The start of a new year brings the Olympics of National Hunt racing – also known as the Cheltenham Festival – firmly into focus for industry professionals and fans alike.
If you’re a trainer or owner of a talented jumps horse, it’s all about working out a programme and schedule to get your animal to Prestbury Park in the best possible shape. If you’re a punter, it’s spotting which beasts have the ability and potential to roar up that famous Cheltenham hill in front.
Whichever you are, and sadly this author is, for the time being at least, firmly in the latter camp, one thing is certain: if you’ve ever experienced the Festival at first hand, you’ll want to return year after year.
Regrettably, one horse who won’t be appearing at this year’s meeting is Denman, who was retired in early December after sustaining a leg injury as he was being prepared for a crack at the Lexus Chase over Christmas.
A participant in each of the last six years at the Festival – where he managed to finish first or second in every race he contested, highlighted by wins in the RSA Chase and Gold Cup – Denman’s impact on the winter game has been immense.
The rivalry between the imposing, powerful son of Presenting and his slighter, sleeker stable companion Kauto Star helped to give the sport a huge and much-needed boost in popularity, occupying many a newspaper column, while every racecourse appearance would guarantee a surge in gate receipts and a scrum for the parade ring.
Long Run, who emerged from the Ditcheat duo’s shadow to claim the Gold Cup in March, now has one less opponent to worry about as he bids to join an exclusive list that includes the likes of Arkle, L’Escargot and Best Mate in winning back-to-back renewals of the blue riband.
Robert Waley-Cohen’s charge was named the top chaser of 2011 at the ROA Horseracing Awards on December 1, a glittering event that saw over 600 guests gather to recognise the year’s equine stars.
Top of the pile was, of course, the majestic Frankel, who claimed the Horse of the Year and Outstanding Three-Year-Old Colt accolades after a season which yielded five wins to enhance his perfect racing record, which now reads nine from nine.
Like Denman, Frankel has the power to elevate the sport to a higher plane. His performances mark him out as something very special; a friend of mine, not a keen racing fan and making his first visit to Newmarket for the 2,000 Guineas, asked me if horses were always applauded during a race. No, was my simple answer.
Our venerable columnist, Tony Morris, believes the son of Galileo might just prove himself better than Sea-Bird and Brigadier Gerard as a four-year-old, when we will be allowed to enjoy him for another season. As someone who watched those two greats in the flesh and has followed the sport since childhood, who are we to argue with Mr Morris?
The calibre of the other award winners, which included Andy Stewart’s brilliant hurdler Big Buck’s and Coolmore’s exciting juveniles Camelot and Maybe, served to illustrate that the sport is currently enjoying a golden period.
So much to look forward to, yet it also needs to be remembered that, away from the turf action, British racing remains in a precarious position regarding its funding, with the levy system in terminal decline. For the industry to prosper in the long-term it requires a sound financial model and we must hope the New Year brings plenty of cheer, both on and off the track.
I would like to wish all of our readers the very best for 2012.