Tuesday, 19 December 2017


c 1973 CBS TV

Jim Dreaper saddled Mullaghmurphy Blue to win at Musselburgh yesterday. A  famous name chugging along mostly unnoticed nowadays. Still, for many memories are evoked of him in his pomp and one eventful Cheltenham in particular when events played their part in influencing how the meeting would shape up in the future. 

On Tuesday March 11th 1975, the first day of the Cheltenham Festival was abandoned due to water logging. Telly Savalas was at the top of the charts, singing that dreary  ' If a picture paints a thousand words...', and the pictures from that day raised doubts as to whether the remainder of the meeting would be able to be staged at all.

Remember, this was an era when nature itself would dish out advantages as opposed to turf engineering.Connections of the good sloggers would be granted a reasonable expectation of having their favoured ground conditions come Cheltenham time.

The Wednesday went ahead with Comedy Of Errors convincingly regaining his Champion Hurdle crown from Lanzarote, who had taken it off him the previous year. Run in extremely testing ground, the race returned a time over 22 seconds slower than standard.

Dreaper trained two winners on the card, Lough Inagh who won the Champion Chase, saved from the previous day, and Brown Lad in the Lloyds Bank Hurdle. Brown Lad would end up being one of the most popular chasers of the decade.

Into the final day and conditions took a turn for the worse.Dark foreboding skies, persistent rain, waterlogged patches near some fences that led to two obstacles being omitted on the chase course.

The first three races were run in 59, 64 and 57 seconds slower than standard respectively. The last of those, the Sun Alliance Novice's Hurdle, was won by Davy Lad who would be successful in a dramatic Cheltenham Gold Cup two years later. Aldaniti finished fourth, and a future King George winner Bachelor's Hall came in eighth.

Next up was the Triumph Hurdle, with the winner Royal Epic returning a more respectable time, though God only knows what the true distance of the race actually was. A future legend in Night Nurse finished in the mid division. His ability to handle tiring conditions would be put straight two years later.

But this ground was a good deal severer than your average testing conditions. As they lined up for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, it was bordering on unraceable. Two former champions, The Dikler, and the warm favourite Captain Christy, were beaten relatively early on, with both eventually being pulled up.

It was Dreaper who made the winner's enclosure again with the hardy Ten Up. Racing in the Arkle colours, he dealt with the elements best of all to beat the ex American trained Soothsayer, with the mighty Bula back in third. Bula had been bidding to become what would of been at the time the first horse to win a Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The race was run in 70 seconds slower than standard. After the race,the remaining three races were abandoned, the course deemed unfit for racing.

Fast forward to the typical Cheltenham Festival we have today. The over efficient drainage system can, and will in most circumstances, ensure that ground described as 'heavy' ten days before the beginning of the meeting, will be 'good to soft' when the first race is run.

Bob's Worth and Coneygree  share the distinction of being triumphant in the two Cheltenham Gold Cup's run on soft ground in the past twenty years. Or, to put in another way,  the only two renewals in the last two decades were the sloggers are given some hope.

Bob's Worth was more than a slogger and won despite the ground. Coneygree on the other hand would most likely not have won if the race had been on better ground. But who is to deny him his ground any more than the Spring ground performers for whom the cards are now massively stacked in their favour.

In the Ten Up times, you did of course have festivals run on good ground. A year later in 1976 for example. But during this most recent twenty year period , not a single Cheltenham Gold Cup was staged on heavy going. The message is to those connected to quality animals whose sin is to be able to produce their true optimum on heavy, is that they can go and whistle.

In contrast those with Spring ground horses can be confident of having the playing field laid out to suit them at both Cheltenham and Aintree. Not always, but most of the time.

It's rare for the elements to impose themselves at both meetings in the same year. Cheltenham 1980, another mudbath, Chinrullah and Tied Cottage. Then a couple of weeks after, Ben Nevis winning the Grand National in heavy ground.

Of the abandoned racedays at the festival since, the snowfall that caused the 1978 Gold Cup to be lost on the day and staged the following month could not gave been saved by any workable man made invention. Similar with the high winds that caused a day to be abandoned in 2008. And the dreaded  foot and mouth episode at the turn of the millennium, more to do with government than racing.

Yes, it's commercialism with the fear of losing all the course and bookmaking revenue and endangering future sponsorship if the meeting was lost, but the tide has surely turned too far now and it is an issue that should be revisited.

Bristol De Mai was twenty lengths away in last season's Gold Cup. If the race had been run on heavy he'd have been much closer. Enough to have made him a possible winner ? We are never going to get the chance to find out. A mid-winter mud lover is what he'll probably be remembered as unless the God's assist.

And we all have our favourites who we think, yes, he would have gone close in some of the old Gold Cup's. Keen Leader, a big giant dope with that something about him that can still make the sport special. It could have been different but it would have required truly testing conditions and a try with another trainer, particularly Martin Pipe.The shape of the course may still not have been ideal but he would have been damn interesting in such a set of scenarios.

Now we just appreciate some excellent performances in the mud, weekend after weekend. Particularly in Ireland. But we do so knowing that the face value of the form might not be worth a carrot come Cheltenham time.

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