Week In Focus column

David Ord column: The Road to Cheltenham started in Swindon

Our man reflects on some personal highs and lows on the Road to Cheltenham over the years.

I wasn’t able to make the Randox Grand National weights lunch this week.

One of the best things Aintree have done in recent years is return that event to Liverpool. The race belongs to the city and they celebrate and promote it with tremendous vigour.

Sadly the thunder from the lunch was stolen, not by someone in attendance at the Rum Warehouse, but a crass, idiotic statement from Michael O’Leary issued an hour or so after the curtain went up on the weights.

He’s perfectly entitled not to run Tiger Roll but his comments around Martin Greenwood and attempt to bring welfare into the argument have no place in our sport. Aintree, Tiger Roll and racing in general deserve better.

Listen to Graham Cunningham on our weekly podcast for a brilliant take on the tawdry episode.

Patrick Mullins is a new regular voice on the racing podcast

I did smile though when my colleague in attendance sent a Whatsapp at 14:37 asking: “How long does this lunch go on normally?"

I couldn’t tell him he was just going out for the second circuit.

It’s been a busy time at work, the print deadline for the second of our two Cheltenham Festival Guides landing seven days after the first. They say a week’s a long time in politics, it’s not when it comes to Fez tips.

Then there’s been work on the Timeform Flat Horses To Follow tome, heading to a bookshop or online shopping cart near you next month.

But now we’re free, free to build up to the best four days of the jumps season. Yes, Cheltenham dominates the calendar to an unhealthy extent but that isn’t the track or the Festival’s fault. And now it’s almost here it’s time to celebrate it.

That includes the forthcoming media stable tours, something that riles the Twitter massive like few other ‘gravy train’ events.

They’re not for everyone and the numbers have dwindled over the years but hopefully there’ll be engaging content and the odd, interesting line along the way.

There have been over the years.

Best Mate poses for the cameras at home
Best Mate poses for the cameras at home

I remember, as a young buck (honestly), being blown away when Henrietta Knight brought Best Mate out to be photographed ahead of his bid for a third Cheltenham Gold Cup win.

I was then blown away by the Bloody Mary Terry Biddlecombe provided to ‘keep out the cold’. Had I finished it I’d have still been there, in a field in Wantage, waiting to be clear to drive again.

There was a trip to France to see Baracouda emerge from the Chantilly mist as he worked ahead of the then Ladbrokes World Hurdle. I blamed conditions for missing him as I attempted to record a short video on the camera I’d been provided with. If only I’d managed to spot him in time, I could have been the first blogger and how different things would be now.

We went to Jonjo O’Neill’s to see Black Jack Ketchum, unbeaten at the time but the wheels were about to come off. They did for me as I got lost on the walk down his gallops to the pub at the bottom of the hill. A Jackdaws Castle first, apparently.

I stayed in an Evesham hotel which boasted “outstanding views” only to open my curtains and be greeted by the sight of a giant yellow skip which local fly-tippers, in the early hours of the morning, filled with carpets, televisions and what seemed to be a children’s snooker table.

No wonder Lenny Henry started offering his good night sleep guarantee only a matter of weeks later.

Paul Nicholls poses with Denman (left) and Kauto Star
Paul Nicholls poses with Denman (left) and Kauto Star

Millionaires row at Paul Nicholls’ yard were golden times as Kauto Star, Denman and Big Buck’s looked over their stable doors at what seemed to be hundreds of TV crews and journalists.

Paul can be intimidating and when you’re drawn 34 for the on-camera interviews you know you’re in trouble. He has a habit of muttering 'hmmm' when he wants you to crack on with a question. I got three of them during an early loosener about his team’s preparations that year. In the end we covered 16 horses in two minutes, 11 seconds. That must be a record.

The draw did for me again when we went to Alan King’s to see My Way De Solzen, Voy Por Ustedes et al.

The lady from BBC Radio Wiltshire, who had the preceding slot, started strongly but gradually lost Alan as she asked about gardening at such a big stable and how he found the traffic in and out of Cheltenham on Festival week.

The Road to Cheltenham was alive that day long before it was even a twinkle in Lydia's eye. It was hard afterwards to get the trainer back on track and going through the same 12 horses he’d done 15 times before.

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Nicky Henderson is always a joy to interview, stressing how he’s running out of time before giving a three-minute answer to an opening question you were expecting 30 seconds on.

I love the way he seems genuinely taken by surprise by which horse has been brought down to be paraded. We didn’t even see Binocular the year of his resurrection and Champion Hurdle glory. That went down well with the editor when it came to the montage afterwards, but at least I was able to convince him no-one else had seen him.

To be fair I had a track record of such faux pas at the time, Baracouda included. One of my first gigs at Cheltenham for sportinglife.com was providing paddock notes ahead of each race for the live blogs. Ken Pitterson I am not, but even so I could have perhaps worked harder.

The trouble is it’s tiring to get down to the parade ring before every race and the mobile phone signal in those days was unreliable. In addition, there used to be a Cavern Bar at Prestbury Park, next to one of the on-course betting shops. It was devoid of natural light and charm – but, as a consequence, customers too.

Prior to the Kim Muir I decided to have a medicinal Guinness only for the bloody phone to finally find a signal – in there of all places. It was the office asking for the paddock pick – grabbing the racecard with the plastic glass in my teeth, I found the first leading fancy I could see. Number three it was.

He was a non-runner and had been since 10.23am. Quick as a flash I blamed the wind for causing the number cloth to flick up – it was in fact number eight. He finished second at 33/1. If you followed the paddock picks that day, you’re welcome.

No, I’m looking forward to Cheltenham now.

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