Monday, 12 March 2012

In which I dream of Cheltenham

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I can only apologise for two whole days with no blog. The road really wore me out this time. Sometimes the drive is dreamy and relatively easy; sometimes there is a moment at Dundee when I genuinely think I am not going to be able to make that last eighty miles and I shall have to call the nice people at the AA to tow me home. I really do not know how lorry drivers and commercial saleswomen do it.

Today, I attempted some kind of re-entry. There is no time for unpacking or any of that malarkey; my car remains filled with books, clothes, a saddle, and a selection of blankets, on which the poor Pigeon dozed on the long drive home, like the Princess and the Pea. (She really does hate travelling now, in her old age, and lies with a most grumpy and resigned look on her noble face.)

I did work. I spoke, in an organised manner to co-writer and agent. I pitched five different ideas for future projects. One of them, the one I most wanted and least expected to meet with approval, was greeted with interest and delight.

The Younger Brother called on the Skype. We shouted at each other over the computer, across the thousands of miles from the Far East to the Scottish East.

I thought, most of the day, about Cheltenham. I want so badly to write something stirring and glorious about it, here. Alistair Down did a lovely piece in the Racing Post a few days ago about the glory and the guts. I wanted to stir your blood and excite your viscera. (Really, if I cannot excite your viscera, I do not know what I am here for.)

But I’m a bit out of words after all that work and all that pitching. I can't quite summon the proper prose to give you a sense of what the thing is all about.

It’s like Christmas and Easter all rolled into one, which is a big, fat, rolling cliché, but true, all the same. I will not be able to sleep tonight for excitement.

Why is it so marvellous? It’s because of the crowd, of the magical setting, of the test of the course. Cheltenham is a rolling, undulating track, with a tough hill at the end. There are other, flatter tracks, where horses can get away with a little lack of stamina or heart. At Cheltenham, any weakness is exposed. To win at the festival, when all the best horses in Britain and Ireland are lined up, trained to the moment, requires something extra, something special, a combination of talent and determination and courage.

It is the fact that all the heroes are there: the finest horses, the great trainers, the most brilliant jockeys. It is the lovely, dreamy fact that even in that stellar gathering, the small operations get their chance. I’m not really sure why this is, perhaps just a matter of probability, with so many races being run in such a short time. Whatever it is, there is always a moment, each year, when an obscure trainer who does not have bags of cash and a string of equine stars, who probably gets up at five each morning to do the mucking out herself, who may have to see to the sheep or the cows before he looks to the horses, will have a shining moment in the sun. There is a keen sense of sporting chance this week, which appeals to the great British sense of fairness.

There is also the soaring beauty – of the place itself, of the animals who run there. The horses are just coming into their spring selves; some of them are as fit as they have ever been in their lives. Because of the sense of occasion, they come with their manes plaited and their tails brushed and their hooves oiled and their coats gleaming with health and promise. There are always a few vanity runs, one with little hope whose owners just yearn for a runner at the festival, and there is no law against that. But most of them will be the best of their cohort, the ones who are finely put together, who know how to jump and gallop and stay. This is not a selling plate at Thirsk, there are no mugs here. These horses are tested and tried.

It’s a bit of a favourites meeting this year. There are some defining superstars – Quevega, the brave, fast mare who carries the heart of Ireland; Hurricane Fly, a great Irish hurdler; Grand Crus, a young, brilliant chaser in his first season over fences; and the wild, unstoppable Sprinter Sacre, another novice, who races with all the fervour of a bronco on a high plain.

The majestic Big Buck’s is going for his fourth World Hurdle. Regular readers will know of my love for him. If he wins this week, he will equal the extraordinary record set by Sir Ken in the fifties, of sixteen victories in a row.

Although I hate betting on favourites, especially those that are odds on, even though my old dad always taught me to look for value, for the canny outsider, I want all those champions to win. Because I must have a bet, I have put them all into various complicated accumulators and yankees and patents and trebles. My William Hill account is ticking and humming.

And then, of course, there is Kauto Star. Today, the announcement was made that, after those terrifying doubts of last week, he will run in the Gold Cup. After my initial, streaming delight, I had to start preparing myself for the possible anti-climax. It is Cheltenham, anything could happen. He is twelve years old, and no horse that age has won the race in over forty years. The odds are that Long Run, his youthful challenger will have his day. But oh, oh, I dream the dream. I dream it with everything I have.

