This year’s talk of the town when it comes to National Hunt racing is undeniably Bryony Frost. In an industry dominated by men – particularly when it comes to the jumps – 22-year-old Frost is the latest female jockey to prove that women have the ability and guts to take on their male rivals. Since turning professional in July last year, Frost has had 31 wins, and in December, riding Black Corton, she became the second woman to win a Grade One race. She has two rides at this year’s festival; the aforementioned Black Corton, who she rides in the Grade 1 RSA Chase on Wednesday, and JP McManus’s Brelan D’As in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle on Friday. ‘I’m ready,’ she says. ‘Bring it on.’
There’s no official rules for how to dress for Cheltenham – but unofficially, the dress code is definitely tweed. There are two reasons for that. It’s partly to do with the unpredictable British weather; but also, being smack bang in the centre of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham attracts a real country set. Practicality is key, and tweed is undeniably practical – very good for keeping you warm and dry. The festival is traditionally an understated affair; bright orange tans and enormous, elaborate hats are not the done thing. Browns, blues and greens are the norm. That’s not to say you can’t have fun; lots of ladies wear hats and more daring colours can be spotted. Although, a few years ago Pippa Middleton was frowned upon by some by wearing a yellow coat. Yellow! Shock horror.
At last year’s Cheltenham Festival, nine-year-old Edwulf left his jockey, trainer and supporters desperately praying when he collapsed shortly after being pulled up in the final stages of the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase. The next race was delayed for 10 minutes, and he was quickly taken to the nearest equine hospital, where he spent a few days recovering. He then had the summer off at his trainer Joseph O’Brien’s base in Ireland and last month was back on form in the Unibet Irish Gold Cup, which he won at a price of 33-1. He’s already been named the ‘miracle horse’ for that recovery, and he’ll be back at Cheltenham on Friday for the Gold Cup. He’s currently at 20/1, but if he does well, this would be a real fairy-tale story.
We Brits love to talk about the weather, and it will definitely be a regular topic of conversation at the festival this year. The so-called ‘Beast from the East’ delivered a lovely dump of snow to the Cotswolds last week, and while the disruption it caused on the roads is long gone, its after-effects are still being felt on the course. Cheltenham have done their best with their track, but the more recent bouts of rain over the last couple of days mean that the going is currently ‘soft, heavy in places’. This is in contrast to previous years, where the course has often needed watering to keep it from riding too quickly. Horses that prefer soft or heavy going will have the advantage for once, so there might be some surprising results. On the opening day, keep an eye on Harry Whittington’s Saint Calvados, who has only ever run (and won) on soft or heavy ground, and Amy Murphy’s Kalashnikov, who won well on soft ground at Newbury back in February.
The luck of the Irish
St Patrick’s Day might officially fall on Saturday, but Cheltenham always celebrates on St Patrick’s Thursday. Of course, the Irish are a Cheltenham staple anyway, but the Guinness really flows on day three. The big race of the day is the Ryanair Chase at 2:50, and with last year’s Irish-trained winner Un De Sceaux back for a second try, as well as the runner-up, another Irish-trained horse, Sub Lieutenant, back again, you could do worse than to bet on the luck of the Irish.