There's something about Cheltenham that inspires the most memorable racing time after time, and as 15,000 of the faithful crammed into Prestbury Park for the eclectic event that is Cheltenham Countryside Raceday, there was nothing to disappoint.
For many it was a story of continued dominance by the Irish following the beating they meted out to British trainers in March. Three of the six winners headed back across the Irish Sea, and who's to say the next two days will not raise that tally? Though it must be said one of those winners was a tad lucky, and made for one of the afternoon's talking points.
The highly regarded My Drogo, one of Dan Skelton's impressive team of novice chasers, had frightened off the opposition in the SSS Super Alloys Novices Chase, sponsored by Cheltenham's longest-standing sponsor, Andrew Jones, a race formerly known as the Steel Plate & Sections. According to the market, My Drogo, winner of the Grade I Mersey Novices Hurdle in April, only had to jump round to win, but the old adage - back the outside of three in a 3 horse race - proved apposite.
My Drogo and Gin On Lime hacked around together, until Harry Skelton asked My Drogo to go on at the second last. The extra speed caught out both horses, but My Drogo slipped and his head disappeared between his legs on the turf, where gravity took ineviatble control of his rider. Unconnected, Philip Rothwell's mount, Gin On Lime also slipped, but she landed on her backside, and remarkably, rider Rachael Blackmore remained balanced and in the plate. Blackmore collected up her mount, and set off in a canter to pop the last and collect, leaving the crowd scrathing its collective head.
Eight time champion rider Peter Scudamore, watching with Glenfarclas boss John Grant, remarked,"Some people are just born to stardom." This from a champion who worked his way to the top of the tree through graft and application.
Forty minutes later, Cheltenham's devotees were afforded a rare local winner in another gripping contest for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Steeplechase. It's scarcely credible to think that this race and its quirky course was created nearly 30 years ago, and my, how it has developed. Sadly no continental competition this time around from the sporty Czechs or the French, but a highly competitive renewal, where the Irish intent was all too obvious. Five of the 13 which went to post hailed from over the water, although strangely, none from Enda Bolger, king of the banks races.
In a neatly ridden race in which he was able to give his mount a mid-race breather, Sean Bowen illustrated why he has become a Go-To jockey, bringing Back On The Lash through from a handy position to hold off Rothwell's Singing Banjo by just a neck for Martin Keighley and owner Mark Boothright. This was Keighley's 27th winner of the season, one that has helped regain the lost momentum of the past couple of seasons, but as importantly, another quality competitior for Boothright, who owned the highly regarded Champion Court, winner of three graded races here over 10 years ago.
The day had begun with a tally for the home team when Fergal O'Brien's Art Approval ran out a 2 3/4l winner of the boys race. The twenty runner field is, ain all honesty, looking an exception not just for Cheltenham but across the sport at large. "It's all about the ground," remarked David Minton, but is it? Too often, horses seem able to skirt around each other at the top end of racing's pyramid of excellence, and the number of opportunities must surely be curtailed. Race planners have a thorny issue to address, combatting the revenue driving imperatives of racecourses and bookmaker partners. At the moment, the sport is the loser.
A small field was once again the order of the day come the Grade II Ballymore Novices Hurdle, where the Irish were once again dominant. This time it was Charles Byrnes scooping the loot with Blazing Khal, who will surely take up a leading ante-post position for the Grade I championship of the same title come March.
There was another gripping finish to the 0-150 handicap chase that carries a simply awful title by the weekend's main sponsor. Sean Houlihan must have thought he had the race in the bag at the last, but his horse wandered in the final 150 yards, allowing Charlie Deutsch to come withina whisker of snathcing the race on the Sam Thomas- trained Stolen Silver. It was Editeur de Gite's day though - another for the Gary Moore team that is putting the zing back into South East jump racing.
And as if to rub salt in the wound, it was back to Rothwell for a wrap in the concluding Novices Handicap Hurdle with 33/1 winner McAlpine, ridden by James O'Sullivan, securing a first Cheltenham winner.
And to conclude on a day which is always sociable and where there were many just pleased to be back enjoying the simple entertainment of racing at HQ, there has always been a strong tradition of shopping at this meeting. Perhaps it's a sign of the travails in the high street that has permeated independent traders, but the village seemd quiter than usual, and many of the products are the same. Some thought is required to freshen this up.