CHELTENHAM: Another Festival to remember — for both good and bad

Hurricane Fly, with Ruby Walsh up, is led into the parade ring after winning the Champion Hurdle. Picture: SPORTSFILE

It really was the proverbial white-knuckle ride. Monday, at around 4.45pm, we landed at Birmingham Airport to be greeted by snow cascading from a grim sky. More of the white stuff accompanied us as we made our way up to Cheltenham.

Returning to the hotel from down town on Monday night at 10pm, the car in which we were travelling told us it was -3 degrees.

Tuesday morning and again it was crystal clear that getting racing on was going to be an uphill battle.

The snow was still spilling generously, as the first English breakfast of the week was greedily consumed.

In the end, of course, everything went fine, but there is no doubt that, without the much-publicised covers, racing would not have taken place.

It was my first time seeing the covers close up and it was an extraordinary sight. They say the equivalent of 45 football pitches was covered in total and it was some performance by clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, and his staff.

The overwhelming feeling after Hurricane Fly had won the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday was a mixture of admiration for the horse and what can be best described as selfish relief.

As I said on a number of occasions, I had no great desire to back Hurricane Fly, but when he eased out as high as 9-4 you simply had to be with him. And that’s where the relief reared its little head.

Mind you, the personal relief was hardly in the same league as the punter who had £40,000 to £20,000.

Let’s face it, shortly after halfway, the vouchers in the pockets of thousands of punters, mostly from this side of the sea, you suspect, were about as valuable as shares in an Irish bank.

But the canny Ruby Walsh gave him time to draw breath, filled him up, then launched a ferocious challenge and the rest is history.

Can Hurricane Fly return next year and win again, after all he will still only be a 10-year-old?

Of course he can, but on what we saw on Tuesday, I think plenty of us will be inclined to go elsewhere.

And where better than his stable companion, Annie Power. She’s good, real good and that 7lbs allowance for mares is some advantage.

After Champagne Fever had won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Tuesday, Willie Mullins said he was an even better jumper of fences than hurdles.

That was some statement, because the grey bounded across every flight at Cheltenham (with the exception of the third last) like a gazelle.

But there is, of course, good reason why Mullins said what he said. Champagne Fever jumped, perhaps, eight or nine fences in a schooling session at Punchestown last May. Pressroom colleague Peter O’Hehir was on hand to see it. Now he’s not slow and described what he witnessed on the part of Champagne Fever as “electric”.

Biggest disappointment of the week had to be another Mullins inmate, Pont Alexandre, in Wednesday’s Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle.

There were rumours circulating down in the betting ring before the first race that the horse hadn’t travelled over, or maybe hadn’t settled in as well as he might have done, so the jury will have to remain out on him for the moment.

There is, of course, the possibility that he is just a mud lark. He won two races in Ireland in particularly testing conditions and the ground on Wednesday was far faster than he had encountered previously.

One of the biggest surprises of the week was surely Briar Hill’s stunning success in the bumper on Wednesday.

Briar Hill had previously run just once, winning a very poor race at Thurles. But this is clearly a high-class individual and looked a cross between Montelado and Florida Pearl, so impressive was he.

The absolute low point of the four days was the injury sustained by John Thomas McNamara off Galaxy Rock on Thursday.

He has been a great warrior of Irish racing for many years, hails from an honourable and proud family and all we can do now is to pray for him and hope for the best.

Finally, home for the week was, as usual, the Cheltenham Park Hotel. As always they made the Irish more than welcome and, of course, the music on offer during breakfast is now legendary.

It wasn’t confined to breakfast, however, and in the bar one night they treated us to The White Cliffs Of Dover. There really was nothing left then but to shuffle off to the cot.

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