Have you ever sat on a horse while it leapt over a fence? It’s the nearest you will ever get to owning a pair of wings. Just to hop over a pole or two is a kind of miracle, and to take a heftier jump at speed and land safe and fast – well, that’s pretty much like entering the vaults of heaven. For every rider, every horse that was ever foaled is Pegasus.
And that’s what the Cheltenham Festival is all about. Horses, that is. Horses and leaping. Any other way of understanding the Festival misses the point. It’s not about Ireland, and it’s not about Anglo-Irish rivalry, though such things play their part. (After all, this is England’s annual four-day festival of Irish envy: many English Festival-goers genuinely believe that good craic is directly related to the amount of Guinness you drink.)
But it’s not all about drink, and it’s not all about betting either, although a fair amount of both of those things goes on. My belief is that betting is a safe way of flying. It’s the closest you can get to that heart-stopping mixture of fear and exhilaration that comes in the take-off stride without actually leaving the ground.
We’ll hear a lot about and a lot from the jockeys and trainers, of course, and great people they often are, too. We listen to them for one very good reason: they can talk. But it’s not about them, either. They are no more the stars than the best boy or chief grip are the stars of your favourite film.
Cheltenham Festival is about horses; it’s great because it takes the best horses and tests them in the most searching and satisfying way. Everything else that happens is a by-product of the utter fabulousness of horses in general, and these horses in particular.
Charlie Swan rides Istabraq to win The Smurfit Champion Hurdle Race during the Cheltenham Festival in 2000
My favourite Cheltenham horse of all time is Istabraq, who won the Champion Hurdle three times. Hurdlers race over comparatively flimsy, yielding obstacles, so a hurdle race is about speed and agility. Istabraq was master at that long, low, rather swooping kind of leap that characterises the very best kind of hurdlers. And he was all speed, that horse: so wired up it seemed that he might vanish in a puff of smoke if you startled him.
I met him once at Ballydoyle. After a horrible interview with his trainer, the great but cripplingly shy Aidan O’Brien, which was tooth-pullingly painful for us both, O’Brien took me on a tour of his place – and it was great. In his 4×4, freed from the burden of eye contact, we talked the horse talk that all horse people talk, and that revealed a horseman as sensitive and hyperaware as Istabraq himself.
And that’s what it’s all about: great horses and the human affinity for such animals. I remember the first triumph of Best Mate in the Gold Cup, trained by the brilliant ex-schoolteacher, Henrietta Knight; I remember the lone win of the dearly beloved grey, Desert Orchid; I remember the ludicrously improbable victory of Norton’s Coin, winning at the Cup 100-1 after his trainer Sirrell Griffiths had got up to milk the cows on the day of the race.
Which horse will we remember from this year? In a way, the answer’s the same as it is every year – all of them. Here’s an old Arab proverb: the wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.
The Cheltenham Festival is on Tuesday 14th to Friday 17th March at 1pm on ITV