Like so many things when you are younger, events you are looking forward to tend to take an age to come around.
For me, Cheltenham throughout my early teenage years represented a week off school to spend at the most magical of places. Every year before school I read the Racing Post, scouring the paper for any copy on Paul’s runners, Kauto, Denman, Big Buck’s, Master Minded and Neptune Collonges all horses going to the festival to run for Paul and his team. This for me was a dream.
For weeks upon end I thought of nothing else but those four days, cantering my poor pony round the fields at home pretending just one more time I was Ruby charging up the home straight to glory. Cheltenham had me at hello and, for racing fans far and wide, two weeks time is what the whole year is all about.
Magic memories last forever
The memories I have from those four days every year are memories I could talk about for days on end, it’s a place like no other, totally consuming, it is like nothing else in this world matters as the racing fraternity migrates upon a stage unparalleled.
I’ll never forget walking the course before my first ride at the festival aboard Brampour in the Champion Hurdle (just about the most special horse that will ever be in my life). My Dad and I wandered round the course, me clearly anxious of what lay ahead, he smiled at me and told me to enjoy it: “this time last year you hadn’t done your GCSE’s,” he reminded me.
Those four minutes that the Champion Hurdle took to unwind are quite probably the fastest four minutes my life has ever played host to. From day one I very quickly realised on these four days the bar was raised to a seemingly impossibly high level.
However, travelling down the hill just a year later with two runner-up efforts under my belt the frenetic pace of the festival races didn’t seem quite so mind boggling and I felt this was going to be my moment. I could walk you through every second of that race on Salubrious like it was just an hour ago, from being delighted at how well he went to sleep under me in the early stages or how brilliantly he hurdled and, how even though Ruby said don’t get there until the last, I got there a furlong too soon. Talk to any jockey and I’m sure they would vividly remember their first winner there.
The last hundred yards of the 2013 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle were the longest I’ve ever ridden. I craved for the winning line to arrive, and then that moment, sheer elation, an over-whelming sense of happiness, relief and excitement . . . “come on” I yelled at the top of my voice.
I smile when I look back at those memories and always will. That moment, that spilt second of invincibility that nobody can take away from you is what we all chase. Trainers, owners, jockeys, stable staff, whoever you are if you’re working in racing, a Cheltenham Festival winner is the ultimate.
Ditcheat team fine tuning Festival hopes
I go there this year for the first time as Paul’s assistant trainer, more excited than ever before but without doubt appreciating more than ever the enormity of the task that lies before everyone. Cheltenham is a place where horses can run well above themselves and not come close to troubling the judge and, while we go there with a nice team of young horses, we go there knowing having winners at Cheltenham is tougher than ever.
At home our focus intensifies by the day with everyone making sure they do their bit to make sure things run smoothly. Paul sends the same message every year to us all, of course there is pressure, but we should be putting ourselves under pressure to strive for that bit better in order for our horses to run career bests.
If you could bottle and sell the atmosphere at noon on Tuesday you would make a fortune because as soon as you step through that gate you know that what is about to unfurl could define a season. It is a cliché but one winner is always the target for Cheltenham, knowing if you hit the jackpot once then it’s a brilliant week, the next fortnight will be full of talk and speculation on what is about to unfold, for me though, I wish we could fast forward to when the tapes to go up in the Supreme and to hear that magical roar.
Movewiththetimes, Politilogue, Diego Du Charmil, Zarkandar, Saphir Du Rheu, Dodging Bullets, El Bandit and lots of others will be carrying our hopes and dreams in two weeks time so god willing they’ll get there in good health and run their race.
Four days, four special special days that tick ever closer and I can barely wait.