Cheltenham: Hunt game's shrine loses none of its shine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 March, 1999, 12:00am

Those who have been coming to Cheltenham for years have labelled the last Festival of the 20th century as one of the finest in the long and glorious history of the National Hunt game.

There was nostalgia in the air and a few moist eyes as the superb three-day meeting ended. There are those who are counting the days to next March for the first Festival of the new millennium.

There can be few more dedicated followers of any sport than those who support National Hunt racing. For them, and for the less dedicated, Cheltenham is the shrine to the sport, the pinnacle where champions are made.

As the crowd at Thursday's third and final day dispersed, the air still crackled with talk of dual Champion Hurdle winner, Istabraq, and the Gold Cup triumph of See More Business.

The Gold Cup is the great race of the jumping game and this year it was meant to be a titanic clash, once again, between England and Ireland. Teeton Mill, unbeaten in four outings this season, represented the home nation while Florida Pearl carried the hopes of the massed band of Irish supporters.

Florida Pearl was chasing a unique Festival treble. He won the Bumper in 1997 and returned last year to take the Royal and SunAlliance Chase but was now bidding for the ultimate prize.

While there was plenty of depth to the field, it was still billed as the clash of current NH giants. Racing, under either code, is nothing if not unpredictable. A year earlier, See More Business had started favourite - and a short one - to win the Gold Cup. To the groans of the partisan crowd, he was run out at an early fence and took little meaningful part.

What a difference a year makes. See More Business was virtually forgotten by the public this time around with all eyes on the expected clash between Florida Pearl and Teeton Mill.

The Irish challenger finished third but was never in contention from the bottom of the hill and there were those prepared to voice doubts about him solidly staying the two and a half miles.

Teeton Mill was pulled up after striking a fence and is now facing a long spell on the sidelines and possible retirement.

Joint owner Paul Barber, holding the Gold Cup aloft, said: 'I expected to be doing this last year.' Better late than never and there was certainly some justice to the result as Mick Fitzgerald, top jockey at the meeting with four winners, powered up the hill to land the big one at odds of 16-1.

The big-race previews talked with an inevitability that has become boring about the new Arkle. Whatever else he is, See More Business is no Arkle and neither is Florida Pearl.

But heading for the record books is Istabraq who should make history by becoming only the fifth horse to win the Champion Hurdle three times.

Call Equiname's jumped brilliantly to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase on the second day and he has a future but possibly not as big as that of his trainer Paul Nicholls who tasted success twice at the Festival and is surely one of the best of the relatively younger brigade. He is 36.

Also embarking on a training career is Mark Pitman who was beside his mother, the remarkable Jenny, when she announced her retirement before the first race on the first day. The younger Pitman wasted no time in landing his first Festival winner when Monseignor took the Bumper.

It is a winner he will never forget because Cheltenham is something very special. Simply put, there is no other race meeting in the world quite like it.