Popular owner Andy Stewart was remembered on day one of The Showcase Meeting at Cheltenham, as the Christian Williams-trained Strictlyadancer won the race named in his honour.
A crowd of 11,265 at Cheltenham – up 865 on the same fixture in 2019 – gave Stewart’s most famous racehorse, four-time World Hurdle winner Big Buck’s, a rousing reception as he walked round the paddock and then paraded in front of the grandstand before the Andy Stewart Memorial Amateur Jockeys' Handicap Chase.
It was a fitting tribute to a man whose red, white and black silks were also carried to victory at The Festival by Jump racing legends Saphir Du Rheu, Celestial Halo and Pacha Du Polder.
Stewart passed away on September 10th aged 70 and his son Paul was at Cheltenham today. He said: “It is a poignant day and I’d like to thank The Jockey Club and Cheltenham for letting us honour dad here.
“He loved Cheltenham - he lived out of the UK and this was one of the few things he came back for in the racing calendar. He just loved it and I tried to organise a day that he’d want to be at – everyone has had fun and I want to celebrate him, not mourn him.
“He was that sort of person and for him racing was everything. He loved the people in it, he loved the sport and thought it was the greatest sport in the world. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who dreamt of having a horse one day and it was in his wildest dreams to have a runner at Cheltenham, never mind a winner at The Festival. He lived a good life, a fast life and a happy life.
“A race like this is a fitting tribute, especially a race for amateurs. He loved the Foxhunters and the amateurs as he was one of those people who loved to give someone a start in life.
“Big Buck’s was the one standout memory and always has to be. The thing about dad was that we never owned Big Buck’s, he was always the people’s horse and that was the way he was. It was great to see him again and I just felt a bit sorry for him – I think he thought he was off again!
“I could see him looking around thinking he could have these horses and it was just a pleasure to have him. Hopefully we have a lot of nice horses coming through to emulate him – you can’t be that lucky twice and have another Big Buck’s but if they can do a fifth of what he did we’d be very lucky once again. It was nice to see him back today and he’s 18 now so he can join us for a glass of champagne afterwards!
“We’re keen to keep things going. We had two nice winners yesterday and we have a horse with Judi Dench called Outlaw Peter as well that’s won. It was dad’s passion and we couldn’t beat him so we joined him and we got the same passion that he did.
“My first memory was watching the replays of Cenkos coming over the eighth in the lead in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He didn’t win that race but I understand where my dad got that buzz for the sport and I’d like to keep The Stewart family colours going for many years if not generations.”
The extended three miles and a furlong contest went the way of the Christian Williams-trained Strictlyadancer (7-1), who scored by a length and a half under Patrick King.
Afterwards Williams recalled the day he almost got to ride Big Buck’s. He said: “I had a few winners for Andy Stewart and it’s great to see his son here. They always make a fuss of me and it was nice to have two runners in the race run in his memory.
“I rode Big Buck’s in the paddock one day. I’d had a fall in the race before when I broke my leg in five places. I couldn’t put my leg in the iron so they had to carry me off him and Liam Heard rode him in the Kingmaker. I went to see the doctor and passed the doctor, so I took six or seven painkillers and weighed out but I couldn’t get my leg in the iron so they took me off him and I think the race was delayed for 20 minutes due to a jockey change!”
On the winner, Williams added: “They usually improve with age with us. My horses improve each year and the ground probably played into this horse’s favour.
“A lot of my horses improve for the run too and apart from Kitty’s Light every other horse I’ve run so far this season has improved on their second start.
“He’s only lowly rated so we won’t get too carried away. He needs to step up on last year but the Kim Muir is a horse we try and run horses in and it’s up to him whether he can improve through the season.”
Meanwhile Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies celebrated a first winner of the new season at his local course courtesy of Guard Your Dreams (16-5 Favourite) in the Abu Dhabi Digital Exchange Handicap Hurdle. Partnered by the trainer’s son Sam Twiston-Davies, the five year old defied a weight of 11st 12lb to prevail by two lengths.
The Guiting Power handler thinks he has an exciting prospect on his hands and now has the dilemma of whether to stay over hurdles or go chasing with the son of Fame And Glory.
He said: “He dug deep there, carrying top-weight first time out is hard work but he did it nicely. He’s always been very good but to do that first time out is great. He was going to go chasing until Sam spotted this race and said ‘why don’t we go for this?’, so it’s up for the discussion whether we go over fences or stay over hurdles – but it’s a nice problem to have.
“He’s been schooling brilliantly over fences, it’s just with the ground being as it is we haven’t been able to run him yet. You’d think he’d take quite a high rank over fences when he does go chasing, so he’s a very exciting horse to have.”
A step up in class now looks likely for Annual Invictus (11-4) following the six year old’s three-length victory under Tom Cannon in the 888Sport novices’ Limited Handicap Chase over just short of two and a half miles.
Successful trainer Chris Gordon said: “We certainly think he’s improved for a fence and he will like a bit of softer ground, so as the ground gets a bit heavier that will help him as well.
“I might look at one or two of those graded races in softer ground and if it’s heavier we might even drop to two miles the way he’s jumping. I think two miles in testing ground may suit. He’s a very straightforward and genuine horse, which makes life a lot easier and his jumping is so strong that I feel we could drop back and put them to the sword a bit – knowing we stay. I wouldn’t want to put it in black and white but the main thing is he’s won today and it’s going well.”
The concluding Foundation Developments Maiden Hurdle went to Irish raider and 15-8 favourite Top Bandit, who won by three-quarters of a length under Davy Russell.
Successful trainer Gordon Elliott said: “I thought that after he won at Downpatrick the last time we’d come here and we thought the owner would be here but unfortunately he’s on his holidays in Dubai. They’re big supporters of the yard so it’s great to get a nice winner for them.
“It’s great to be back at Cheltenham, I love training winners here as everyone knows and when you’ve got the likes of Davy Russell and Jack Kennedy riding for you here it just makes life easy. I normally have a few here and at the November Meeting but Cheltenham in March is all I care about.
“Davy is a great man, he’s 42 years of age and I wasn’t even questioning if he’s coming back. It just shows you how good he is - he’s a different class. Jack (Kennedy, jockey) is back and he’s flying now - he’s suspended today but he’ll be back tomorrow.”
Winning jockey Davy Russell added: “That was great, it gave me a good feeling. I love this place. I was always happy that I'd get back. He's a grand horse, it was a lovely performance and he jumped fantastic. He showed the same pace that he's shown us at home.”