Walking the course: Cheltenham

Fair weather welcomed racing back to Cheltenham for its opening fixture of the 2014/15 season. 004 (768x1024)I always enjoy the Showcase meeting; although it’s too early for the established top quality horses to be strutting their stuff, the racing remains competitive, and with two of the races on Friday won by a distance of a head, there was excitement right to the line.

The course is far from full of spectators, so there’s always a good chance of a seat on one of the benches on the lawn, and queues at the refreshment stalls are short, so you don’t miss out on the action while you’re waiting for a hog roast bap. Best of all, though, as it’s description suggests the meeting is a showcase for the racecourse, with the opportunity to look behind the scenes, and grab selfies in places you wouldn’t normally be able to go.

On Friday, I joined former jockey Colin Brown and about fifty other folk to walk the course. It must be forty years or more since I last did that. Then, ahead of me as the course turned down the far side was a group of half of dozen including the late Queen Mother. As I came alongside them, the following conversation took place.

HRH: (prodding the ground with her stick) “I see it’s firming up nicely.”
IS: (then an impudent teenager) “I take it you’re referring to the state of the going, ma’am.”

No such frivolity yesterday, as Brown led his intrepid course walkers through a lesson in how to ride the Cheltenham Old Course at a pace that soon had one or two of the older participants sweating up in the sunshine. Brown works as a jockey coach amongst other things, and he quickly passed on a piece of advice he drills into his young charges – walk the course before racing every day. Never mind how often you have ridden at the track; a close look before racing will give you clues about its condition on that particular day. Small patches of ground which feel different in the going, exactly how much of a fence has been dolled off, and remembering variations in the ground line can all give a jockey an advantage in placing his horse to the best in a race.

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You need to be close up to a fence to see what he means about the ground line. All regulation fences are 4ft 6ins high, but the racing surface doesn’t have the uniformity of a lawn tennis court. In fact, there is often a difference of three or four inches in the height to be jumped. On a horse with a history of just clearing his jumps, you want to take off where the ground is highest.

Cheltenham is recognised as a stiff, undulating track. Brown also emphasised that it’s a turning track, particularly the Old Course, on which the horses barely run three furlongs in a straight line. Two reasons, then, why jockeys need to keep a horse well balanced.

We’ll pick up the walk on the back straight. Brown reckoned that if a horse wasn’t travelling well at the first ditch there, a jockey would really wonder if he was going to be able to get into the race. Consequently, he would welcome the water jump that follows. This, Brown said, was not as wide as in his day, although the depth hadn’t changed. About an inch, in case you were wondering.

Another ditch and the riders look to take a breather before gathering themselves for the run downhill and then the lung-busting climb to the finish. Jockeys take a fall on average once in every ten rides, so those who have gone a dozen rides without a tumble and are nicely placed in the race are thinking “not this time please.”

The top of the hill is the best place to appreciate just how much Cheltenham rises and falls.down the hill It’s around half a mile to the winning post, you’ve to go downhill fifty feet and then climb almost as much to the end of the race. The third last, midway down the hill, is another critical point. Brown says that there’s a huge temptation to press on there, but more often than not, jockeys who make that decision go on and lose the race. It’s the ones who count to ten who give their ride a better chance.

On to the second last, repositioned into the final straight a few years ago, something Brown thought a very sound move. You need to keep a horse going here, or it’s likely to get into the bottom of the fence and lose momentum on landing. Then, one more jump and it’s heads down for the post, and the roar that greets the winner.

Those cheers were for Brown twice at the Festival. In 1981 he rode Lesley Ann to win the Sun Alliance Chase, and four years later he was on Floyd in the County Hurdle.

They were his Cheltenham highlights. I was lucky enough to have mine to come. The course walkers were all Jockey Club Bondholders, who had contributed towards the costs of the rebuilding work now taking place at Cheltenham. I was lucky enough to be one of five members to present the trophies after the final race on the card. The giftofracing.co.uk Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle, won by 16/1 shot Roman Flight, was memorable for the connections as well as myself. For trainer David Dennis it was a first runner at Cheltenham, and for jockey Shane Quinlan a first ride in England.

True, we had to imagine the crowd around the paddock, but that was easy to do. What a thrill – better than meeting the Queen Mum.

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