The Secret Racegoer’s Cheltenham diary
The crowds and the roar were back at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, the Secret Racegoer among them – here’s his diary of the week
Monday afternoon and the GWR train from Paddington arrives late at Cheltenham Spa but a couple of minutes short of the threshold for claiming compensation.
First port of call was The Beehive, one of Cheltenham’s best pubs and the Secret Racegoer’s favourite.
But, devastating news; this would be the last Cheltenham Festival for the wonderful Sarah who runs the pub – she’s off to pastures new and will be a terrific asset to the good folk of Bristol where she is headed.
Next morning it’s off to Prestbury Park. The approach to the racecourse is like no other, with crowds joining the route from all directions and coming together at the sweeping walkway up to the main entrance.
The excitement is palpable.
Adding to the anticipation are glimpses of horses in the stables who have arrived in the fleet of horse boxes lining the walkway.
There’s one lorry from Nicky Henderson’s yard, sponsored by Unibet. And Gavin Cromwell sponsored by Betdaq. Dan Skelton sponsored by Ladbrokes. And Lucinda Russell, sponsored by Edinburgh Gin.
The start time of the first race is seconds away. Lungs are filled, ready for the roar. And Dysart Dynamo breaks the tape.
Hold that roar. We go again. All good. The roar rattles the rafters.
Minutes later Constitution Hill is greeted by the roaring crowd as it sprouted wings and flew up the run-in leaving stablemate Jonbon to make his own way home in second.
Then, via Edwardstone’s immaculate jumping and Corach Stone, maybe giving Lucinda Russell the excuse to celebrate with her sponsor’s wares, there was Honeysuckle.
The home team had won the first three races but surely the Irish were going to get on the board with the meeting’s first championship race with the Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old.
It never really looked in doubt, and it wasn’t. Rachel Blackmore in winning mode again.
Things were going to plan for punters but the fifth was looking a little more open.
Now, the Secret Racegoer has never experienced what it’s like to win a Grade 1 race at the Cheltenham Festival. But those with shares in Middleham Park Racing XLII’s Marie’s Rock had that pleasure. She won at 18/1.
One of its owners is top banking, financial services litigation and fraud lawyer Adam Ibrahim. No doubt he’s very eloquent in court but being one of a group having dinner with him that evening, he could best be described as pretty much stunned and speechless.
Otherwise, one would have liked him to take instructions for a class action against Cheltenham for charging £7 for a pint of Guinness.
Wednesday’s forecast rain was set to dampen the spirits, but not to worry as Mick Fitzgerald said on the Opening Show the sun would burn off the cloud and it would brighten the day. It didn’t and it rained all afternoon.
Paul Nicholls wasn’t happy as the course had been watered the night before but nobody had expected such heavy and continuous rain. Most of his horses, not least Bravemansgame, were withdrawn.
Repeated announcements beginning with “This is to let racegoers know …” meant another non-runner.
It also preceded news that there would be no spectator access to the infield for the cross-country race. The Secret Racegoer went to the bar to use what was now a blistering debit card.
Both in the bar, and all over the racecourse, Delta Work’s victory in the circus race over runner-up Tiger Roll was booed. Or was it for the two horses owner?
Cheltenham’s dress-code is “dress for the weather”. Many racegoers didn’t heed the advice or maybe they’d listened to Mick Fitzgerald. Suits and outfits were ruined, as were the Secret Racegoer’s suede shoes.
The touts were back this year, apparently in defiance a court order preventing them from operating on or near the racecourse.
Indeed, they were waiting for the shuttle buses to arrive to ask passengers if they had any spare tickets. The touts were also selling plastic rain ponchos.
The rain created a new water jump at the entrance to the Orchard, where those racegoers who didn’t look where they were going found themselves ankle-deep in water. People in the dry looked on, waiting to see who was going to make a splash.
The Orchard, with no trees in sight and for some reason granted a trade mark, was like an open-air Mayfair, with Gloucestershire branches of swanky London clubs, bars and designer outlets.
It was also a convenient place to park the Bentley if the water level was to rise any further.
One of the clubs was Fitzdares and the Secret Racegoer was about to pay them a visit as it had been over an hour since L’Homme Presse had won and they hadn’t settled a winning Bet.
Maybe they were aware that trouble was on it’s way, as they suddenly paid up.
Disappointment of the day was the pulling-up of Shishkin who was never going well, and spectators were denied another battle with Energumene who came up the hill virtually alone.
Thursday turned out to be a complete contrast with a bright sunny day. Mick Fitzgerald did say it would brighten up. There was, however, one annoyance.
If the ear-worm on Wednesday was the warning of non-runners, Thursday’s was the repeated playing of:
Her eyes they shine like diamonds
I thought her the queen of the land
And her hair hung over her shoulders
Tied up in a black velvet band
The Dubliners’ The Black Velvet Band had been one of the Secret Racegoer’s favourites.
By now, the tide was turning and Irish horses were taking control. Indeed, Bob Olinger clearly didn’t want to be seen with anyone else with a forty-length victory.
Allaho decided 14-lengths was sufficient but Flooring Porter was a little more friendly, allowing Thyme Hill to get within two-and-three-quarter lengths.
Friday, a ‘greenwash’, gave us Rachel Blackmore and A Plus Tard (pictured). There had been so many spectacular wins over the first three days but this was a glorious result.
For Blackmore it was the rarely-achieved Champion Hurdle/Gold Cup double. Her Gold Cup ride was sublime.
And A Plus Tard exacted revenge by reversing last year’s result with Minella Indo, 15 lengths back in second.
His turbo-charged finish up the hill after a breath-taking leap at the last will live long on the memory.
A little sadness to be heading home on the rattler on Saturday morning but things brightened up again, Mick Fitzgerald said they would, as Paddy Power’s Paul Binfield produced cans of Old Speckled Hen.
That was Cheltenham 2022. The crowds were back and it was, as ever, unforgettable.
Hey, it’s the Lincoln on Saturday – is William Haggas going to win it again, this time with Mujtaba?
♦ The Secret Racegoer was talking to Mike Deasy