Feel a change in the weather… (1)
Dark clouds hang over jumping’s HQ and I can feel an ill wind blowing. I’m walking the course, stuff of dreams but there is trouble ahead, my senses tell me as much. It’s the day before the best four days of the year and yet as I look through blizzard conditions from the centre of the course back to the stands, I say to myself this is going to be a rollercoaster. Quite to what extent, I wouldn’t have believed. Would I change anything if I could rewind now? Yes, lots actually, but that’s the thing about life, you cannot. I discover that I am parked next to a blue and green car, this bodes well but I still cannot shake a certain unease. It’s a weird feeling, I am on the one hand delighted that my favourite week of the year is finally upon us, but at the same time I just know that something is brewing. Call it a sixth sense and one that you should never ignore. Our gut feeling tells us everything. I have a choice, to go out into town to greet the sea of excited faces or to stay in, I stay in – like I said – odd.
Dodging Bullets, in more ways than one…
On Trials Day snow was visable on the course but it still wasn’t as cold as it is on this the opening day of the 2013 Festival. I get the butterflies walking through the gates. I fleetingly remember the old days when it was all play, get choked and decide I should crack on with my work. There is something about this place that never fails to move me. I watch the Supreme with a sense of wonder; Champagne Fever bred to be a staying chaser takes the Supreme and I couldn’t have got him more wrong. I have no doubt in my mind that we are looking at a very special horse here, given his pedigree, I am inclined to say the words ‘Gold Cup’. My Tent Or Yours just appeared to get unbalanced on a few of the undulations, but the way he ran with the choke out wouldn’t have helped matters. Is this a horse that really wants a fight though?
It’s now Hurricane Fly time; I go to the pre-parade ring and I am absolutely marveling at what I see; my boy is back. I’m pretty confident that I won’t have to work all day on Wednesday in my underwear – watch JPFestival.com Cheltenham Preview Night video for more on this. Although, I do have to admit to a few anxious moments during the first half of the race! I think the best moment of the entire Festival for me, was when Ruby got the Fly back on the bridle. If you watch closely, on the turn for home Ruby gives two very gentle nudges on his neck and the response is electric. That was always his trademark and something that was lacking in 2012. I can honestly say the closing stages of the Champion Hurdle was one of the sweetest moments in my whole racing life; right up there with Dessie edging out Yahoo in the 1989 Gold Cup. To love is to put your heart on the line and be prepared for it to be trampled on; you have to be brave and a little foolish. I’m about a 40/60 split. However, I make no apology for the passion I have for racing or for the way I completely fall for certain horses. If you don’t have passion, then what is the point?
I am penning a separate article on Quevega so I won’t go into too much detail here. I along with everyone else on course thought she was beaten at the top of the hill. I was still floating along in a Hurricane Fly bubble, when I could scarcely believe my eyes to see Cheltenham’s first lady tanking towards the last. To see two performances like that in an hour was nothing short of breathtaking. What was I worried about? The week was going to be just fine – what a clown I am.
At the end of the day, you’re another year older…..(2)
I awake to a stack of birthday messages, that in itself was totally heartwarming. To everyone who sent me texts, Tweets and Facebook messages – thank you; it meant so much. So it’s Queen Mother Champion Chase day and my birthday so I should be in great form, especially after Tuesday. I’m not though; still there is this feeling of malaise and it’s niggling away at me. I get the call to do a second slot for BBC Radio Gloucestershire and as I look out across that wonderful vista and at the winning line which is my Dad’s final resting place, I remind myself just how lucky I am.
I always had faith in The New One but his Neptune win was a mighty performance. Sam Twiston-Davies rode the race to perfection just as his Father had predicted. This perfect equine and human partnership took it up at the last and used the horses speed to get up the hill. I was delighted to hear that connections are going to map out a Champion Hurdle campaign with him next season. He could just follow in the footsteps of Istabraq and Hardy Eustace. I saw a real chaser in waiting in Rule The World and it seems the Pont is a mudlark, albeit a very good one.
What can you say about Sprinter Sacre who really is the most beautiful horse I think I have ever seen? As much as I would have loved to have seen a horse serve it up to him on a hot dish; the sight of him dancing all over Prestbury’s finest turf was one of the iconic images of the four days.
It was great to see Wayne Hutchinson win the Coral Cup. It’s no secret he is the best number two in the country and he is riding at the very top of his game. I hope this victory on the great stage propels him even further forward.
Darling, darling – that dam’s gonna give….(3)
I am off the bridle after the worst sleep of my life. The niggle is still there. I am like a bear with a sore head; my mood is explosive and that is extremely rare and never a good sign. I decide to just throw myself into my work and after an hour of solid typing I need coffee. It’s then I look around me and nearly slap myself for being such a brat. Here I am working in the media centre at the Olympics of National Hunt racing. I look to my right, then look to my left, to take a look at the illustrious company I’m in and berate myself some more.
I lean back on my chair to watch the Jewson and nearly fall asleep which is ridiculous. I’m not surprised to see both Dynaste and Captain Conan beaten. I really didn’t fancy Captain Conan over 2m4f at Cheltenham and as for Dynaste, the vibes were not great beforehand. However, both remain in the exceptional bracket.
