Where will the biggest domestic crowd be for a sporting event on Saturday? Answer: Cheltenham racecourse. A crowd of more than 30,000 is expected for Paddy Power Gold Cup Day and, my, how they will be entertained.
The Premier League’s break for internationals gives other sports the chance to breathe. There is an excellent Women’s Super League programme and some intriguing rugby union fixtures but the thrills and drama we will see at Prestbury Park this weekend is beyond compare.
Anyone who says the Cheltenham Festival overshadows the National Hunt season would be wise to come and experience the excitement we will see — what a clash we have with Jonbon, Edwardstone and Nube Negra on Sunday — to appreciate there is so much more than four days in March.
This, quite simply, is jump racing at its best: the point when the winter game truly catches fire. Forget about next spring. Just marvel at a race that traditionalists will remember used to be called The Mackeson Gold Cup — a race that creates legends and stirs the soul.
My highlight came from the 1995 renewal, won by my all-time favourite racehorse Dublin Flyer. How much do I love him? If I tell you the only picture I have of a horse on a wall at home is of him, you’ll see what I mean. Goodness what a hero he was. He carried a huge weight that day, cleared his fences like an Olympic high-jumper then showed the heart of a lion to rally past Egypt Mill Prince and forge ahead just before the post. He was top notch and I suspect Saturday’s winner will embody Dublin Flyer’s trailblazing qualities.
Cheltenham racecourse will host a crowd of more than 30,000 people for Gold Cup Day
Gold Cup Day can create legends and stir the soul as the winter race season gets underway
Nicky Henderson-trained Jonbon is one to look out for as the festival fets under way
The headline acts are two Cheltenham Festival-winning Grade One novice chasers from last season: The Real Whacker (Brown Advisory) and Stage Star (Turners) now step into the big league. Both have colourful owners to go with the springs in their hocks.
David Mann part-owns The Real Whacker, and horse and owner will not be difficult to spot in bright red and white, David complete with bow tie. On New Year’s Day this year he finished a shift at his Limerick night club, drove to Dublin in the early hours then jumped on the first flight to Bristol.
Still the mission was not over. He hired a car, drove to Cheltenham and roared himself hoarse as The Real Whacker, trained by Patrick Neville, galloped and jumped wonderfully. If he wins today off top weight, he will be a genuine Gold Cup contender next March.
Stage Star, by contrast, is owned by thousands of people in the Owners Group, plenty of whom will descend on Cheltenham to show what fun you can have in this sport for around £60 a year. If he establishes a rhythm early on, he will take some catching.
Paul Nicholls also runs Il Ridoto, ridden by 17-year-old Freddie Gingell at the end of a week in which he passed his driving test and won the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter on Elixir De Nutz, a victory he celebrated by looking to the skies to remember his mum, Kim, who died three years ago.
What emotions would be triggered if Il Ridoto won and he has solid claims. I do wonder, though, whether the frenetic gallop The Real Whacker and Stage Star will set could enable something to come from off the pace and Harper’s Brook — talented but with his quirks — might fit the bill.
One thing for certain, however, is this sporting event deserves its bumper crowd and as many eyes on it as possible. Forget about next spring: Cheltenham today is all that matters. Memories are made of this.
Graham Lee is in intensive care with a neck injury after being unseated at Newcastle on Friday
Looking back through the list of Paddy Power Gold Cup winners, my eye immediately shot to 2007: L’Antartique, ridden by Graham Lee. I remember the race vividly, watching him produce another peach of a ride.
Thinking about that makes it all the more difficult to comprehend what happened at Newcastle, where Graham suffered a horror fall that has left him in a critical condition with life-changing injuries.
Today will be difficult for Anthony McCoy, who rode against Graham at Cheltenham many times and has been at his great friend’s bedside this week. As vice-chairman of the Injured Jockeys Fund, I’d like to reiterate what our president and vice president, Anthony and Jack Berry, said this week: ‘Do rest assured our team at the IJF will look after his needs to assist him in his recovery for as long as it takes.’
Whatever help his family needs, we will be there to provide it. As you enjoy the racing, please keep Graham and his family in your thoughts.
Ed Chamberlin is an Ambassador for SkyBet UK