The Cheltenham Festival is a meeting like no other. Four days of the very best of National Hunt racing when the top jumpers from Ireland and England do battle over the famous Cotswold hills.
Gambling, drinking and whatever else goes with those things are abound. Emotions are aroused. Opinions are everywhere. Egos are smashed and inflated in equal measure. Men are broken and men are self crowned Kings. Everyone knows best and everyone knows of that certainty that is working the house down at home. That Cheltenham banker. That good thing that will make or break your year.
Not that it begins and ends with that banker. There is also that long shot in the handicap. The each-way doubles and trebles. Course form, festival form, trainer form and ground conditions. The Pipes, Henderson, Willie Mullins, Paul Nichols and all those small Irish trainers with ten horses in their yard but half of them have already won at Cheltenham.
Money changes hands faster than betting dockets can be printed. Dreams are broken and plans abandoned. Gambles are landed and gambles are massive failures. Public money and face money. Bookies complaining. Gordon Elliot winning everything like the humble genius that he is. Celebrities drinking hot whiskeys in the Guinness tent. Hangovers nursed with black coffee’s and the dreams of another day. Stable staff who work 365 days a year and never complain. Ready to die for the horses in their care. Ready and proud. Ready for Cheltenham.
This is serious stuff. This is special stuff. This is tribal. This is intense. This is Ireland versus England. This is us versus them and we’re not coming home without a large slice of that glorious pie.
Yes, Cheltenham is all of these things, but Cheltenham is also held in the best of sportsmanship and integrity. Cheltenham is honest and Cheltenham is beautiful.
When scores are settled hands will be shook. Backs will be slapped and congratulations will be sincere. Heartache will be swallowed and tears wiped away with pride.
There will always be another day and there will always be next year. Racing people know this better than anyone. This game is a great leveller. It keeps us all humble.
In short, Cheltenham is a thing of immense beauty. Beauty that could never be explained. You have to know it to know it.
Personally, I have never been there. I was lucky enough to be brought up to understand that gambling is a very serious business. It can be fun when you win and absolutely no fun whatsoever when you lose. I learned this young and never forgot it.
Maybe one day when in the winter of my life I will go in person to this special place, but for now I’m happy to avoid the hoopla and give myself a better chance of winning by staying at home.
One of my earliest memories of Cheltenham was Dawn Run winning the Gold Cup for Ireland in 1986. She was a mare. She was the last mare to win the Gold Cup. She was also the only horse ever to do the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double. And she was ours. We owned her. Ireland owned Dawn Run. I remember getting the day off school for it and lying on the floor in front of the television watching it.
I’ll never forget it.
There are a lot of things that happened in Cheltenham over the years that I will never forget.
In my adult life, as gambling took on an even more serious tone, Cheltenham became more important than ever. I always did well in better class of races with better horses and Cheltenham provided me with the best opportunities that suited my style. Overall I am well on top at the festival, but I will admit that there were a few years when things went terribly wrong.
Without question, my worst year was 2004. I came into the meeting in a very strong position and ended up losing everything. Maybe I am deluded, but to this day I still believe that all my bets in 2004 were good ones. Sometimes we lose and know where we went wrong. Other times we lose and don’t know why, but know we got it wrong. Cheltenham 2004 wasn’t like this. I left absolutely no stone unturned in my preparation and analysis. My head was clear and my thinking precise. I was neither too tense nor too relaxed. I was extremely happy with all of my bets.
All of them were well beaten.
Such is horse racing. Such is Cheltenham. Such is life.
Funny that 2004 should be my worst ever Cheltenham, because the 2003 festival was without question my best ever.
I came into the meeting in a bad place. I couldn’t back a winner all winter. Nothing was going my way. My confidence was shot and my pockets were shallow.
Then in early February I caught a break. I backed a horse of Philip Hobbs called In Contrast in what used to be The Tote Gold Trophy (now the Betfair Hurdle) at Newbury. I backed him early in the week at 16/1. He ended up 6/1 on the day but could only manage 4th. I had managed to scrounge together 100 to put on him. The bet was 80 to win and 20 to place, and as he came 4th I was due back my 100.
I went to collect my 100 a few days later in an unnamed bookie shop in Dublin city centre. Though I had been losing over the previous few months, I was a marked man in many shops around Dublin at that time. The previous few years had been very good to me and I was a known face. Every bet I had was called into head office for confirmation, and then noted to keep track of how much I was winning. The same would happen whenever I went to collect.
On this particular occasion, there were different staff to normal and they looked very inexperienced. They left me waiting about 10 minutes and never called into head office as expected. Eventually, one of the staff turned to me with a wad of notes in her hand and said “425”. To this day I have no clue how they came up with this figure, as if the horse had won the figure would have been 1,460.
