The sun is shining. The red mare and I had a whooping, racing canter. I threw the reins at her and stood up in the stirrups and let her go, and she pricked her ears and bowled along as if she knew that this was the day her mighty cousins will be strutting their stuff on the most enchanted stage of all.
Because, my darlings, IT’S CHELTENHAM. It’s the elite. It’s the best, the brightest, the bravest. It’s humans of such flintiness and skill and courage and resolution that it takes my breath away. It’s horses of such bravery and beauty and willingness that I can sometimes hardly believe they exist in the world.
I’ve been doing my homework, almost literally. I’ve been sitting up with my notebook, watching recordings of old races, beadily checking the course form, watching for chinks in equine armour, looking for the ones that really, really want it. Because on this undulating course, with its huge obstacles and its stretching hill, they have to want it. You can see the alpha horses, the herd leaders, who rumble through a race, shouldering the lesser beasts aside.
And yet, the whole point of Cheltenham is that anything can happen. After all that study, I realise that I do not know what will win. I’ve been building up my betting bank, and now I’m hardly going to use it. It’s not about the money. It’s not about the brilliance of picking the right horse for the right day. It’s about the love.
I love Quevega, the toughest little mare since Dawn Run set the place on a roar. I love Hurricane Fly, with his warrior spirit. I love the novices – the classy Irving, the flying Vautour, the honest and strong Wicklow Brave, so very well named. I love the old campaigners – dear old Alfie Sherrin, enigmatic Restless Harry. I love the humans too – the genius wizard that is Willie Mullins, the mighty Champ that is AP, the smiling young pretender that is Sam Twiston-Davies. I love Paul Nicholls, with his bullish faith in his horses, and Ruby Walsh, with his canny grace on a horse, and Nicky Henderson, with his heart on his sleeve and his race glasses trembling so much he can hardly watch the race. I’d love to see the charming Tom Scu have a good meeting, and the proper gentleman that is Dickie Johnson get one on the board.
I don’t know what will happen. If Hurricane Fly and Quevega can win, I shall cry tears of pure joy. But I’d be equally delighted to see The New One storm up the hill, or My Tent or Yours show his class. I’ve had a whisper for Manyriverstocross, and I’m very sweet on Dodging Bullets, and I’ve got a tiny little feeling for Green Flag at a big price, who has travelled all the way from sunny Scotland.
It is my best week of the year. My heart is beating. Oh, oh, the love. What a great game it is. My darling old dad will be looking down from the great betting shop in the sky.
What joy these extraordinary horses do offer. I do not just love them, I admire them. In their honest and authenticity, they can teach humans a thing or two. Most of all, I hope they all give their running, and they all come home safe.
And now, I just wait for that great Cheltenham roar.
My own red champion, all happy and muddy and woolly, with her dear little Paint friend, in the morning sun:
Be lucky, wherever you are. May your Cheltenham dreams come true.