Spell of Cheltenham Festival captivates and thrills

York Press: Jockey Brian Hughes celebrates on Hawk High Jockey Brian Hughes celebrates on Hawk High

EVEN now it sends a tingle down my spine to think about it. That majestic leap, a flash of green and yellow between fences, a whip waved in triumph as he swept past the winning post.

When Kauto Star regained his Cheltenham Gold Cup crown in glorious fashion in 2009, and esteemed jockey Ruby Walsh stood tall in the saddle, it flicked a switch in my head and lit a fire that has yet to burn out.

I was late to discover the power of National Hunt’s showpiece meeting.

That wondrous day five years ago was my first appearance, but I was quick to realise why four days in March are so special. Why it is a pilgrimage for so many.

It’s the roar of the masses as the tape goes up for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on the opening day, a cry that’s part guttural, part exultation - thank God it’s here again.

It’s a celebration, it’s an obsession.

It’s 200 miles away from racing’s Malton and Norton stronghold, where fevered plans are laid each autumn in a community that lives and breathes its racing.

To have a runner at Cheltenham is an achievement. To have a winner - in that most competitive of cauldrons - is almost beyond belief.

Tim Easterby is probably still smiling.

It was a grin that was so wide in the winner’s enclosure on Wednesday that if the wind had changed he would have been permanently stuck with it.

That one moment, like Kauto Star’s aerial assault on his obstacles, encapsulates for me what the Festival is all about.

Easterby comes from jump racing legend.

His father, Peter, was a colossus of the sport.

Night Nurse, Alverton, Sea Pigeon - their names reverberate through the pages of the sport’s history books more than a third of a century after they strode so magnificently across the Prestbury Park turf.

At his Great Habton yard, Gold Cups and Champion Hurdles must have littered living rooms like ornamental plates on a mantelpiece throughout the younger Easterby’s youth.

He had experienced it himself as a trainer, that Festival winning feeling, when Barton toyed with his rivals before ruthlessly dispatching them in the Neptune.

But that was 15 years ago.

Easterby has, of course, become a titan of the Flat.

He is a Classic-winning trainer, a man who sends in winner after winner at the Yorkshire racecourses.

This is Cheltenham, though.

“It is everything,” he said as Hawk High swooped in and swiped the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle - a 33-1 surprise that left nearly everyone speechless except the man who saddled him.

“Cheltenham is the best. It’s better than everywhere.”

‘Better than Royal Ascot he was asked’? “This is the best place in the world,” he replied. Put your fingers in your ears, York.

Today, with the blue riband Gold Cup, another legend will be written.

Will it again be Bobs Worth to fly so effortlessly up that famous hill?

Nicky Henderson’s champion is defending an impeccable course record of five wins from five starts?

Or will Silviniaco Conti stay on his feet this time and right the wrongs of 12 months ago?

Travelling better than anything else with just three fences to leap, he tumbled out of contention and took with him the dreams of renewed glory harboured by his trainer Paul Nicholls.

Indeed. would Silviniaco Conti have won?

It’s a question that has hung in the air over Cleeve Hill for the best part of 365 days.

As the pair prepare to stage their rematch - an equine version of Britain’s world-rated super-middleweight boxers Carl Froch versus Ricky Groves - we will finally find out.

This time beyond doubt.

Behind that titanic pair are a supporting cast of heroes longing for the chance to make their own mark on this greatest of stages.

It is these stories that keep us coming back year after year, in the expectation - not the hope - that we will see something special.

It is why so many trainers, jockeys, grooms, stable lads and lasses get up early, put in long hours and strive for excellence - for a chance to have a day in the sun.

It’s why owners continue to part with their hard-earned cash, hoping that one time, this time, they have bought the horse to win it all.

It’s why, when it all comes together, when that final flight is jumped, when that turn of foot runs all the way to the winning line, trainers like Easterby, and punters like me, will always have a smile on their face when it comes to Cheltenham.

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