Anyway, I immediately said “Yes!”, took the money and walked out the door!
Cheltenham was only one month away and I suddenly had more money to play with than I thought I would.
Shortly after this, Boylesports went NRNB on all festival races and respect to them as they were the first to do so so early.
I already had two strong fancies for Cheltenham. One was the Jonjo O’ Neill trained Inching Closer, who had won a handicap hurdle at Haydock on the same day In Contrast had ran at Newbury. Inching Closer was to run the The Pertemps Final over 3 miles, which in those days was the last race on the first day.
I managed to get in early and get 16/1 about him with Boyles. I walked up to the counter with a docket with 160 win and 40 place at 16/1. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t take it all, as I had always done well against Boyles. However, as explained above, I was on a bad run and they took me on for the 200.
There was strong, sustained money for the horse in the weeks leading up to Cheltenham and again on the day.
Inching Closer went off 6/1 favourite and won by a short head. And when I say a short head, I mean a short head.
Back in those days when a photo finish was tight it took a lot longer than nowadays to call the result. I honestly have no idea how long it took them to call it, but it seemed like a good ten minutes to me. It was very very close. Win or lose, he was at worst 2nd and I was at least getting my 200 back, but of course I was desperate for the win.
My heart was bursting through my chest. The announcement seemed to take forever. It was the only time in my life that I ever considered giving the game up. Here I was, 28 years of age, grasping onto a betting docked and under so much stress that I genuinely felt like I might get a heart attack. I felt seriously unwell and thought to myself “What the hell are you doing? Give this stuff up.”
A few seconds later the result was called and my heart immediately danced to a smoother beat and a smile like you could never imagine took over my face.
I walked outside and headed straight towards the Boylesports to collect. It was about a 10 minute walk away. I was half ways there before realising that it was teeming down rain. I hadn’t even noticed. I didn’t care. I was bullet proof. Rain proof and bullet proof.
I went and collected my 2,920 and went straight home to count it. Those days were glorious. When you dealt in cash and went home and spread it out on the table and counted it. Nowadays, it’s all e-transfer and it’s all so convenient, and it is, but I will say it again; those days of dealing face to face in cash were glorious.
When I got the unexpected 425 back from the In Contrast bet in February, I put 200 on Inching Closer and the other 200 on the Tony Martin trained Xenophon in the Coral Cup. He had won the always competitive Pierse Hurdle at Leopardstown in January and Tony was keeping him for Cheltenham.
Contrary to popular opinion, most stables are actually not gambling stables, but of course there are some gambling stables. There are gambling stables and there are gambling stables and then there are proper gambling stables. And after those proper gambling stables there are a handful of stables. Tony Martin’s is one such stable. When the money is truly down it is rarely if ever left behind.
Xenophon had all the hallmarks of such a gamble. He was seriously fancied all winter for Cheltenham and the word was that it would be the Coral Cup he would go for rather than the County Hurdle. All the top Irish horses for Cheltenham had worked at Leopardstown on the Saturday before the festival and Xenophon had worked better than any of them.
I was seriously confident. I already had 140 win and 60 place on at 10/1, placed on the same day I backed Inching Closer, but now, with almost 3,000 in my pocket after the latter had won, I was ready to go in again.
And ready to go in heavy.
He was a best priced 7/1 at this stage and I wanted 1,000 to win. I managed to get 600 on at 7/1 and 400 at 6/1. I stood to win 6,600 in addition to the 1,550 from the 140 win and 60 place bet. In all I stood to win 8,150 on Xenophon in addition to the 2,920 from Inching Closer.
Xenophon was ridden by Mick Fitzgerald and went off at 4/1 fav on the day. He got a dream run through the race and travelled like a winner all the way. Mick produced him brilliantly to take it up coming to the last where he winged it and sprinted up the hill for a famous win.
I was tempted by one other horse at that festival. A French horse trained by Francois Doumen and owned by Limerick man J P McManus. The horse was called Foreman and he was running in the County Hurdle, which at that time was the last race of the whole festival. I fancied him but not enough. Even though I now had money to go to war with, I wasn’t tempted to have another bet.
I would not lose my discipline. I would not be broken. Lessons learned young are learned for life.
I let Foreman run. He finished unplaced.
I had two bets and two winners at that Cheltenham Festival. I had started the meeting with nothing and ended it with over 11,000.
I have several times since won more than this figure at Cheltenham, but all these things are relevant.
It wouldn’t matter if I won 11 million at a festival, nothing will ever compare to that Cheltenham of 2003.