I’ll nail my colours to the mast straight away. I love all racing but if I had to choose it would be Flat racing every time. Maybe I associate the Flat more with warmer weather, a greater diversity of big days out or just more champagne (!) but give me Derby Day, York in August, Paris in October or even Windsor on a Monday night rather than any regular jumps meeting.
That said, the one meeting I’d never trade is the Cheltenham Festival, and as we anticipate Flat racing’s big royal carnival this week I’m left wondering why Royal Ascot will never quite be Cheltenham.
It is not the racing. Look at the gems Royal Ascot has to offer. Continual Group One racing day after day. Tuesday (the best day I always think) starts with a bang with the Queen Anne, King’s Stand and St James’s Palace, which this year looks like including all three Guineas winners, as the first three races. On Wednesday we have the Prince of Wales’s stakes, perhaps the best race of the meeting, which this year features the Japanese A Shin Hikari, possibly the best horse in the world right now. Ladies Day on Thursday includes the Gold Cup; there are two Group Ones on Friday (when I’m going this year) including the second running of the Commonwealth Cup (am I alone in thinking this name doesn’t quite fit) and the Coronation Stakes and then the Diamond Jubilee on Saturday’s big day. That’s just the Group Ones, and when you add races with the spectacle of the Hunt Cup or the Wokingham, great early season two year old races and the increasing number of raiders from around the world then you can see there isn’t a flat carnival like this one.
But it still doesn’t match Cheltenham and there are many reasons why Cheltenham can’t be beaten.
Firstly the whole narrative of the NH season is about Cheltenham. All roads lead to Prestbury Park. As soon as one festival finishes plans are put in place for the following March, whether equine or human. The early part of the Flat season is dominated by the 3 year old classics. This year Royal Ascot starts only 10 days after Harzand impressively won another Derby for the Aga Khan. So we talk about the NH festival all the way through the winter yet Royal Ascot suddenly creeps up on us and therefore can’t come close to matching the expectation of Cheltenham.
This means the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase, the World Hurdle and of course the Gold Cup are true championship races. They provide the champion horses for the category. The champion miler might win either the St James’s Palace or the Queen Anne, but equally they might not.
It is not just the racing itself. There is always something mysterious and wonderful about the beauty of Prestbury Park. Don’t get me wrong. I love going to Ascot. It’s a beautiful course and I’ve been there more than any other racecourse. But every time you arrive at Cheltenham, especially on the Tuesday of the Festival, and look out over the natural amphitheatre towards Cleeve Hill you cannot help but feel good about life. (Take that US racing where the view is so typically consistent).
There’s also something about the weather. In March it always feels to me as we are about to breakthrough from the cold winter months into early Spring yet a wet and cool June (again this year) feels so disappointing, especially given the money spent on the fashion.
Clearly Ascot wins at fashion, but only if that’s your thing. For Cheltenham the green tweed of the countryside dominates and for a City boy like me offers more of a wry smile than anything else.
The one other thing Cheltenham has over Ascot is more personal. My first day ever at a racecourse was at Royal Ascot in 1988 and my first day at Cheltenham was Desert Orchid’s most memorable day the following year – so I’ve been going a while. But Ascot is local. An hour’s drive at most (in bad traffic). I’d never dream of staying overnight. For Cheltenham you make the journey, you stay somewhere in the Cotswolds. It is a boys week away. It is the best time. Our ‘day off’, typically the Wednesday when we watch the Champion Chase card in the pub is almost as good as the days we go racing. Ascot will never be able to match that.
Two great racing festivals. Two great weeks. Royal Ascot the best of British flat racing. But Cheltenham the best racing week of all (and no I haven’t been to Galway yet – my first experience there is just weeks away).