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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Derek Thompson: ‘Cheltenham is so different it gets my heart racing’

jim culloty-n
Jim Culloty holds three fingers in the air after riding Best Mate to a third successive Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in 2004

CHELTENHAM Festival really is like no other race meeting. The Olympics of Jumps racing takes place every March and sees a healthy English vs Irish rivalry.

As a pundit I’ve spent many days on the hallowed turf at Prestbury Park and can recall some fine memories from years gone by.

One of my most memorable highlights was Best Mate winning it for the third year in 2004. I was first to speak to jockey Jim Culloty on the track when he held his three fingers aloft to symbolise the hat-trick.

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It’s incredible; you’re there, you can see him, smell him, feel him, see the look on his face. It was just a ‘wow’ moment I will never forget it. Best Mate is now buried by the winning post and I always look across at him every time I go.

Something that will never be repeated at any Cheltenham Festival is the ‘famous five’ in the 1983 Gold Cup. I grew up with Michael Dickenson and it was one heck of a feat to see him produce five horses fit and raring to go on the day, let alone having them complete the first five places.

The first time I went there I was a stable lad, 16 years old and I stayed in the lads’ hostel. All the top horses were there, we were out in Cheltenham and went to bed about 10.30pm. I was woken at 3am by another stable lad who worked for Tom Dreaper. He looked after Flyingbolt and I spent the night asleep next to him. The horse flew in the very next day and that is my earliest memory of the Festival.

I try to go down to the start for a number of races and always stand by the last as you can see everything. Last year when Ruby came down on Annie Power, he was flying, he was going so fast and he came down right in front of me. I’ll never forget Ted Walsh running past me to see how his son was. That shows you the closeness of the Walsh family.

I’ll also never forget doing the morning line out on the track and watching the Willie Mullins string. He has about 30 horses and this string came down every morning with ‘WM’ on their rugs and I just stood there and watched. I thought ‘wow, this guy is incredible’. He always has time to speak to you. He always lifts his trilby like an old fashioned gentleman.

Cheltenham is so different, so special, every time you get close it just gives you that ‘wow’ factor, the heart starts going.

Another strong memory of mine involves a guy called Brod Munro-Wilson winning the Foxhunters in 1982. I backed the Drunken Duck at 33/1 and went to the tote to collect my money, it was a great feeling having to wait until the next day to be paid. He wasn’t the most stylish, Brod, but he got The Drunken Duck home and I think we lived up to the name that night.

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