was standing with the stable staff at the final hurdle and when his horse took the final flight of hurdles way out in front, Paul took off up the hill to greet him after he had crossed the winning line.
“I heard a shout of Go on, Paul!” Hennessy said. “When I turned around, it was Danny Mullins on one of the beaten horses urging me up the hill! When we got back to the parade ring there was a weighing room guard of honour from the Irish jockeys for the mare and for myself and Richie which I will never forget. It was super special.
“Also, I was on my own and as I had to speak to the media and attend the presentation, one of Willie Mullins’ team took the mare off me, brought her to the vet’s box and had her washed down. It was that type of Festival. All hands on deck.”
Dr Pugh said it was also important that people did not feel trapped in the bubble and could enjoy the experience.
“When Jordan Gainford celebrated his first Cheltenham winner on The Shunter with a typically cool ride, we took videos of him to send back to his family, who would have loved to have been there. It was important to make people feel connected despite the fact that they couldn’t attend.”
The undoubted star of the show was Henry de Bromhead, whose exploits at the most unusual Cheltenham Festival of them all may never be matched. Right at the very heart of that success was Henry’s travelling head girl, Zoe Smalley, a Yorkshire lass, who was about to have a week that even the most fertile imagination could not have conjured up.
“I had been to Cheltenham many times as a spectator and even though we were well used to racing behind closed doors at that stage, but Cheltenham without a crowd just didn’t seem right,” Zoe said. “We had to get an earlier boat than planned as sailings were reduced because of Covid and when we arrived over at 5pm on the Saturday evening, we rode the horses out in the dark up and down the chute in front of the stands as there was a little bit of light.
“There was only a skeleton staff at Cheltenham as anyone who went to the Festival had to face into two weeks’ isolation on their return. I felt really sorry for those who were left behind as they were the ones who had put in a lot of the hard work in the lead up to the festival and it was a real shame they had to miss out on some incredible moments.
“As help was thin on the ground, everyone had to help out and there were lads riding out for Henry like Sean Flanagan and Richie Condon who did not have rides for Henry at the festival. I was thrilled when they rode their own winners that week.
“When Honeysuckle won the Champion Hurdle, it really felt like the pressure had really lifted and myself, Colman (Comerford) and Katie ran up the chute to welcome her and Rachael back and we were reminded that we had to stay two metres apart. That wasn’t easy!
“I always look after Put The Kettle On when she travels abroad and it was a particular thrill when she won the Champion Chase, but when the winners kept coming, it really was a case of ‘is this actually happening?’
“I was very relaxed going in to the Gold Cup as I said to myself there is no way we are going to win this as well as fairytales just don’t come true. We then go and have a one-two in the race. That was an emotional moment, overwhelming really.
“It was only when I got home and had those two weeks in isolation that I got a chance to relive it all over again on the TV and enjoy it fully. Even then it felt like a dream. I had to take Rachael Blackmore’s trophies home in the truck and when she drove her car over to Henry’s yard to collect them, she couldn’t fit them all in to her car. That memory will stay with me forever. Rachael is such a modest person and we are all very proud of what she has achieved.”
Despite Henry’s heroics, Willie Mullins claimed the leading trainer award with six winners. He also had seven seconds and five thirds for good measure. David Casey is a very important part of the Closutton team and a Cheltenham Festival veteran.
“It really was strange not hearing that explosion of sound when horses fought out a close finish or seeing the outpouring of emotion as the crowd welcomes in a popular winner,” Casey said. “You really missed that. But the lack of crowds certainly made jockeys and trainers lives a lot more straightforward as we didn’t have to deal with the usual traffic problems and all the other various distractions.
“To be honest, it was just wonderful to be there as the Festival may well not have taken place at all. Huge credit has to go to Dr Pugh and her team for their organisational skills. It was a huge effort by all concerned.”
David Casey said it was a also Festival that required a huge amount of creative thinking.
“As staff had to face into two weeks of isolation on their return, a busy yard like ours could ill afford that temporary loss of manpower, so we had to hire in stable staff from outside and, to be fair to them, they just rolled up their sleeves and fitted right in.
“Another strange aspect of the 2021 Festival was that Irish trainers were allocated the second floor of the new grandstand as a viewing area while the British trainers were on the floor above us. On a few occasions, myself and Willie had this giant space to ourselves but overall, it was like any other Cheltenham Festival with its usual share of high and lows, joys and disappointments.
“The success of Irish horses overall was extraordinary and it was a real bonus that Galopin Des Champs’s victory in the conditionals race landed Willie the leading trainer award by a whisker.”
Emma Murray (23) from Dunshaughlin, works as a stable and travelling lass with Noel Meade and she will never ever forget her first Cheltenham Festival.
“Myself and Conor Banahan travelled over with two of the lads from John McConnell’s yard and we all stayed in cabins right beside the stable yard,” Emma said. “I must say we were treated like royalty. It was a quite strict bubble but it allowed us to be with the other Irish stable staff and the atmosphere and spirit of camaraderie kept us all going.
“The only time we saw our British counterparts was briefly in the parade ring. For Jeff Kidder to win the Boodles Juvenile Hurdle under Sean Flanagan was just magic. Noel was very happy with his preparation for the race but what he did just blew us all away. Hopefully, he will get there again this year and I can experience what the Festival is like in normal times.”
The one abiding memory for everyone is the loud cheers that every Irish winner received from the small but vocal Irish contingent present.
Even Ruby Walsh, who was broadcasting in his own isolated studio, came out on to the balcony to welcome every single Irish winner. He used up a lot of shoe leather that week.
Often, it not what happens that’s important. It’s how you deal with it. It’s fair to say the racing community have been brilliant in keeping the show on the road in the most trying of circumstances.
One of the principal rules of being accommodated in the stable yard pods was that there was no alcohol allowed. It wasn’t needed. People were intoxicated on the steady flow of winners throughout a momentous week. A collection among the Irish contingent for WellChild amounted to £25,000. Just a small gesture of their gratitude for being so well looked after.
Dr Jennifer Pugh organised a group photograph on the Friday morning that everyone was encouraged to attend and that will be a treasured possession of a unique experience.
The greatest racing show of them all will see the return of crowds in 2022, however, while the 2021 Cheltenham Festival will long live in the memory for its extraordinary storylines, the privileged few who attended this special festival will forever have an ‘I was there’ story that they can retell long into their dotage. ?