Brrrrr - that's about the only first thing that comes to my mind when I think to my day yesterday at Cheltenham. Temperatures all day hovered around 0ºC, which I guess isn't too horrible, but that coupled with a stiff steady breeze and a total lack of shelter for hours at a time made me a frozen popsicle by the end of the day! My feet, wrapped up in two thick pairs of wooly socks, were so cold they'd gone past numb and into painful, dead-feeling blocks of ice that I legitimately thought might be frostbitten as they didn't get full feeling back into them even after an hour of brisk walking that had the rest of me sweating (fortunately they appear none the worse for wear today!).
(Puffin steam on the way to the paddock)
But, those rather difficult conditions and the above-average effort it took to actually get there (a two hour train each way with multiple changeovers and then a brisk 50 minute walk through some rather sketchy neighborhoods, all while toting my very heavy and probably conspicuously bulky camera bag that made me feel like a prime mugging target to all the groups of punks on bikes I passed who seemed ready at any moment to start displaying some "antisocial behavior," as the Brits so euphemistically put it), plus of course the exceptional quality of racing I got to witness, made my visit to Cheltenham my best racetrack visit yet so far.
(Local Hero looking steamy after his win in the first with McCoy up)
Like at Ascot, I really could see what all the big fuss was about. These horses were not only gorgeous and sparking with intelligence, but they were also bursting with the athletic power to make the challenging hills and massive obstacles at Cheltenham look easy. Every race was so smooth and fluid, and here "big mistakes" involved getting a deeper distance and falling off the pace of the field, and almost never with anything worse than that (like at Ascot, there was a single fall all day while I spectated, a totally innocuous tumble that left both horse and rider ready to run again another day). While obviously serious accidents still do occur even at this higher and more proficient level of racing, I could understand after the past two weeks how rational people could get still get behind this sport (like I get behind eventing), whereas at Warwick I was struggling.
(How can you not fall for a face like that? So strong and intelligent)
(looove the saddle)
(Such a lovely quiet pre-race moment - this horse has a heck of a kind eye)
(Off to the start! Seriously, this horse is teddy bear... in supreme athlete powerhouse form, of course)
And, even more than at Ascot, I started to feel the real thrill of being there. Standing draped over the rail with camera in hand, outfitted in my Barbour coat and wellies with my tatty and already well-loved copy of that day's British Racing Form sticking out of my back pocket (and so feeling rather British, if I do say so myself), I found myself cheering on my favorites to the finish with my heart pounding in my ears with the sort of heady thrill that usually only happens when I'm watching (or better yet have just finished executing) a foot-perfect cross country round. I suddenly realized how it could be possible to form a full-on love affair with this world, where the emotions can peak so very high and are tempered always with that background understanding that they can also crash so very low.
Plus, if there's one thing I've learned from the past two weeks, it is this: don't bet against AP McCoy unless you're prepared to lose some money. That man is incredible. I've now watched him win in a hat trick of different ways, from holding at the back until a huge kick at the very last, to a steady creep up the pack, to an incredible wire to wire domination in the headliner yesterday on a longer shot (who wasn't even mentioned ONCE in a single one of the many previews I read about in the Forum that morning) who he made just ooze class. He's a true athlete and a master, and it's fun to watch him make it look so easy time and time again. Plus, as I've said before, he's pretty fine.
(I want to print this picture out and put it under pillow to try to do some learning by osmosis - from the past two weeks I must have dozens of pictures of McCoy where he's in this absolutely perfect, consummately balanced two point in each every one. A master.)
(...Of course, when push comes to shove, he can also achieve some pretty incredibly extreme positions to get it done! I actually cannot imagine galloping in a way where my ass would be 10" behind the cantle, but McCoy as ever makes it look easy)
(The master pre-race, totally cool and calm, gently patting his horse and untying a single hand-hold braid as they walked around. Magic.)
(Post wire-to-wire victory - I think I've been spotted!!! Yikes!!)
Cheltenham was almost certainly my last NHR trip of the year, unless I can get back for the Gold Cup in March (which, given my current travel plans, is only a maybe at the moment). I'm so glad I made myself come back after Warwick, as I've now had my two best days in the UK so far at the track, watching the most beautiful horses. I don't know what I'm going to do for my horsey/photographic fix next week! Our program is going to Canterbury and Dover next weekend which will certainly be fun, but will almost certainly be horse-free and so innately inferior. We'll see; I'm definitely excited, as always, to see new country! Even if it would be better seen with a few horses tossed in along the way...
(Winner of the last race I watched - as he trotted by, the jockey smiled and said, "Ahh goodness, this horse is blessed" =D)