Belfast Telegraph

Steve Beacom: Nothing like the roar at ‘Olympics of horseracing’

When AP McCoy is closing in on a win at Cheltenham, nothing gets in his way.

Not even some madman running on to the course, as happened in the Ryanair Chase yesterday, as the iconic Ulsterman rode Albertas Run |to a sublime victory.

You get just about everything at Cheltenham. The Festival attracts all types.

From the knowing old codger who has filled in more betting slips than you've had hot dinners, to a bunch of young lads giving it large, savouring the craic and champagne, hoping to collect a few winners along the way.

From the group of wealthy designer suited businessmen, all believing they have been given valuable inside information from someone in the know, to the family on a outing, with mum laughing loudly and celebrating with her daughters after picking up a few quid for choosing a name she liked.

From princesses (Anne and daughter Zara Phillips) to |paupers (those who make the bookies smile) they all wake up an otherwise sleepy Gloucestershire town for four thrill-filled days in the |picturesque shadow of |Cleeve Hill.

Amid crowds of over 50,000 each afternoon, there are all walks of human life admiring equine beauty and hoping to strike it lucky.

And then there's the Irish.

I was told that this year the invasion from north and south would be somewhat curtailed.

No money, goes the story. Are you kidding? Try walking 100 yards — make that 50 — around the course without hearing an Irish accent. You have more chance of John McCririck giving you a tenner!

The Irish are here in force alright and a record week has been enjoyed.

How ironic though that after claiming six winners on Wednesday, there was just one for Ireland on St Patrick's Day.

No matter, what makes Cheltenham so special is that win or lose, everyone seems to have a fun time.

Even at the end of the day, with everyone leaving at the same time, forming the biggest rugby scrum in the world, those impatient frustrating thoughts can be erased from the mind with memories of what had gone before.

“I come every year,” Rodney Watson, owner of the classy Killyhevlin Hotel in Enniskillen, told me.

“It's the atmosphere. It's always great, and you also have the best horses. It's the Olympics of racing and it's fantastic to be part of that,” he added.

Everywhere you go at Cheltenham, you are given tips.

For example, Rodney says Long Run is the one to watch in today's eagerly anticipated Gold Cup in which previous winners Denman, Kauto Star and Imperial Commander all run.

Those horses will go down in the annals of Cheltenham's rich history, along with the likes of Arkle, Istabraq, Best Mate and Desert Orchid, all majestic animals who have transcended their sport.

Growing up, my most vivid memory of the Festival was when Dawn Run, with Jonjo O'Neill on board, displayed strength and staying power to clinch a famous Gold Cup triumph. What brought a shiver to the spine back then in 1986 — and still does now when I see it repeated on television — was the noise of the crowd in the long gallop to glory.

They call it the Cheltenham Roar. Boy, does it ever.

At the start of a big race, at the finish line and in the |winner's circle.

That's where the likes of McCoy and Ruby Walsh want to be. Have to be.

It's the place trainers and owners dream to be.

And it's where they all receive the most welcoming and joyful reception in sport.

The cheers and applause echo around the theatre. You sense the relieved stable lads and lasses don't hear a thing.

They go from nervous wrecks during races to the happiest people on the planet when they are reunited with their horses.

Such is their obvious affection, the most important thing for them is not their charge winning, but that they get round safely.

These magnificent animals – the finest hurdlers and steeplechasers around — look so much more impressive in the flesh than on a screen. They are the best of the best. This is National Hunt's Olympics, after all.

If 2012 is as good as this, |London's in for a magical time.

Belfast Telegraph


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