I have been going racing for more than 20 years – but I’ve never experienced a day quite as magical as day three of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.
Throughout the National-Hunt season I travel the length and breadth of the UK & Ireland. During this time, I get to see plenty of average horses, some good ones and - every now and again – I catch a glimpse of something special.
The Festival sees all the very best of the season’s equine talent pitted against each other over four days and 28 races. It is the week all racing fans wait for and it did not disappoint!
In the run-up to, and indeed during the week, obstacles were overcome off the track – as equine flu threatened to put a halt to proceedings before ‘Windy Wednesday’ almost saw Ladies’ Day rearranged for Saturday.
Thankfully, the meeting went according to plan – and fans from Britain, Ireland and further afield were treated to a sublime four days of top-class jumps action.
However, there was one day this year which eclipsed the rest – and that was St Patrick’s Thursday. A day which has often been synonymous with Irish dominance saw team GB finish with 4 wins to Ireland’s three.
Tuesday saw just one favourite amongst the places, with Wednesday looking set to shape the same way – before the final four favourites went on to score. But there was something different about Thursday…
I headed to Prestbury Park that morning with bags of confidence in my selections and with a huge amount of excitement… but nothing could have prepared me for possibly the most memorable day in my 20-plus years of race-going.
The sun was shining over the Cotswolds racecourse – and it was certainly shining down on favourite-backers – as Defi Du Seuil and Sire Du Berlais got Barry Geraghty and JP McManus off to an absolute flyer.
It was in the next – the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase – in which I was immensely privileged to see Festival history being made.
Horse racing is unique, in the fact that male and female jockeys have the chance to compete against each other, on a level playing-field. However, no female had won a Grade 1 at the Festival – prior to this race.
I had been lucky enough to see Bryony Frost – a hugely popular female jockey – win on Trials Day, on-board Paul Nicholls’ Frodon. The reception as she came into the winners' enclosure that day was one of the best I have ever seen – and I said to a gentleman stood by me: “If Bryony manages to ride Frodon to victory at the Festival – the place will erupt!”
Well… the super-tough partnership of Frost and Frodon went on to score – making them not only the most popular winning combination of the week, but writing Frost’s name into the history books as the first ever female to ride a Grade 1 winner at the Cheltenham Festival!
Another heart-warming story ahead of Thursday’s card was the extremely popular Stayers’ Hurdle favourite – Paisley Park – whose owner, Andrew Gemmell, has been blind since birth. Not too long ago, Gemmell’s horse escaped death by a whisker, following illness.
It was absolute elation for everybody involved – including trainer, Emma Lavelle and jockey, Aidan Coleman – for whom it was their biggest win at The Festival. Mr Gemmell enjoyed the victory too – with photos emerging of him enjoying a victory drink from the trophy. It was also my NAP of the week.
The icing on the cake - on this amazing day for the sport – was Lizzie Kelly’s Grade 3 win on Sirius Du Lac, for step-father Nick Williams.
Perhaps the only sad note on an otherwise perfect day was hearing legendary jockey, Noel Fehily, announce he is to retire from the saddle in the coming weeks following his final Festival winner.
On other days, racing fans were treated to Altior’s record-equalling 18th consecutive victory, Grand National hero - Tiger Roll’s 4th Festival victory and Racheal Blackmore – Ireland’s leading jockey – joining Frost with a Grade 1 Festival success. But it's that Thursday that will live longest in the memory. Roll on Cheltenham 2019!