Mark Souster Reviews The Festival™
It was billed as Four Days of Extraordinary and The Festival™, certainly lived up to it.
It may have started with fears over the weather, but when those abated the racing fizzled brightly before erupting over a beguiling final two days.
To cap it all Willie Mullins was, at last, able to lay his Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup ghost to rest.
Six times he had finished as runner up in his career, so Al Boum Photo’s success under Paul Townend was ample reward after so many near misses and so much frustration for the 2019 Irish Independent Leading Trainer at Cheltenham.
The 12/1 chance had lost at Punchestown last April when Townend somehow steered his mount around the final fence and ran out with the race at his mercy.
Sport has its way of making amends. There was to be no second success for Native River, who battled on gamely for fourth, while one wonders whether Might Bite’s deteriorating form this season might be lasting.
As light faded at the Home of Jump Racing, Joseph O’Brien’s Early Doors took the last of the 28 races and provided JP McManus with his fifth success of the week to secure the 2019 NetJets Leading Owner title.
In years to come Thursday will be recognised as one of the finest and most uplifting days in the long and incredible history of the Festival. It will in due course become etched in the lexicon of Jump racing, one to add to a defining list of great sporting moments.
It was a day which began as indeed does each at Cheltenham with hopes, dreams and ambitions. It is however rare that those are realised, and certainly not on the scale that those fortunate enough to be at Prestbury Park witnessed.
Bryony Frost, Lizzie Kelly, Andrew Gemmell, Emma Lavelle, Frodon and Paisley Park collectively all raised the roof in an afternoon truly worthy of the title Extraordinary.
After less than two years as a professional jockey and at the age of 23, Jockey Club Racecourses ambassador Bryony Frost is fast becoming a precious national treasure, a jewel of inestimable value.
She is a natural horsewoman and a natural communicator of the highest quality, whom the Gods have sent down at just the right time.
Above all it is her humility which shines through. A first Festival Grade I for a female British jockey aboard her beloved Cheltenham-loving Frodon, who rallied in the style of a true champion to win the Ryanair Chase was wonderful to behold.
But then along came Paisley Park in the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle and with him the terrific back-story of both the horse and his owner.
Named after the late singer Prince’s home and recording studio, Paisley Park was almost lost to colic two years ago but was nursed back to health. Andrew Gemmell, though blind since birth, has found solace and comfort in racing and the commentaries both on course and via the radio which help to paint a vivid picture in his mind.
The seven year old has been the star of the staying hurdle division this season, during which he has remained unbeaten in five starts.
Having barely drawn breath Lizzie Kelly re-appeared determined not to be overlooked. She had watched on as Frost roped the dopes in her race along the lines of Muhammad Ali and his Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in 1974.
She emulated Frost with similar front running tactics to land the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate on her stepfather’s Siruh du Lac.
On Wednesday the continued majestic brilliance of Altior, who it seems is destined for equine sainthood. Eighteen wins on the bounce is an incredible feat.
The Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase showed the virtues of a true champion. He was as brave as he was brilliant fighting back to win when all seemed potentially lost.
Altior is on a par with Kauto Star in the opinion of Sir Anthony McCoy and the prospect of so much more to come is a mouth-watering one.
By this point Tuesday’s Unibet Champion Hurdle had gone to Espoir D’Allen at 16-1, defeating faller Buveur D’Air and mares Laurina and Apple’s Jade.
It was an Extraordinary start to the week. As it turns out, it was just the beginning.