I am focused on my laptop for most of the Pertemps and when I look at the TV, I nearly fall off my chair. I knew Holywell had a right chance in the race but I didn’t expect to see him going so well. Suddenly I discover energy and shout him home. I then remember that I have put this horse up as my NAP of the Festival. Firstly on our joint broadcast with Imperial Racing – you can watch here – as a bit of a laugh and a surprise because I knew everyone expected me to say Hurricane Fly! Secondly. at our Cheltenham Preview Evening, that was very kindly sponsored by Star Sports where I put Holywell up as my charity bet. So £25 each way at 25/1 went to Racing Welfare. I am over the moon that Holywell obliged and that an organisation that does such amazing work benefited from it.
During the Ryan Air, it is apparent that I am struggling with my energy levels, or so I thought. I think in reality I was struggling with my emotions. I work on a bit longer, wrap up my final broadcast of the day with Radio Winchcombe and watch the World Hurdle. I am gutted to see Peddlers Cross struggling so far out; it seems the broken heart and the mental scars are yet to heal. It can do that to you. I cheer Solwhit home as his victory was one of the most deserved of the week.
I fire off the last write up of the day, look out of the window at the free flowing traffic and realise if I split now I can be home in ten minutes and watch the last of the action on my sofa with RUK. This is madness. This time last year I was on my sofa wishing with every part of my soul that I was at the Festival and now all I want to do is get back on my sofa! I tussle with the angel and the devil and for a change I take the angels advice. It’s sofa time as I need to be in flying form for tomorrow. Cheltenham Gold Cup Day was my Dad’s favourite, I’ll do it for him.
I walk in the door to find a house full. My Mum who was obviously not expecting me home for hours has thrown a racing lunch which does nothing for my fraying at the seams disposition. I find a quiet corner of the house to watch the Kim Muir – it all goes dark.
I knew it was bad, the change in the tone of the presenters’ voices and the phone call I receive confound my worst fears. I am suddenly wide awake. I can hear the air ambulance hovering overhead and I just know where it is heading. The way the RUK presenters handled unfolding events proved once again they are a credit to their profession. Since that very hour my thoughts and prayers have been 40 minutes down the road in Frenchay Hospital with John Thomas McNamara and his family. May the love and support emanating from every corner of our great sport guide him through his darkest hour.
At 1am, I am still awake and my mind is with JT. He is 37 years old, my age. He has a wife and kids. The tears roll onto my pillow.
Where the ocean kisses Ireland and the waves caress its shore, the feeling it came over me and stayed forever more. (4)
I must have slept all of three hours but by some act of God, I do not feel as rough as I did yesterday. The Morning Line is essential viewing and yet again I am reduced to tears at the sombre reflection in the presenters voices. I cannot watch for long. I give myself a good talking to in the shower as this is Gold Cup day and I have a job to do.
I manage to catch up with some friends before hurrying off to do my last slot of the week with BBC Radio Gloucestershire. I was longing for some normality to subdue the raging torrent of emotion I was feeling.
Triumph time and I knew I had backed a good horse but what Our Conor did was nothing short of incredible. I have never seen a Triumph field taken apart like that. For the fourth time in a week I shout the roof off the media centre. I then run into the lashing rain to find my Final Furlong Pod counterpart Noel Hayes, I launch myself on him and the sheer joy and emotion etched on his face has me all choked up again. This must be the ultimate feeling; take any high you have ever had and multiply it by 1,000 and I’m not sure you even get close.
For all my correct decisions over the last few weeks, I have made some howlers. The biggest of them all was opposing Bobs Worth in the Gold Cup. I don’t think he was at his best on Friday and still he dug deep to see off Sir Des Champs and Long Run by seven lengths. That showed unbelievable guts, Bobs Worth must have the heart of a lion. He sees his favourite hill and he sets sail. He’s not flashy but he’s clever, a grafter that would die for you in a battle if he had to. I’m welling up just watching him walk back in and to see the respect that Barry Geraghty paid to JT by not celebrating on his return to the winners enclosure pushes me over the edge; I am done. I cannot stop the tears. I go for a walk to clear my head. I take a route that my Dad was fond of, up in to Tatts to where he would have a bet and back through Club looking out across the course. I cut through by the Arkle Bar and get back to work. It then hits me as I say goodbye to my Irish colleagues who are making a run for the airports that after everything, I will be sad to see the back of this Festival that was far harder than I could have ever imagined. I’m alone at my desk for the Grand Annual and smile to see Alderwood and Kid Cassidy fight it out. I hang around to let the traffic go down, see a few people and say thanks to the amazing team that looked after us all week.
I return home to a house in darkness; I am alone but I am glad for that. I could go out but I am tired and I want some solitude. I rarely drink but I’ll admit to having a few Friday night. The words of Rudyard Kipling spring to mind:
“If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!” (5)
Number of expletives used: 724
Number of superlatives used: 2,321
Number of cereal bowls launched: 1
Number of tears: Lots
Number of laughs: Plenty
Hours of sleep over 5 days: 12
Number of times I turned my phone on and off to get a signal: 4,324
Dreams realised: Several
Days til Cheltenham 2014: Too many
(1) “Feel a change in the weather” – Blue Cirque – The Bellrays
(2) “At the end of the day, you’re another year older” – Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
(3) “Darling, darling, the dam’s gonna give” – Dogwood Blossom – Fionn Regan
(4) “Where the ocean kisses Ireland and the waves caress it’s shore, the feeling it came over me and stayed forever more” – The Green and Red of Mayo – The Saw Doctors.
(5) If – Rudyard Kipling