Cheltenham 2019: War and Peace

Friend of Racing To Profit, Michael Andrews, brings us his take on The Cheltenham Festival 2019…

Over to Michael…

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Cheltenham 2019: War and Peace

On the week that dominates a year, it’s hard not to be physically, emotionally and economically exhausted on Red Nose eve. Even for such a good cause, my bank balance rejected any ideas of donating; it was I who seemingly needed the Relief. Yet while the dough will roll again at the end of the month and sleep can cure exhaustion, the habitually contradictory set of emotions will indelibly mark any fan’s memory for years.

Tuesday was shock and awe.

Wednesday, special service resumed.

Thursday, what dreams are made of.

By Friday, a macabre plot.

And yet even a day’s summary such as that remains too blunt a tool to encapsulate all of everyone’s emotions. I’ve always described Cheltenham as a rollercoaster with twenty-eight twists and turns; sometimes you’re scared but a second later, elated. Every part of it is thrilling and terrific but those words describe an intense feeling, they don’t denote whether the emotion is good or bad, happy or sad, scary or awesome.

Bryony, Frodon and Thursday will live long in the hearts of racing fans for a long time. That’s part of Cheltenham’s appeal; the second your economic selection drops away, fluffs his lines or simply hasn’t got a chance, you switch allegiances to cheer home another story. Off we popped from that acca we had on Footpad, dropped Un De Sceaux like its hot and grabbed Frodon by the withers just like Bryony to push home a slice of racing history. Then she did the talking, somehow coming out with more articulate zeal in the heat of the moment than I can even with hindsight and a dictionary. Passion makes this sport so pure, and it isn’t always so much the race or Bryony, but the overwhelming sense that you were one of a million people feeling exactly the same at that one moment. It’s a lonely world, and betting and cheering home a completely different horse to all your mates makes it a lonely sport at times, too.

Moments like these make it a little less lonely.

Last year I lamented the dominance of certain trainers and certain owners. The balance was re-addressed this year. Last year I lamented the packed and overly busy stadia. It seemed I could perfectly float from one space to another this year. Last year I lamented the lack of a racing fan atmosphere. Almost there.

But for all the good, Friday brought the most heart-breaking of all tales, a piece of dramatic writing more familiar to something shown after the watershed on ITV, not during its live sport showing. The Triumph hurdle played like a piece of literature, a thriller with the most agonising plot twist. ITV brought us into the life of Sir Erec, revealing his personality in an intense, three-minute biography whilst he stood to be reshod. We were admiring him like we’d admire a character in a book or film; we adored his calm, his physical strength and without doubt the equine beauty that came with all of that. “We’re lucky to get a horse of this calibre at Cheltenham,” someone said. The equine protagonist had been anthropomorphised to us as viewers, no longer just a beast on four legs; we were far more attached. It was like any popular hero on the big screen; like Dobby had been portrayed by JK Rowling or the director, David Yates – we became emotionally invested in their plight.

Then ITV, utterly unintentionally and with equal consternation to us all as fans, screened the plot twist in a live spiral of fate. Writers take ages to perfect the literary device called ‘false protagonist’, yet sport refined it to just a matter of minutes. We thought he was the main character, the protagonist we’d all been gifted a small amount of insight into and actor we could learn to love. That was taken away in tragedy. Even the staunchest supporters of racing turned away in unbearable grief.

Emotions will always take over in racing. Someone once told me, over a non-racing issue, that our argument can never be an academic one. It’s always an emotional one. Whether that’s good, as it is in when it overrides economic woe to get on board with Frodon, or whether that’s bad, as it is when it affects landmark decisions in racing, it will always be there. You cannot override the emotional truth that seeing death, and seeing three horses lying flat on the ground on Tuesday’s finale, will always invoke emotions that implore actions.

It was not first or foremost academia that led to the fences and distance change at Aintree. Academic thought wasn’t the decisive driving force in the whip rule. They weren’t the catalyst; they came later in implementation. And suggestions that academic thoughts should overrule emotional are a fallacy. Just like I was told, an emotional argument will always trump an academic one. In a court of law, a victim identifying their aggressor still remains far more convincing than DNA evidence, despite one’s reliability over the other. Therefore, if people look and see a horse lying on the ground, they will be upset and angry. A picture paints a thousand assumptions. Its power is far greater than a neat explanatory document. Don’t forget that.

That’s why the BHA’s job is so hard, and whilst AP McCoy and Ted Walsh have good points, they’ve simplified a problem that is far from the straightforward, basic argument they represent. One, emotions will guide this sport no matter what sense prevails amongst us. And two, this is not two sides. There is no bipolarity about this argument; people aren’t just madly for or madly against racing. People don’t simply just watch Peppa Pig, or despise it. Some of us quietly tolerate it. Some of us don’t care, for now.

In truth, there’s something like 20% of the United Kingdom who love racing. There’s something like 10% who hate racing. Then there’s the actual demographic overlooked by AP: the 70% who are swing voters, the ones that hold the power in an election, who are as yet undecided. If their emotions change against us, racing would drop in days. Don’t forget the power of an angry majority, May.

And on we go, to Aintree. Normally economically worse than Cheltenham, but emotionally richer. Not just one million, but ten million hearts, and all screaming for what most of us have waited all our lives for; a dual winner. Don’t choke, O’Leary.

Thanks for reading,

Michael Andrews : https://twitter.com/mytentoryours

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P.S you can catch Michael’s excellent regular racing podcast, recorded with his good friend Luke Elder, HERE>>>

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2 Comments

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  • Excellent piece. Well written.

    Jim Delaney 12/08/19 1:16 AM Reply


  • Excellent piece. Well written.

    Jim Delaney 21/03/19 5:43 PM Reply


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