The Cheltenham Festival: Saddled with sporting folklore

The four-day Cheltenham Festival kicks off this week. It promises to be a carnival of high-calibre horse racing, unremitting Guinness drinking –  and all with some impeccable country style thrown into the hat.
A winner at Cheltenham Festival wears a jeep coat with a fur lapel and belted waist, 1987.

On a racing assignment in Dubai, Derek ‘Tommo’ Thompson discovered that the lady staying in the next suite in the Royal Meridien Hotel was Bo Derek. Recounted in Tommo, his autobiography which was ghostwritten by Racing Post journalist Lee Mottershead, Thompson knocked on the door and said: “You know what, we’ve both got something in common. We’re both called Derek. You’re Bo Derek and I’m Derek Thompson.” Not feeling as neighbourly Bo shut the door in his face. Despite being a horse lover, serving on the California Horse Racing Board, it appeared Bo didn’t know the other Derek in the hotel. Thompson, is in fact, one of the most recognisable voices and faces in horse racing. The Cheltenham Festival kicks off next week, and out of the daily 65,000-strong army of spectators descending into the bowl of Cleeve Hill ­– few will not be familiar with Thompson.

Informally known as “jumps’’, National Hunt is a variant of horse racing that hardly exists outside of Britain, Ireland and France. It is one of the reasons why the Cheltenham Festival attracts the bona fide equine crowd, and not the influx of Hollywood stars that you might see at Royal Ascot and Longchamp. Noted for its atmosphere, including the “Cheltenham roar”, visitor numbers eclipse the Grand National, Royal Ascot, and the Derby. Coinciding with St. Patrick's Day – and with a myriad of Irish training yards bringing their best horses, Cheltenham becomes a suburb of Dublin. Despite the festival being contested by the leading National Hunt thoroughbreds – there’s a provincial and sporting inclusivity about it. There’s the Foxhunters’ Chase – a race for amateur riders, there’s no strict dress code and small-scale trainers compete for elevated prize money. And you’ve got its bucolic setting beneath Cleeve Hill. “It’s the most natural arena in sport, and it’s got one of the best backdrops”, says the much-admired jockey-turned-journalist Brough Scott. It gives Cheltenham these rare ingredients which fosters extraordinary sporting stories. It is why racing fans worship the festival, plenty of them Irish, that would be willing to swim the Irish Sea to witness the tales unfold.


    Freddie Anderson


    March 2022


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