There was a lovely moment, when the news was announced, when Kauto was trending on Twitter worldwide. For a moment, he was the most famous horse in the entire world. My favourite tweet was from a Spanish source. It just said ‘Kauto Star – en plena forma’.

I too, am on plena forma. It’s CHELTENHAM. It’s my best damn week of the year. There may not be enough good words to describe it, but just imagine your most thrilling, giddy, glorious, absurdly delightful thing, and double it.


I seem to have managed to lose my camera battery charger, so there are no pictures today. Here are a few lovely horse shots, to get you in the mood.

Two lovely Kauto shots, both uncredited:

12 March Kauto Star also uncredited

12 March Kauto Star uncredited

Big Buck's, being schooled by Ruby Walsh, wonderfully shot by the David Davies for the PA:

12 March Big Bucks David Davies for PA

The green bowl of Prestbury Park, being watered in advance of the races, taken by the brilliant Alan Crowhurst for Getty Images:

12 March Cheltenham being watered by Alan Crowhurst for Getty Images

I shall think of my old dad all week. He won the Kim Muir in 1959 on a horse called Irish Coffee. I wish I could find a photograph of it to show you, but I can't. You shall just have to imagine the old fella, with his baggy, white, old-fashioned breeches, his slightly cowboy-ish riding style, the wild, determined grin with which he rode, his faintly gritted teeth, roaring up the hill to the finishing post. I shall imagine the amazed delight, the shouts of the crowd, the vindicated exhaustion, the sheer, brilliant victory.

He did some nutty, eccentric, inexplicable things in his life. But he did some really, really great things too, and that was one of them.


  1. Glad you are home safely, and all set up for Cheltenham. We get that broadcast here (thanks, Betfair), so I'm now figuring out how to watch and focus on work at the same time. LOL, giving myself leave to ditch work for the Gold Cup, though. This is all your fault, by the way, your having brought Kauto Star -- and, actually, the whole world of the national hunt -- into my world.

    Best of luck. Make sure the Pigeon is poised to bark and cheer when necessary; will jinx everything if she is not. And remember: thinking about your father this week is an especially good thing.


    1. Bird - that is a very proud thought for me. Shall think of you watching, thousands of miles away. :)

  2. Lovely you are home with the Darling Pigeon. Looking forward to Red arriving.:)

    Many years ago I spent some days at Cheltenham. I was lucky enough to stay with some horsey people in a small castle nearby and was thoroughly spoilt. It was a fabulous and fun time. Do hope you enjoy it!

    1. Em - LOVE the sound of the tiny castle.

  3. Some fantastic shots of the horses. We can't wait until the races in hotel in Cheltenham.

    1. Hotel in Cheltenham - that is easily the nicest spam I've ever had. I'm not clicking on your link, but I hope you have a good festival.

  4. What a beautiful colour Kauto Star is - especially around his nostrils...which sounds very odd now I type it.

    I've never been interested in horse racing but reading you talking about it has made me really really want to see the romance of it all and OH! How much I want Kauto Star to win! I'm actually going to have to watch the race on Friday, probably hanging over the shoulder of my colleague on the next desk, who is definitely a racing fan. Consider all my fingers and toes very firmly crossed from now till Friday.

  5. Hi Tania

    I have to admit that since I found your blog a couple of months ago I have been educated. To the great surprise of my offspring, while driving them to school this morning, Radio 4 Today programme on full blast talking about Cheltenham. And before the sports chap, Andy whats-his-name, mentioned it, I was able to utter - casually - as if I'd always been an expert on such matters "I think Kauto Star will be running after all"
    Imagine the looks of admiration I received when said Andy started talking about KS being back on form. Thank you Tania, thanks to you I rank a little higher in my childrens' eyes!
    Fingers crossed for Friday.

    Bonne journée

  6. I think that the fact that Kauto Star, at his age and stage, is running at all is already "dream worthy", however the race turns out. What a beautiful horse!

    PS Isn't your Red arriving on Thursday?


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