David Ord uses Timeform ratings to assess the best five performances at the Cheltenham Festival over the last 20 years.
It’s a time of year when all racing fans feel nostalgic, or at the very least our age.
Lockdown has clearly played a significant part in 2021 but I had a rude awakening when taking my mum for her Covid vaccination.
Parking in the over-70s bay she bounded out of the car to receive her first dose of the scientific wonder. Moments later a smiling and concerned marshal tapped on the car door and asked if I’d like any assistance and knew where to go for my own shot.
I mean, I know the years haven’t been kind, but 71?
Anyway, one of the advantages of such seniority is the ability to nod at the younger members of the team and say 'I was there' when the Cheltenham memories packages hit the Racing TV screens.
Not back to Arkle and Flyingbolt, despite what the brave volunteers at Askham Bar, York, might think. I didn’t quite make Sea Pigeon, Dawn Run, or Desert Orchid either.
But my Festival pilgrimages began in earnest in 1991. It was a time when the pub bearing the name of the only mare to win both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup was the perfect stopping-off and return point in the town centre for those trips to and from the racecourse.
It was rough and ready, as an Irish folk duo battled manfully over the crowds with sets that were so long even Bruce Springsteen would wince.
The locals would pour the odd gin into your Guinness because 'it makes you mad' and the racing, well that was the talk of the tap room and replayed endlessly on the one, small TV in the corner.
I googled the Dawn Run pub the other night, as the snow fell, temperatures plummeted and the shutters came down on another day. I knew it was long-gone, in fact it’s now a Turkish restaurant, but I wondered if others had shared their memories of the place. Malabus had.
Writing on the Beer In The Evening website he paid a touching tribute: "I was once served a pint of 'Thatchers' Cider in a big coffee mug here."
No-one would have batted an eyelid and a fitting epitaph.
But onto more important matters and the action on the track. I decided to do some digging, with the assistance of our friends at Timeform, to produce a list of the five best performances I’ve seen at Cheltenham.
The one I confidently expected to top the charts only comes in at number five.
By god this was special. In sport we love the champions who are capable of hauling themselves off the canvas and repeatedly coming back for more. When Denman’s relentless, remorseless gallop broke his stablemate at the top of the hill in 2008, it looked like Kauto Star’s Gold Cup tally would remain at one.
But 12 months later he did what no horse before – or since – has managed. He regained the title. This time he led Denman into the home turn, this time he was on the bridle, and upon touching down at the second last, this time he had his rival cooked. Cheltenham erupted. The king was back on his throne with a display worthy of such an occasion.
This was his second win in the race and a performance of the ages. In against him were the up-and-coming talents of Well Chief and Azertyuiop. Moscow Flyer was 11 in the spring of 2005 but at the absolute peak of his powers.
A mistake at the water jump meant Azertyuiop was never at his free-flowing best but from third last Timmy Murphy moved Well Chief into the winner’s slipstream. He looked a danger for more than a stride or two but pointed for home and with the hill to climb, Moscow Flyer was suddenly gone. Three lengths was the winning margin and a champion was stamping his class on the Champion Chase. It’s how it should be.
This was a golden era for staying chasers and, 12 months on from Kauto Star’s historic win, came a performance that was rated one pound superior. Like Long Run, Imperial Commander tends to get overshadowed by the Ditcheat pair when we look back on this time but he was a seriously talented horse in his own right.
The Nicholls stars were back but this wasn’t their year. Kauto took a crashing fall four out when looking beaten. AP McCoy was in the saddle aboard Denman but having gone to the front at the top of the hill, he could never shake off Imperial Commander, who was still on the bridle in the leader’s slipstream turning in – and in front soon after.
Denman was never going to throw in the towel but as the leader skipped over the last it was clear it was time to hail a new champion – and a horse worthy of the title.
One who arrived at Cheltenham on a steep upward curve and duly delivered a performance to have the ratings-makers purring. He was completing a Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double for trainer Kim Bailey and Norman Williamson in a week they’ll never forget.
Soft ground prevailed in the spring of 1995 and the deeper the better for Master Oats. He was prone to making a mistake or two – and did here – but when he got rolling he was some sight. Merry Gale outjumped him for much of the contest but as brave as she was up front, her race was run before the second last.
At that stage Dubacilla was the only conceivable danger as she made ground from the rear. For a stride or two it seemed as though she might land a blow. But on the turn for home Williamson asked his partner to win the Gold Cup and as he went three, four lengths clear, the stands erupted.
Fifteen lengths was the winning distance but sadly – and remarkably on this evidence – Master Oats was never to win again.
Yes this was in a novice chase, but this was Sprinter Sacre.
The formbook shows he beat Cue Card by a widening seven lengths with Menorah a further 22 lengths away in third, but even that doesn’t do the performance justice.
He went to the front jumping the ditch at the top of the hill, as Al Ferof banked it under Ruby Walsh. That rival’s Arkle was finished – for Sprinter it was just beginning.
Barry Geraghty allowed him to freewheel down the hill but when Cue Card had the temerity to close within two-and-a-half lengths between the last two, it was time for work.
The hard yak only lasted for three or four strides. Sprinter Sacre floated to – and over – the last and Geraghty was back in passenger mode, looking between his legs and over his shoulder on what is supposed to be the gruelling climb to the line.
Remarkably the same partnership were to go even higher 12 months later.
The amazing thing was it just all seemed so straightforward, but isn’t that what the greats do?
Tanking to the front at the third last, sauntering clear from the home turn to win on the bridle by 19 lengths it was so routine – yet performances like this are anything but.
In second was a previous winner of this race in Sizing Europe, the rest aren’t even on the TV screen from the top of the hill, and Sprinter Sacre never comes off the bit.
Stunning, absolutely stunning, and a race to watch over and over again. He was to come back and win it again after a series of setbacks to complete the Impossible Dream in 2016. That pulled at the heartstrings, but 2013 smashed the ratings.