WHENEVER I’m asked how it feels to ride a Cheltenham winner, I always think of a photo hanging on my wall at home.
It’s a snapshot of one of the moments which will never fade and I’ll always be thankful to the photographer who captured that instant.
It was after the 2017 Foxhunters, which I had won on Pacha Du Polder, and as we pulled up at the top of the hill, my brother Hadden was the first to reach me.
He’s got his arms out wide, I’m doing the same and he nearly pulled me off Pacha with all the buzz — and I’ve got a lasting memory of a split second in time to mark my first Festival winner.
Hadden and my dad had both won at the Festival, and as a kid I had never even allowed myself to dream that one day I would follow them.
Would I be good enough? Would I have the opportunity?
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And suddenly I had achieved what two of the people I look up to most in the world had done… it was huge.
I knew Pacha well, and getting the chance to ride him was incredible.
And after messing up the start on Current Event, on my first ever Festival ride in the same race two years earlier, I was much more alive to the pressure and speed of it all!
We never left the rail the whole way round, got into a rhythm really quickly, and Pacha knew his way around there better than me — I just tried to stay on! To wear those famous silks, the ones Ruby Walsh had ridden so many times, to have a Festival winner for Andy Stewart…it’s something that will always stick with me.
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When you’re still discovering who you are and where you’re going, it doesn’t get bigger or better than winning the Gold Cup for amateurs.
And talking of bigger, the trophy is absolutely phenomenal — it’s huge.
Paul Nicholls told me to hold it up, and I didn’t think I’d be able to.
But I managed to lift it over my head and I was pretty proud of that too!
It’s the most impressive trophy of the week, you just don’t get them like that any more.
And of course there was winning the Ryanair on Frodon…that moment when you’ve crossed the line and the noise floods in and soaks you.
FRODON THE HORSE OF A LIFETIME
The crowds on the way back in, the amount of people surrounding the paddock, not a bit of concrete that didn’t have a pair of feet on it, all the team being in there.
Although at that moment the whole of the racing world was in our team. It was absolutely mega.
Frodon has taken me through such emotions, and just saying his name makes you think of so many different things — and all of them positive.
He’s back for another crack today, this time in the Ultima, and we know how much he loves this place. It will be a tough task, but he’s top weight because he is the best horse in the race on the ratings.
You never know what’s lurking in the mist in these handicaps, and he’s ten now, but he loves the ground, he loves the atmosphere and you don’t need me to tell you about his jumping.
Martello Sky has shown she loves Cheltenham as well, and I feel so privileged that Lucy Wadham and her owners have put me back in the saddle for the Mares’ Hurdle with Sky.
She’s very talented, did a great piece of work last week, and is in great order, so all our boxes are ticked.
Martello has the resilience for a battle, huge determination and for a jockey that’s a great feeling to have in your racing partner.
The main thing will be getting her to chill out and relax before the start, but she knows how to win, does everything she can to do so, and deserves her chance in a championship race.
I ride Graystone, also for Lucy, in the Boodles who is an extremely tough character and the penny is starting to drop with his jumping.
MAR THE MERRIER
It’s obviously a deep race, but he will keep coming up the hill for me and is taking his racing very well, so let’s go give it a go.
The one thing for sure is that it’s going to be a great four days of racing, the best of the best, and the eyes of the sporting world on Cheltenham.
If I could pick one horse to ride outside of Paul’s, I think I’d go for Energumene in the Champion Chase.
His jumping is relentless and it’s always good trying to turn the tables, as he is with Shishkin. I think the battle and pressure will bring out his A game.
That could be one of THE highlights of the Festival, but let’s be honest…we’re spoiled for choice because there are so many to choose from.
Have a great week, and keep kicking.
Interview with PHIL THOMAS.
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