I have missed one Cheltenham Festival since my first year in 2002.
I will certainly miss this year. Another tin can in the Covid shooting gallery. I guess I’ll share a Guinness on Zoom, craft a life-changing accumulator in my mind, bet the Champion Hurdle from my laptop, watch the Gold Cup from the couch.
When people say it’s just as good on TV, they are singing hollow lies, offering empty protestations, placations to missed opportunities.
I watched Sprinter Sacre from the third-to-last in the 2013 Queen Mother and I watched Sprinter Sacre from our family room couch in 2016. As Twain said, the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
As months turn to weeks and weeks turn to days, I will bring you some of my favorite photos, some of my favorite stories from Cheltenham. I am not a photographer, just a guy with a camera. And a notebook.
Friday, March 13, 2020.
It’s there for all the world to see. Goshen turns in with the JCB Triumph Hurdle at his mercy. The 5-2 favorite powers away from his rivals, a fresh horse at an impossible stage, horses just don’t do what he’s doing. Undefeated in three starts over hurdles, the free-running 4-year-old lengthens stride, knees pumping like pistons in a perfect machine, toward the last hurdle. It’s a decimation job in a Grade 1 at Cheltenham. You’ll say, ‘I was there that day…’
And in a matter of strides, in a matter of inches, in a matter of a decision, that declaration takes a completely different tact.
Jockey Jamie Moore has a choice, sit still for a fiddling short one or gun for the long one. He chooses the latter and there is that millisecond of indecision. Goshen jinks, his momentum stalls for a moment, like Hendrix hiccupping. Moore hangs in the balance for a moment, clinging, clutching, before toppling to the right, sliding like a duffel bag off an open tail gate. Watching it live, it was like a combat boot to a balloon, a bucket of water to a flame. Burst. Bust.
A little guy in a big man’s game, Moore takes a beating. None bigger than from his own mind. Grass stains across his back, his shoulder and his white helmet cover. Red rug burn across his right cheek, purple welt above his right eye, Moore walks back to the paddock, helmet in his left hand, whip in his right. A life-changing, life-defining roar of the Cheltenham crowd snuffed to silence.
Moore stops and talks to owner Steven Packham, who takes the defeat with graciousness and grace. He puts his arm around Moore, consoles him. They watch the replay together from the paddock, while arm-chair quarterbacks chime in with how they see it and one actually is accurate, pointing to Goshen’s left hind shoe overreaching and attaching to his left front shoe. That’s the hiccup, the denouement of a debacle. Moore watches it stoically. Packham watches it heroically.
Moore turns and walks away. As he nears the jocks’ room, A.P. McCoy, the greatest of the greats, the ironman of ironmen, catches his comrade, puts his arm around him and ushers him to the sanctuary where mistakes are shared and never shunned.
The Road to Cheltenham is a multi-part series from Sean Clancy that also appears in his The Inside Rail blog, where he's writing daily about everything from steeplechasing to running to reading to life on the farm in Middleburg. Read more of Sean's blog here.