The first time, it shocked me. The bustling field for the Supreme Novices Hurdle turned down the racecourse for the first, the Cheltenham crowd erupted with its traditional roar, the bon voyage for the greatest jump racing in the world. Yeah, they cheer the start of the race, the start of the Festival.
That was 2002 – my first Cheltenham, living in the racecourse canteen and awaiting Istabraq’s last gasp at Cheltenham glory. Istabraq pulled up and never ran again and I’ve never been back to the four-bunkbed-per-room canteen and the roar no longer shocks me. It soothes, more to the point that one whole year has come and gone, and now it’s four days of nothing but release. Four days to revel in everything that is right in horse racing – full fields, old returning heroes, safe racing ground, no drugs (at least for the horses) and impassioned fans who love their horses and never yell for a number. At Cheltenham, walk up to a bookie and ask for 20 pounds on Inglis Driver and they’ll punch out your ticket quicker than if you asked for 20 pounds on the seven.
This year, the roar sent off the traditional opener – the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Twenty-plus novices bounced away from the starter’s rostrum, the roar carrying them towards the first flight. The novice races at the Festival can look like the line for a racetrack giveaway. Phone-booth tight. Captain Cee Bee, a chaser in the making, locked with his fellow J.P. McManus colorbearer Binocular. The latter earned the choice for McManus contract holder and perennial champ, Tony McCoy. Captain Cee Bee refused to yield and engulfed the long hill to win for jockey Robert “Chocolate” Thornton and trainer Eddie Harty.
They worry about a four-week layoff before the Kentucky Derby. Captain Cee Bee overcame (or benefitted, depending on how you look at it) a 115-day respite to win the 2 1/16-mile test, his fourth race over hurdles. Harty wanted to give the horse a Cheltenham prep but when the ground came up heavy, he decided to abandon the idea and hope for the best.
“It was a worry, but like with everything in life, you weigh the upsides and downsides to every decision. On the day he was to run (on heavy ground), there was more downside risk than upside so we let it go,” Harty said. “The last 10 days have been very difficult, big time, just to do what you’ve always done and trust your judgement. Luckily I’ve been proven right.”
Captain Cee Bee proved him right and provided him with his first Cheltenham winner. Not the first Cheltenham winner for the family. This Eddie Harty followed his dad, the great jump jockey Eddie Harty into the sport.
Eddie Harty, the father, won the 1969 Grand National and picked out Captain Cee Bee as a foal, naming him after his father Captain Cyril B. Harty. The man who told his girls, he’d leave them the money (if he had any) and to his boys, he’d leave them the eye for a horse – if they couldn’t make it with that, they’d never make it. Purchased for 2,695 guineas at Goffs in 2001, the Irish-bred made his first six starts for the family before being netted by the McManus spread. Eddie Harty, predominantly a flat trainer, got to keep him to train.
“I don’t know how I’d make it as a national hunt trainer, he’s my fist winner over jumps, I’ve only got three horses for the jumps,” Harty said. “He’s a good horse. Dad bought him as a foal, that’s why I have him, and there’s no harm mixing the two. It’s not that different. I wouldn’t train him any differently.”
Harty wanted to be a jockey, then became a currency trader (ironically for the race’s sponsor) and began his training career four years ago. It could be a big spring for the Harty family.
His brother, the prodigal American son Eoin Harty, plans on winning the Derby with Colonel John.
“It’s like the Spring Double,” Harty said, moments after accepting his trophy at Cheltenham. “This is the first half, he has to win the Kentucky Derby (pronounced Darby), that’s the other half. I’ve done my bit, now he has to do his bit.”
As for coming to America, he’s already looked at the calendar.
“I might try to get out in May,” Harty said with a smile.