Sunday, March 20, 2011

For Sid

I wanted to write this entry solely about the Cheltenham Festival, and much of it will be about that, but other things have happened, many other things which I’m not really qualified to comment on but feel I have to note anyway.

For most people who love jump racing, time stands still in ‘Cheltenham week' and it feels like the action at Prestbury Park is the only thing in the world that matters. The Festival may be only four days but the build-up is immense and this year in particular it’s hard to pinpoint one favourite moment. The best bits were too many and too varied.

The Festival starts for me each year on the Monday when I drive to the house I rent with friends and colleagues in Evesham. This year my journey had a nice detour via Overbury Stud to photograph the G1-winning hurdler Feathard Lady with her Yeats foal. While there, I had to pay my respects to the great Kayf Tara, of course, and to the new boy who is also becoming a favourite, Schiaparelli.

The traditional Monday night curry with George, Ed, Julian, Martin and Tom (Catherine always joins us late after H&H press day) was peppered, as always, by Champion Hurdle banter. George and I stuck resolutely to Peddlers Cross. We were wrong but he ran a tremendous race and I’m never sorry to see a horse trained by the excellent Willie Mullins win a big one.

Ed always cooks breakfast for us all and he takes this task very seriously. Woe betide anyone who tries to help. Julian does the morning paper run and all I want to read in Cheltenham week is the Racing Post. It was impossible, however, to avert one’s eyes from the front page of the Times when the headlines were screaming of the ongoing misery in Japan.

Sitting in a beautiful house in the Cotswolds, it’s difficult to imagine the utterly devastating losses suffered by those people ‘lucky’ enough to survive the earthquake and tsunami. The same can be said for the fear felt by the people of Libya attempting to stand up to Gaddafi.

It’s so easy to become wrapped up in the racing world, and I am as guilty of that as anyone. The only two non-racing publications I read on a regular basis are Saturday’s Times and The Week, whereas half of each morning is routinely spent on the Post, EBN, TDN, Thoroughbred Times Today and trawling Aussie racing sites for updates.

In Cheltenham week, the absorption is even greater. At the track for 9.30am, slogging away for three days having allowed myself one day there for fun on the Tuesday, then spending every evening analysing that day’s action and guessing at what tomorrow might bring.

The week certainly didn’t let any of us down. To have Hurricane Fly and Peddlers Cross, then Big Buck’s and Grand Crus locked together over the last in each of the championship hurdle races plus the Gold Cup to end all Gold Cups is more than we could have hoped for.

The images first of Imperial Commander, Denman and Kauto Star three abreast and turning down the hill, then of the Commander dropping away to leave the two old warriors and stablemates out in front and turning into the straight together have been deposited in the memory bank forever. I continued to scream for Denman, knowing in my heart that the stalking young buck Long Run, under an extremely cool ride from the amateur who put the professionals in their place, would cut him down in the end. He did, but Denman lost nothing. Cheered back into the winner’s enclosure as if he had won, it was adulation earned year after year by never finishing out of the first two in six visits to the Festival.

The race went round and round in my head through the long drive home and it’s obvious, from speaking to others who watched it, and from reading the reports, that the Gold Cup of 2011 is already one of those ‘I was there’ moments. It’s a race that will be talked about down the ages.

I thought I’d spend Saturday writing about the Gold Cup but other news brought me back into the real world. In the morning I heard of the sudden, unexpected death of 17-year-old John Fernando, the son of fellow racing and bloodstock journalist Sid Fernando.

Sid is as obsessive about the sport as I am, and on a day when he’d otherwise be commenting on the first race meeting in Japan since the disaster, or yet another facile win for the exciting Triple Crown hopeful The Factor, instead he was plunged into unimaginable awfulness.

Sid will eventually return to the great triviality, I’m sure, but in the meantime I hope there’s some comfort in the fact that his friends and colleagues in the world of bloodstock and beyond are taking some time this bright Sunday morning to think of him and his family, and of all those families touched by tragedy and terror in Japan and Libya. May they find some peace eventually.

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