Cheltenham Calls

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Off to England. Sandown in the morning, easy day Sunday, Stratford or Taunton Monday, Cheltenham for four roiling days, then a day’s hunting and home for Sunday dinner. Daunting but delicious. I found this in my archives, from a few years back, I don’t think I can do better.

Most of it’s still pertinent, although we did have a runner last year when Valdez finished fifth in the Arkle. No runners this year. Plotting and planning for next year. I’ll send daily reports once I get there and hopefully continue with my Cheltenham Top 14, which was completely derailed by a trip to Florida and the numbing news about our hero Allen Jerkens, who is still in our thoughts and prayers. 

Here goes. 

Accountants use April 15. Decent husbands and wives use anniversaries. Christians, or at least shoppers, use Christmas. Kids use the first day of school – or the last – depending on their penchant for education. I use Cheltenham (and Saratoga but that’s not until summer) to mark the inarguable, block-off-the-calendar, passage of time.

I’m a year older? Another year of life has slipped past? What have I done? What have I missed? Have I made those changes, those resolutions, that I swore would happen.

The Cheltenham Festival begins a week from today. Tuesday, March 15 with the roar of the crowd as the starter sends the Supreme Novices runners on their way – one to immortality, a Festival winner, the rest to the back of the line, simply a runner at the Festival. The Champion Hurdle, World Hurdle, Queen Mother, Gold Cup follow, each one anchoring a week-day card that can make or break, define or redefine a career, perhaps a life.

I will watch, wonder and dream. Regret I never tried to ride a season in England, never rode a race at the Festival. Lament that I still haven’t had a runner to compete there, contemplate if any of the horses we have are good enough, conjure up far-flung dreams with the George Baker team to get here someday, swearing that we will be here, with the navy, light blue and red, next year, that I will be a participant, rather than a fan hanging on to the back of the bus, one hand on the bumper, the other on a racecard, binoculars dangling from my neck, betting ticket in my right suit pocket, rooting for another Inglis Drever or for another Junior to somehow get home in the Coral Cup this time.

It’s Cheltenham.

It’s the purity of the sport; respectful and soulful, no one yells for a number, they demand greatness from their heroes, but excuse all faults, no blame is passed. In 10 years, I’ve never heard a jockey heckled by a disgruntled gambler in the crowd. We are all in this together. Most lose money at Cheltenham, nobody loses the purity, the blood-deep essence of National Hunt racing.

It’s the ground; deep and tiring, the grass rooted to the Earth’s core, thatched and woven into a carpet, forgiving on tendons – and jockeys’ shoulders. I used to think American flat horses get tired from the excursions of a race, then I went to Cheltenham and saw the warriors heaving from their efforts, head slung low and haunches suddenly jutting from a wet, sweat-soaked blanket, walking home like soldiers. Somehow content by the depths of exertion.

It’s the hill; long and steep, it begins to rise off in the distance and then continues to rise to a crescendo at the finish line. God’s natural input, somehow placed by accident (or not) to create a dividing line for so many who look strong at the bottom and bottomed at the top. Only the strong can climb it.

It’s the jockeys; brave and hungry, desperate for a winner while swimming in the fryer from day one. Clean and pristine for the first race, grass stains, aches, angst appear like water through a dam as the day goes on. Brothers in arms, bound by risk and reward, long spots and short ones, photo finishes and also rans. Tony McCoy, the indomitable leader, riding with a broken jaw one year, surviving on calories that wouldn’t sustain a mouse on a wheel, urging and pleading and imploring every comrade to get home up the hill. Wichita Lineman, still my favorite, when McCoy stoked up an unbalanced, but not unwilling, partner to win. There will be more.

It’s the horses; servants marching to and through their job, straight and true, worthy of the mission. Best Mate in his effortless glory, flicking over fences like they were sidewalk cracks. Denman powering through the ground, Sam Thomas kicking with a circuit to go, putting his friends and rivals to the ultimate test. Inglis Drever, the sports car of all sports cars, hitting flat spots in the middle of the Stayers Hurdle to the point where you couldn’t watch, then finding more when more mattered. Go Ballistic, the great Go Ballistic, running at eight consecutive Festivals. See More Business, the Gold Cup winner, called Seymour like an old friend as he walked into the winner’s enclosure, beaten in subsequent Gold Cups, but never forgotten. Kauto Star so dominant and then so fallible, winning two Gold Cups like an unearthly machine, falling twice like a fallible child. And all the others – winners, losers, ones left behind – who show up and go to work.

It’s the scene; sport and social bound together for four days of racing and revelry, magic and history. Pints downed. Kings crowned