The Festival 2019 Review: Shocks and Stars at Cheltenham

Cheltenham 2019 was filled with shocks – and some shocking weather – during the week but one hoodoo was finally laid to rest at The Festival when Willie Mullins won Friday’s Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo.

Cheltenham really is jump racing’s Royal Ascot. Epsom and Aintree are unique with their showstoppers and charm but for a lot of jumping enthusiasts, Prestbury Hill is the theatre of dreams and the sporting event of the year. As ever, it didn’t let its audience down.

The course looked magnificent on Friday with three days’ racing already under its belt. The different shopping and leisure areas were all pristine and incredibly the flowers decorating some of the bars and shops in the Orchard area were still looking fresh after a week of blustery and inclement weather. Everyone we spoke to looked on top form as well, a measure of the excitement that carries everyone through the four days.

We saw Mick Fitzgerald soon after arriving and couldn’t help but notice his wellingtons were completely spotless. We wondered if he gets a new pair each day as a sort of uniform allowance for covering The Festival. Tony McCoy kindly stopped for a few words and a picture as did Kevin Blake and John Francome. It’s always appreciated on the big days and shows how approachable the stars are to racegoers.

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Due to the rain we spent quit a bit of time in the shopping village, and there was something for all discerning racegoers. We saw some amazing hats and many other items to go onto the wish list. John Lewis had its first pop-up shop at The Festival after opening a store in Cheltenham itself in October 2018 and bringing its one-stop shopping to the town.

The pop-up itself was excellent, there were make-up artists and stylists on hand to give advice to any ladies who wanted to freshen their look and it was a pleasure to chat to the ladies who were running the store. We were looked after by Ayesha, Rachel and Stephanie all wearing outfits from the store. We asked what had been the most popular request and a Charlotte Tilbury makeover had been a winner in this case.

We also enjoyed the hospitality of Bentley who were celebrating their 100 years of producing some of the most luxurious cars in the world. Some incredible horsepower of a different nature was on display with several models on show. Hidden behind the cars was the 1919 Bentley Bar, which had been recreated in the style of the original era. Everyone was immaculately dressed and it was no surprise to find out that Yvette Jelfs, a bespoke milliner had been asked to design the outfits.  You can find out more about Yvette at  A special thanks to Amber Smith, who showed us round and made us very welcome – pictured above with Ross Martin and Matt Doughty.

The ladies at Cheltenham looked great despite the weather. Hats and plenty of feathers are still the look favoured and we have noticed in the time we have been coming how the younger racegoer is also embracing this trend and we saw some fabulous creations. Hats are not just for the Flat!

There were also some rather natty gents to be seen, as well as a few more comedy outfits!

Onto the racing itself and it was the concluding day of The Festival. There had been many shocks including the falls of Buveur d’Air and Benie Des Dieux in the Champion Hurdle and Mares’ Hurdle during the week and many favourites failed to fire. The Placepot on the first couple of days reached record proportions with huge payouts for anyone who was lucky enough to pick the right horses.

Pentland Hills scored a record seventh success for Nicky Henderson in the Triumph Hurdle despite having raced only once before over hurdles. The race was marred by the fatal injury to Sir Erec who was favourite to win the race but devastatingly suffered a catastrophic breakdown. A sad start for Joseph O’Brien who has such an amazing string of hurdlers to his name. Despite his trainer’s record in the race, Pentland Hills went off a 20/1 shot.

Rachael Blackmore got one for the girls in the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle, triumphing aboard Minella Indo, another 50/1 outsider. Rachael rode a superb finish up the hill and out-battled Gordon Elliott’s favourite Commander Of The Fleet to give Rachael her second victory at this year’s Festival following her win on A Plus Tard on the Tuesday.

The next race was the big one, the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup and Presenting Percy, the previous year’s RSA winner was sent off favourite. Unfortunately he never got into the race and it transpired afterwards that he returned lame. Hopefully he will be back as good as ever next year.

The main protagonists from last year, Native River and Might Bite cut out the running but always had the pack close on their tails and never shook them off. Turning for home Clan des Obeaux and Al Boum Photo came to the fore and once the Irish raider hit the front, the result was never in doubt, bar jumping the last, which he did with aplomb. 

Fellow Irish horse Anibale Fly improved on his third place position with a late rally to take the runner-up spot, with Bristol de Mai running an excellent race to finish third, laying the theory he doesn’t perform well at Cheltenham to rest.

However, this was all about Willie Mullins finally getting his winner. The hats were off from the moment Al Boum Photo passed the post and the reception he received literally raised the roof! Still a young horse, there is no reason why he won’t be back next year to make a robust defence of his crown.  

Willie looked overjoyed as did the connections in the parade ring. I’m sure he will agree it was worth the wait. Three cheers went up and everyone joined in.

Willie had trained the runner-up on no less than six occasions and had seemed destined for another luckless year when three out of his four runners had exited the race with a circuit still to run. However, Al Boum Photo hadn’t read the script and stormed up the hill for a two and a half length victory over fellow Irish raider Anibale Fly.

Cheltenham had again put on a magnificent show. As we were leaving we could hear racegoers already starting to make plans for next year’s Festival.


Photographs by Rachel Groom


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