Cockles warmed on a freezing day
Those of the 30,000-plus racegoers who braved the bad weather to head to Cheltenham for the first day of the New Year witnessed not one, but two family celebrations to warm the cockles on a damp and dreary day.
Cogry (far side) dug deep after the last for a win that meant plenty to a great number of people
Three years to the day since Lizzie Kelly first showcased her talents to a wider audience when carrying Aubusson home through the mud, she shone in similar conditions when first Coo De Sivola and then Agrapart scored, the latter agonisingly/awesomely (depending upon your perspective) mugging L'Ami Serge and Daryl Jacob for the Grade Two Relkeel Hurdle as the leader ground to a halt in front in the slop.
After 15 winners last season and a first Grade One success, 23-year-old Kelly's career had stuttered in the first eight months of this season and these two victories almost doubled her "pants" tally for the campaign, but these are the days that count for her family's yard – as she said herself "when it's muddy like this, it's proper jumps racing".
Kelly, along with mum Jayne and stepfather Nick Williams, celebrated Agrapart's victory with relish, as did team Twiston-Davies after 22-year-old Willy rode his first winner over jumps since May 2012. More significantly for a local boy brought up only a few miles from the track, it was his first winner at Cheltenham and an opportunity to finally burn the memory of being unseated from Baby Run two out when the 2011 Foxhunter Chase was at his mercy.
It was in the summer of 2012 that he turned his attentions to the Flat, a move that has yielded a notable 189 winners including, last year, a Royal Ascot success on Primitivo.
Even more impressively, those victories were achieved against the laws of physics, the rider's six-foot frame making him tall for a jumps jockey, let alone one required to ride at less than 9st in defiance of the scales.
At the end of last year, Twiston-Davies took a sabbatical and returned to ride out at the family yard alongside brother Sam. Having managed to persuade the British Horseracing Authority's wheels to creak into action over Christmas, a new licence was issued to enable him to ride again over jumps.
And with plenty of practice on the schooling grounds under his belt, there was absolutely no sign of rustiness here on just his third ride back as he forced Cogry's head back past the stronger-travelling Rocklander for the handicap hurdle.
It was, according to Twiston-Davies senior, "just what was needed – both for Willy and the horse".
Not usually prone to over-sentimentality, it briefly seemed there might be a speck in the old man's eye.
"What a lovely day," he said. "After his last fall, we said we'd give up fences for now with Cogry and it was so great that Willy could ride him.
"Family is everything isn't it? His youngest brother, Ted, who is one year and two months, is here to watch him today too.
"Just look at him – he's way taller than me, he's way taller than his brother. To be six foot and do the weights he has done – I think he did 8-5 or 8-6 once. I think he's done amazingly well. He's taller than me and I struggle to do 14st!
"He absolutely loves his Flat racing and he's very good with his breeding and that, so what the hell he is going to do, I don't know, but it's lovely to have him around."
There was also more than a thought to be spared, however, for Ryan Hatch, whose injury-enforced absence has opened a door for more opportunities within the stable. Hurt in a fall at the last meeting here in December, he remains in hospital in Bristol nursing multiple fractures.
"It's been a terrible time for him," the winning trainer went on. "The boys go and see him almost every day but he'll be flat on his back for another three weeks, at least. We're all just wanting him to get better as quickly as possible, but that's jumps racing – it's the highs and lows."
The press turned to the successful jockey, who by this time had exchanged high-fives and received congratulations from the majority of the racing fraternity in the Cotswolds, wondering if an announcement about a permanent return to jumps racing might be on the cards, but the rider said he "wasn't about to close any chapters just yet".
"It felt especially good going to the last on a horse who stays four miles and who loves soft ground, because even when the other horse came upsides, I was still hopeful," he said.
"I'm really not sure about the future. We'll get today out of the way first. That's all that matters. To do it here and right some wrongs. It's special."
Also celebrating a memorable day was Sam Drinkwater, trainer of the 50/1 winner of the staying handicap chase, Tour Des Champs.
Readers of the Gloucestershire Echo – a local newspaper whose trend-defying comprehensive coverage of racing deserves an award of its own – had been alerted to the rookie trainer's optimistic hopes for his charge, but the news appeared to have passed most by.
Drinkwater, a former amateur jockey and work-rider both for Twiston-Davies and neighbour Fergal O'Brien, only received his training licence last month and took his tally to two wins from four runners with this success.
"I can't thank Nigel and Fergal enough for their support," he said. "I've ridden here enough to know that there's still a long way to go at the bottom of the hill, so I was trying not to get too excited. This is just brilliant."
The successful syndicate of owners includes racecourse Sales Manager Mark Pearse. Those looking to try and book a table in the restaurant for the Festival might want to give it a couple of days before trying to call.
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