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Cheltenham races

Try to describe the Cheltenham Festival.  The Olympics, they say.  The World Cup of racing.  It is the event towards which every National Hunt season inevitably funnels, the towering entity that dominates the landscape from the time that the fledglings jump their first jump under the watery autumn sun until the time that the famous roar goes up when the tapes fly for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

But Cheltenham is more than that. 

There is a magic about Cheltenham that gets into your blood.  Walk through the gates, stand in the parade ring, climb to the top of the stands and survey the track itself: green baize, fences like paintings, Cleeve Hill in the background, Mount Everest in the foreground.  Now, try to stop that tingle from running the whole way from the base of your spine to the bottom of your neck.

How did this happen?  Difficult to know.  It was by chance that the National Hunt Meeting found a home in Prestbury Park.  The National Hunt Chase was once the highlight of the meeting, the Gold Cup merely a prep race for the Grand National. 

Perhaps it began with Golden Miller, who won the Gold Cup five times in a row.  Perhaps it continued with Vincent O’Brien, who sent Cottage Rake over on the cattle boat in 1948 to win the first of his three Gold Cups.

Perhaps the Cheltenham phenomenon owes lots to the British/Irish phenomenon, and that began with Dr O’Brien.  In 1949, Cottage Rake won the second of his Gold Cups, Hatton’s Grace won the first of his Champion Hurdles, and Castledermot won the National Hunt Chase.  And so it began.

In 1950 Cottage Rake won his third Gold Cup and Hatton’s Grace won his second Champion Hurdle, and in 1951 Hatton’s Grace won his third Champion Hurdle.  It was storybook stuff.

Then in 1952, Dr O’Brien sent Cockatoo over to win the Gloucester Hurdle, the modern-day Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  Nobody knew it at the time, but that was the first of 10 divisions of the Gloucester Hurdle that Vincent O’Brien would win in eight years. 

And so it continued.

Other events have fuelled the surge.  There was Arkle, Himself, his three Gold Cups and his duels with Mill House that were the equinification of the Irish/British competition.  There was the BBC, their embracement of the meeting and showing it off it to the masses in Technicolor.  There was Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s voice and Michael Dickinson’s Famous Five, and the hurdlers, Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon and Monksfield, and the heroine who was Dawn Run and the grey gladiator who was Desert Orchid.

It was three days of magic, 18 magical races, all burning brightly.  But 18 became 19 in 1992 when the Champion Bumper was introduced, and 19 became 20 in 1993 with the addition of the Coral Cup.  Then three days became four.

The meeting had moved from a two-day festival to a three-day festival in 1923, and there it had remained until 2005.  The addition of another day was a seismic shift.  Three days was all that this generation knew.  When you change something that has been in place for 82 years, it is a significant change.  The Gold Cup was first run in 1924, the Champion Hurdle was first run in 1927, so the three-day thing was older than the two cornerstones of the meeting. 

So in 2005, the old structure was dismantled and a new one built.  The Cathcart Chase was demolished and in its place arrived five brand spanking new races to make 24 in total, six races per day, spread out over four of them.  You could see the argument: why have just three days of magic when you could have four?  The difficulty, however, is that when you spread something out, you have to spread it thinly.  In order to turn a pint into a quart, you have to dilute the pint.

More races means more opportunities for more people to own or train or ride or back a Cheltenham Festival winner, and that is a positive for some.  But the very value of a Cheltenham winner lies in its elusiveness, in its rarity.  We have an old saying in Irish: An rud is annamh is iontach, the thing that is the most rare is the most wondrous. 

More races have been added since.  The Mares’ Hurdle in 2008, the Martin Pipe Hurdle in 2009, the Jewson Chase in 2011.  That brought the total number of Cheltenham Festival races to 27.  This year will witness the inaugural running of the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.  That’s 28.  That’s 55% more races than there were 25 years ago, and 40% more than there were just 12 years ago.  And so, the potency of the magic gets stretched.

The proliferation of races means that the top horses have more options, they have more avenues through which they can avoid each other.  If there was no JLT Chase, for example, Bristol De Mai would be taking on Douvan in the Arkle.  If there was no Ryanair Chase, Vautour and Road To Riches and Valseur Lido would be on track for the Gold Cup.

Scary thought: you need just two more races to bring the total to 30.  And you could find the races if you were so inclined – a veterans’ chase, a Grade 1 two-and-a-half-mile hurdle.  If you had 30 races – perish the thought – you could move to five days, six races each day, and a Saturday Gold Cup. 

Now that is a scary though.  That would just dilute the magic too much.

© The Sunday Times, 6th March 2016