TThe strangest, quietest and most surreal of the Cheltenham Festivals, a gathering in front of empty stands that was beyond anyone’s imagination not much more than a year ago, will open Tuesday with a stronger feeling than ever that it’s in the center of the public. look.
Just over two weeks ago a grotesque image emerged showing head trainer Gordon Elliott sitting and posing on a horse that had galloped to death. As a result, National Hunt races begin their most important week with their position diminished, due to a photograph that left most of us inside the racing bubble just as shocked and repulsed as those outside looking in. .
“Devastating, just devastating,” is the heartfelt verdict of Barry Cooper, an equine veterinarian who is also the independent chairman of the sport’s horse welfare board. Tracey Crouch MP, a former sports minister, is also an independent board member, along with owners, coaches and racetrack representatives.
Cooper knows that this should have been the Festival, and the year that the first positive benefits of an ambitious program devised by the HWB to improve the safety and well-being of horses at every stage of their lives should have started to become apparent. The result of an HWB report titled A Life Well Lived, which was published in February 2020, the strategy is ambitious, and it must be.
“It goes from the birth of a foal to the end of its life,” he says. “It’s not just about the racing, the little bit in between that is governed by the regulator. Safety is obviously important, we want to reduce the number of falls and deaths at racetracks, but we also want to improve aftercare. That’s a measure of how you take care of the horse, how you take care of the retirees. “
The fatal injury rate in show jumping has been declining for 20 years, but Cooper is determined to keep the pressure down, helped at least in part by a sophisticated and predictive model for analyzing data on people falling and injuries falling. It started after six horses died during the Festival in 2018.
“It’s a huge company and a great data-gathering exercise,” he says. “But that’s what we need. People used to say: ‘In my opinion, this, that or the other happens.’
Now there is real data and statistical analysis of what happens and therefore people can make informed decisions as a result of it.
“Injury rates are going down, but they are still too high and we want to reduce them even more. There will always be risk, but there are avoidable risks that we want to get rid of.
“The only time people see a horse now is when it is playing a sport, and unless show jumping fixes everything, it won’t be there. [in the future]. We have to reduce casualties and we have to get the public to participate, as all horse sports must. Everyone is in the spotlight and we have to take the public with us to maintain that social license. “
If ever there was a time when the sport needed a Festival with nothing but a series of positives, a career, or even a full reunion that could start to push Elliott’s image out of the public consciousness, then surely it is now.
Elliott himself will, of course, be absent, as the Irish Horse Racing Regulatory Authority suspended his license for six months earlier this month. But about three dozen of her horses will be in Cheltenham, under the new – and, according to the IHRB, virtually exclusive – supervision of Denise Foster, a close neighbor in County Meath.
Foster, who would have been a great response if asked to make up the name of a National Hunt coach at Pointless just three weeks ago, now kicks off the Festival with a 14-1 chance to finish all four days as the lead coach. .
Given that several of Elliott’s stable stars, including the undefeated Envoi Allen, likely to participate in Thursday’s Marsh Novice Chase, moved to other stables after the coach’s photograph appeared, it remains an unlikely outcome.
But it will also come as a surprise if Foster fails to make it to the winner’s venue this week, a time when the public relations nightmare for the sport that unfolded over the past fortnight will be reviewed.
But there are also much more positive possibilities, which could capture the imagination during the first, and most significant, of those rare moments each year when the general public pays attention to racing.
It could be, for example, a week in which many more people realize a fact that initiates have taken for granted for some time: women jockeys not only compete against men on equal terms, but also women riders. they expire on a regular basis. .
But not at the moment, in one of the “big four” events of the week, something that could change on Tuesday afternoon when Honeysuckle, with Rachael Blackmore in the saddle, is expected to start as a favorite to win the Champion Hurdle. .
Blackmore also has an obvious shot at becoming the first female rider to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup when she joins A Plus Tard in Friday’s masterpiece, while Bryony Frost is also not a desperate hope aboard her winner of the King George, Frodon.
To win, they will need to dethrone Al Boum Photo, the winner of the Gold Cup for the past two years, and a horse that, unlike Best Mate nearly 20 years ago, has yet to truly capture the hearts of fans. careers. Perhaps the almost unstoppable tide of winners from Willie Mullins’ stable (he is 1-5 to finish the week as the lead trainer once again) has left some feeling weary, but he would be only the fifth horse to win. the Gold Cup three times.
The big shame, of course, is that if or when history is made this week, there will be no viewers there to see it. There are no photographs of the winning horse and rider walking back in front of the packed stands and up the ramp into the cauldron of the winner’s enclosure. No cheers, no jubilation from the crowd, no roars to send them on their way to the first.
We hope everyone returns next year. On this occasion, amid the sound of silence where 60,000 or more people should be, we can only hope that a Festival that starts several pitches thanks to the performance of one of its most successful coaches will recover the deficit of the best four. race days of the year, and end the week with the nose in front.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism