They came in their thousands to salute Sprinter Sacre, probably the fastest chaser in the world, but Cheltenham has never been just about speed.
On the contrary, so many of the Festival heroes down the years have become heroes because of their ability to slog rather than sprint, especially before Prestbury had a proper drainage system, and none more so than in the longest race at the Festival, the John Oaksey National Hunt Chase.
This four-miler is very much an hors d’oeuvres to Wednesday’s main course, but has been just as special to the farmers, point-to-point trainers and amateur riders who have managed to win it since its inception back in 1860. For Cheltenham has never been just about the big players, either.
So Pauline Robson set off on Tuesday with Rival d’Estruval on the 550-mile round trip from her eight-horse Northumberland stable for a day of days. Wins on the northern circuit in owner Raymond Anderson Green’s familiar green and yellow last autumn were in minor company, but this stamina-laden eight-year-old had done enough to convince his shrewd trainer that he had the right substance for a Festival challenge.
Top Irish amateur Derek O’Connor, who demonstrated his cool nerve to such great effect with a classic hold-up ride on Chicago Grey in the same race two years ago, was snapped up. Rival d’Estruval was fresh for the battle, as he needs to be, after a three-month break. Everything was in place.
There can be few better feelings for anybody connected with a jumper than to see their pride and joy cruising down the hill at Cheltenham, tracking the leaders, ready to pounce, as Rival d’Estruval was. And there can be few worse feelings than seeing that same horse crumple to the ground with the winning post in sight after a one and only misjudgement.
David Parker, Robson’s partner and assistant, gave the moment a ‘that’s racing’ shrug and was at least consoled in the knowledge that the horse returned unscathed. “There will be other days, maybe even a go at the Grand National somewhere down the line,” he said.
“I don’t know what would have happened had he stayed on his feet, but I do know that coming down the hill I was thinking: ‘Hey, we’re actually going to win this.’ But you can’t get too down. A bad day is driving home an empty horsebox.”
Until quite recently, before race conditions were tightened for safety reasons, this four-miler was for maidens, but these days it attracts better quality chasers, often as a stepping stone to Grand National bids, and with them come jump racing’s biggest trainers and owners.
Robson and Green’s loss was yet another gain for Willie Mullins and Graham Wylie, whose Back In Focus rallied from the last to mug Tofino Bay. Another great moment for Mullins and his team and a popular victory for those who made him favourite, but from another viewpoint such a shame that it didn’t quite end up as the day of days it looked like being for so long for the small northern raiding party.
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