Friday, March 20, 2015

Big days

We're now a week since the Cheltenham Gold Cup and this blog seems to have gone dormant, but c'est la vie: writing this blog is far from my only occupation, and there are only 24 hours in a day.  I'd been meaning to ponder on a few Cheltenham reflections, and, while that's getting on for ancient history now, there's no harm in revisiting that topic.  (Particularly bearing in mind that we are probably only a small number of weeks, or days, or hours, or minutes, away from a TV discussion previewing next year's Cheltenham Festival, and that's 51 weeks away, so talking about a Cheltenham Festival which was only a week ago can be viewed as current enough).

Anyway, I found myself adopting an unlikely hero during the Festival: Ruby Walsh.  One of the most important attributes in a racing man (not that you'd know it if you spent much time watching TV) is the ability to be unmoved in both victory and defeat.  Davy Russell is arguably the best of all at foiling the media's attempts to ensure that horsemen fail to honour this practice, but I ended the meeting marvelling at Ruby Walsh's ability to derail various pressmen's attempts to prevent him from keeping things in balance.  If one had seen Ruby after the Gold Cup when he wore a face like thunder after finishing second, one might have thought that he wasn't taking defeat very well - but more detailed scrutiny suggested that this was far from the case, because he handles victory equally dourly.

The first day alone provided us with two wonderful illustrations.  I watched the first two races on C4 before leaving for Wolverhampton, during the journey to which I heard the next three races on Racing FM radio.  So I watched the Arkle and heard the Champion Hurdle, two races which Ruby won.  Greeted after the Arkle by a TV interviewer who seemed to think that Un De Sceaux was the first steeplechaser ever to gallop fast and jump slickly, Ruby's response to something like "That must have been just so amazing taking the fences at that speed" was a classic: "It isn't a new experience for me to go fast on a horse.  I used to ride  Master Minded".

The aftermath of the Champion Hurdle was even better.  It was proving a godsend for the media (in the minds of the media anyway, if not in the minds of the audience) that 'Faugheen' more or less rhymes with 'machine'.  Thommo was doing interviews for Racing FM, and he, of course, was not one to let this bit of sort-of serendipity go to waste.  He collared Ruby shortly after the Champion Hurdle, and did his best to steer him down the 'Faugheen The Machine' road.  This dialogue went something like this:-

T: "Ruby, do you have a nickname for him?"

R: "No."

T (undeterred by this unpromising start, and in typical style pressing on regardless): "No - but when you and the others in the yard are talking about him, what do you call him?"

R: "I call him Faugheen."

At this point, even Thommo had to admit defeat, and he quickly wound the interview up.  However, it soontranspired that he hadn't admitted defeat at all, and had merely regrouped in preparation for a counter-offensive.  He had not been knocked out of his stride in any way by the implied suggestion that if the horse's proper name was good enough for his jockey, then it should be good enough for the rest of us, as we soon discovered:-

T:- "That was Ruby Walsh (slight pause) who has just ridden the winner of the Champion Hurdle (slight pause) on Faugheen (pause) THE MACHINE!"

So those brahmas added plenty to the enjoyment (my enjoyment, anyway) of Cheltenham.  As, of course, did Coneygree, whose victory really was really refreshing.  Leaving aside the Lord Oaksey factor (if that's possible) it was just lovely to see a 10-horse stable win the race with a home-bred, the product of maybe a £1,000 service fee and a £3,000 mare.  This was particularly refreshing as it is plain that jumping in now even more like the Flat than the Flat is (if that makes sense).  The extent to which it has become big-batallion dominated was shown by the pundits after Cole Harden's win: they were treating it as if it were a victory for the battlers, and then the trainer came on and said that he has 75 horses in the stable, and was having nine runners at the Festival!

To bring things closer to home, we had Magic Ice eliminated again at Wolverhampton last Friday, and the only intended runner between then and now was Roy, who was one of 10 horses eliminated from his intended race at Kempton on Wednesday.  It has been hard in recent weeks to run these lowly-rated Flat horses; and looking at the schedules for the next three months it is only going to get harder, which is a worry.  If it is policy not to frame races for lower-rated horses, then c'est la vie, and understandable.  However, it is not understandable while we have to endure the sound of the BHA bleating about the supposed problem of small fields: the statistics make it quite clear which types of race are generally oversubscribed and which are not, so complaining about a lack of runners while writing a programme which contains very few of the types of races which almost invariably attract plenty of declarations is at best silly and at worse idiotic.

One runner we will (touch wood) have, though, is Near Wild Heaven (pictured here out in the pens today, with the chestnut Fen Flyer being the other horse in the forefront of the shot) who is set to make her debut in the bumper at Bangor tomorrow.  That' really something to look forward to: she's a grand little mare and is owned by a nice bunch of people, so it's a big day.  Let's hope that it's a pleasing on, too.  There are five jumps meeting tomorrow so it was anyone's guess which jockeys would be where, but to my surprise it has transpired that our preferred jockey William Kennedy will be at Bangor; so he rides, and that's good news before we've even started.

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