SALLY ARSCOTT is a self-confessed “horsey girl” who’s ridden at Badminton, organised the Olympia International Horse Show and counts equestrian sports, racing in particular, as her abiding passion. But in the absence of a horse, then tennis, rugby and more recently ski cross fill the void. Sally lives in Gloucestershire, which is fantastic if you like horses, but not so great if you ever want to be able to speak by mobile phone…
2 March 2010
A fortnight today, the tapes will already have gone up on the opening day of the 2010 Cheltenham Festival, jump racing’s “Olympics Games”, the week in which equine and human reputations are either sealed forever in history, or swept away under a tide of thundering hooves. The best jump horses converge on the Cotswolds and fight it out to be champion over their preferred distance and obstacle and this year Cheltenham’s marketing machine is focused on one match: Kauto v Denman in the Gold Cup on 19 March.
In an ideal (and totally unrealistic) world, both horses would have read the script, learned their lines, and turned up to Prestbury Park on the back of almighty final runs, pulverising the opposition and coming head to head unbeaten this season. Kauto Star did his stuff on Boxing Day, winning a record fourth successive King George VI Chase. Some of his opposition are still finishing now.
Denman began in style, carrying top weight and then some, to storm clear of Sir Alex Ferguson’s What a Friend in the Hennessy. Fuel was added to the publicity fire when connections decided to put AP McCoy, 14 times champion jockey, up on Denman for the big one. The two best horses, ridden by the two best jockeys – the battle of the dream teams. Unfortunately, in their prep run at Newbury, the only thing Denman pulverised was the third-last fence, landing belly first in the birch. He lurched out the other side looking more town wino than supreme athlete, having shot McCoy out the back door.
In boxing terms, Denman’s depositing of AP McCoy on Newbury’s carefully prepared turf was like heavyweight boxing world champion David Haye getting into the ring with my granny: sure to win, but then foiled after tripping over his shoe laces, and managing to knock himself out. Sort of. The point is, anything can happen.
Armchair jockeys and trainers, from the comfort of their own living rooms, rushed to blame the new jockey but those that matter – trainer Paul Nicholls, and co-owners Paul Barber and Harry Findlay – said ‘That’s racing folks”. The message: Denman would be back, fully wound up and ready to rain on Kauto’s parade in the Gold Cup on 19 March.
Could it be that the upset makes the big day even more exciting now?
Sport thrives when a genius comes along. Racing has two. Both have flaws, but the pair of them are each so far clear of the rest of the field that in the hundreds of “Cast your Votes Now” polls throughout the racing press, there is no third option. And although, if a 100-1 shot does steam up the hill and win the Gold Cup, it will be wonderful for their connections and the few people that thought to put money on it, it will be deeply disappointing to see two chasing superstars tumbled.
I watched the recent Andy Murray versus Roger Federer match with a superficial patriotic support of Murray, but a deep-seated desire to see the Fed remain untouchable. Dominance on the sporting field inspires awe in the viewers but real competition is good for the soul – and Kauto v Denman is the truly gripping stuff. Even Ruby Walsh, the man who rode Kauto in the King George and Denman in the Hennessy, and then picked Kauto for the big race, says he doesn’t know if he’s made the right choice. In 2008 he made the same choice and then watched Denman’s backside power up the hill away from him and into the winner’s enclosure without a backwards glance. Gutting.
Boxing champ Haye recently visited Paul Nicholls’s yard in Ditcheat, Somerset, for a “Clash of the Titans”-esque photo opportunity (and according to Facebook, a cup of tea with the office staff). What a great opportunity racing has now, to promote the clash of the two best chasers of recent years, and attract a previously indifferent audience. The hype is believable, the horses are the best since the “God-like” Arkle – I put this in inverted commas as luckily I am too young to remember Arkle so I have to accept his status as passed on by devotees.
The appeal of racing to the general public has waned in recent years and the racing authorities are trying to get to grips with this and have launched Racing for Change, a body tasked solely with drawing back the interest. One area they are targeting is students. Brilliant, truly, because racing at its best, like a great gig, makes your heart race and your eyes stream.
Only two things have that effect on me, aside from accidentally plugging the electric fence into the mains. One is a bloody good live band (Kasabian at Glastonbury spring to mind), and the other is horses thundering up the hill at Cheltenham. Both are about putting heart and soul into a 100 per cent effort, with the crowd roar surging through to your very bones. If your life needs a quick adrenaline boost and there aren’t any good bands on, go racing. For a little bit more of an adrenaline rush, put a few quid on too.
For the casual punter, Cheltenham is a joy. You will have heard of most of the horses, you will have heard of most of the jockeys, and most of the time the form book is a good guide. The good horses do usually win. Unlike the Grand National which, although a glorious spectacle, is like setting fire to your fivers, because 40 horses all charging at the same spot on the jump and yours coming out on top has got to be 95 per cent luck, 5 per cent skill. It must be luck: AP McCoy has won over 3,000 races and not one of them is the Grand National.
So go to Cheltenham in a fortnight for a brilliant day out, not because you love horses, but because you love good sport.
Fight your way to the front of the queue for the bar, and then try getting your drink to a good spot on the running rail without emptying it over someone’s back.
It is a heart-lifting, adrenaline fuelled occasion, not to be missed. And as far as I am aware, Kasabian aren’t playing a gig until the summer festivals kick off, so there’s not much else on.