The Cheltenham Festival never disappoints, but some years tend to outdo others and this was one of them. Yesterday’s fourth day had something for everyone: from the racing aficionados to the most casual of observers who wouldn’t know a fence from a hurdle.
A memorable Gold Cup delivered not just a rare Irish winner, but a 1-2-3-4 of Irish entrants that more than satisfied the demands of those interested in the sport. Victoria Pendleton’s gutsy fourth place on Pacha Du Polder in the Foxhunter Chase, on the other hand, hit the spot for everyone else.
Pendleton’s story hasn’t generated huge interest in Ireland, but she very nearly overshadowed the Gold Cup itself over here. Quite the achievement. Britain’s most successful female Olympian, she swapped a bike for a horse a year ago with the aim of riding on this rarified stage this week.
The brainchild of a betting company — her ride, that is, not Pendleton herself — the 12-month journey from novice to racing’s biggest day was greeted with disdain by many, but embraced by a media machine that can always be counted on to bite down hard on a novelty factor.
Her trainer Paul Nicholls, Britain’s current champion, had strong words for the naysayers.
“There was a lot of people with opinions: they want to get back in their box, honestly. A professional team have been behind her and if we hadn’t believed in her she wouldn’t have ridden our horse. We’re not stupid and we knew what she was capable of.” There were similarly supportive words from owner Michael O’Leary and trainer Gordon Elliott for Don Cossack and jockey Bryan Cooper who took the blue riband Gold Cup and, in doing so, dispelled doubts expressed about them both individually and collectively.
For O’Leary himself, one of the biggest owners of race horses in Ireland, it was a dream end to what had been a tough week for his army of entrants and all the more so given it came 10 years on from his only other Gold Cup success with War of Attrition.
Was this better?
“It feels just the same,” he said, “except 10 years older.” O’Leary is no stranger to the winners’ enclosure here. He had 13 first places banked prior to this year, but the Ryanair CEO was keen to point out that even he has spent far more time in losers’ post-race area on the far side of the parade ring.
“Anybody involved in racing knows there are far more disappointments than wins. You have to enjoy the wins. I come to Cheltenham and I spend far more time down there in what we used to call the S.H.1.T. pit. Now they have it carpeted for me because I spend so much time down there.” Maybe, but these are great times for Irish jumps racing. The 14 winners claimed over the week equalled the previous record that had been posted only two years ago and those two festivals sandwiched a haul of 13 in 2015.
These are great times to be Irish in Cheltenham.
“For a number of years the Irish had no runners at the Gold Cup,” said O’Leary. “Now we have some strength, but it will flow back the other side of the channel again. It always does. It’s what makes it interesting. For everybody in Ireland, a winner in Cheltenham makes the week. A Gold Cup makes the decade.”