I’M NORMALLY tied up with writing race reports at the big meetings, but the Cheltenham Festival is my opportunity to go a bit off-piste with my musings, and I hope you will indulge me as I recount my experiences of the week from a very personal perspective.
Racing is, of course, nothing without good company, and I’ve been blessed to have spent much of my time in the company of friend and colleague David Massey.
Massey, like Hamlet’s Yorick is “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” and he has, in his way, regularly borne me on his back, if not a thousand times. I’ve endured a pretty rotten six months in health terms, and it’s been a huge help to be able to unload my woes onto David.
We speak every morning and not a day has passed where his irreverence and innate good humour hasn’t left me smiling, if not doubled up in laughter, which is the best medicine. Well, my GP says Losartan is the best medicine, but laughter comes a close second.
Headed down to Cheltenham early, meeting a group of avid race fans on the rattler at Swindon. Naturally, talk turned to racing, and I got the first of about a dozen tips for Iroko for the Martin Pipe.
Ollie Greenall and Josh Guerriero’s gelding was undoubtedly the most whispered name of the week, and this particular tip came with an excellent – if strictly unrepeatable – anecdote to explain exactly why J.P.’s Wetherby winner was a good thing.
One of the themes of the week was hotels, and a £78 room at the excellent Cheltenham Chase on Monday was around a 10th of what I was quoted for the same room on Tuesday, so it was a case of upping sticks for cheaper accommodation on subsequent days.
I ended up staying in four different establishments between leaving home on Saturday and getting home (I hope) on Friday evening.
Such a nomadic existence can lead to mistakes, and I made a howler early in the week when booking one of my rooms for the wrong week, so I must pass on my thanks to a young Ibis employee called Ioanna, who spent an hour correcting my mistake and ensuring that I wasn’t charged a penny more than my original booking.
It’s easy to have a swipe at the hotel industry for the prices charged this week, but it was reassuring to find that the demise of customer service has been exaggerated, in some quarters at least.
My schedule for Monday was to go to the racecourse, snaffle some sandwiches in the Press Room, record a podcast and walk the entire track before racing. Two out of three ain’t bad, I suppose.
What a day. Although I managed to make a proper hames of my betting on the day, it was easy to forget such trifles when witnessing the victories of Constitution Hill and Honeysuckle in a sublime hour of sport which will rarely be bettered.
One of the downsides of working in the Press Room is that you don’t get to hear the post-race interviews, but anyone could have watched Henry de Bromhead speaking to Lydia Hislop with the volume on zero and still have tears in their eyes at the end of it. Both – as ever – struck the perfect tone.
Massey does a lot of paddock analysis in his role of racing factotum, and such work is often the most nebulous of the analytical roles. I joined him before most of the Grade 1 contests through the week, which didn’t start well.
“Is that it?” He asked when first clapping eyes on Marine Nationale, but while there were others bigger and stronger in the opener, Barry Connell’s flat-bred was too good, and the paddock negatives Facile Vega and Diverge filled the places. It’s an unforgiving business at times.
I like to remind David of his finest moment in this particular discipline. Coming late to the paddock one day, I missed the horse I was keen to catch sight of. “What did you make of Colin Tizzard’s horse?” I asked.
There followed a short silence, followed by a long sigh. “Rory,” he said. “They’re all the ****ing same.” Quite!
My bed for Tuesday night was above a busy Wetherspoon’s pub in Worcester, which might have seemed a gamble on a par with backing an British runner in the Ballymore, but the room was large, clean and comfortable, as well as soundproofed.
There was the added bonus that David was coincidentally staying in Worcester too (a bit of forward planning might have been wise), and saved me the hassle of getting a train and bus to the track.
On the flipside, I was soon to discover he had developed a new catchphrase: “Am I in the right lane? No, ****!” Getting to the track safely felt like having a winner, which was handy, as winners were hard to come by.
Both of us were keen on The Real Whacker in the Brown Advisory, but rather than backing Pat Neville’s beast each-way, I conspire to put him in a mammoth exacta with Gerri Colombe arguing they were the only two who could win.
Well done me, except I put Gerri Colombe first and didn’t reverse it. Watching Gordon’s future star fail to get up by a whisker provided a great story, but an agonising defeat for me. What was I thinking?
At least I’d had the winner in an each-way double with Dinoblue in the Grand Annual at good prices, and my confidence was high through most of that race, only for the plucky mare to demolish both fences in the straight.
How she stood up, let alone retained second, is a mystery to me, but another painful reminder of what might have been.
A chat with connections of Energumene before the Champion Chase showed them hugely confident, and with good reason. Nothing was left to chance, including the new shoes the winner was sporting, and that crafty manoeuvre on the home bend which earned Paul Townend a five-day ban.
Mr Bloom wasn’t complaining, although his superstar chaser was better than ever, and not in need of any extra assistance.
An early start and a late finish on day three of the Festival. We were up early to beat the traffic, which was much worse getting on to the M5 than it was thereafter. We were occasionally in the correct lane, but lots of other people weren’t, judging by David’s language.
My selections were fine on the first two days, but my bet management was poor, albeit with me missing backing winners rather than throwing money astray, but I finally used a bit of discipline and had a decent day, hitting the mark with Envoi Allen and Angels Dawn, the latter ending a two-week drought on the Racing Post naps table.
The former would not have crossed my mind a few days before, but Henry’s horses had looked tremendous on the first two days, and I had a fortunate volte-face which paid dividends.
The day would have been an absolute triumph had Magical Zoe landed the Mares’ Novice, but she got a nightmare run though and found that Gavin Sheehan and You Wear It Well had flown by the time she finally got into the clear. A kick in the teeth for my biggest position of the day, but a positive day all told.
It was off to my one dinner of the week with David and some friends that night where we tried to keep conversation away from betting for the ladies present, but failed miserably. Luckily they (the wife and daughter of an on-course bookie) are used to such scenarios, and the evening passed pleasantly for all.
Friday began in the most bizarre circumstances, and I don’t include this for a bit of colour or as a humorous anecdote.
I was awoken at 3:30am by a cat jumping on my bed. That’s not unusual at home, but I’m pretty sure my room at the Worcester Whitehouse didn’t come with such accompaniment.
The cat proceeded to lie down, leaning into my chest, unmistakably tangible - I felt his weight as he dropped - but also unmistakably not there.
A few minutes later I again felt the cat pad twice on the duvet before nimbly jumping over my prone body, but he didn’t land anywhere. It was still dark outside, but I was up, washed and out of that room in a flash.
I asked the fella on reception if my experience was unique, and he told me that there was a hotel cat. A century ago. Yikes.
I must say the racing seemed like an afterthought on the back of my feline manifestation, and most of my focus was on the Gold Cup where I had gone nap on Ahoy Senor in the hope that the fences wouldn’t get in his way.
I have to say it looked remarkably good for a long way, and I’d just turned to David in the Media Centre where we were watching on one of the screens to point out that Lucinda Russell’s gangly chaser hadn’t touched a twig.
In that second a great groan came from the crowd, and – delayed by several seconds on the RacingTV feed – I watched grim-faced, knowing what would happen next.
Something had fallen – it could have been any of the leaders, really, but something in that groan told me all I needed to know, and visual evidence followed shortly and brutally.
It’s been a funny old week, all told……