03/07/2014 1:08PM

Jay Hovdey: Clancy quickly caught allure of Cheltenham


They’re off and jumping again this coming week in Cheltenham, somewhere deep in the English countryside, which gives an American poser like yours truly a chance to flaunt his abject ignorance when it comes to the National Hunt world of top-class steeplechasing.

Thankfully, I’ve got help, usually in the person of Sean Clancy, who rode over American jumps professionally for a dozen years and then slid seamlessly into a journalism career that resulted in an Eclipse Award for writing. Now he is fulfilling what he probably considers his inbred destiny as a breeder, owner, and buyer of horses, most of them aimed for National Hunt racing.

Clancy must be doing something right, because on Tuesday, the first day of the Festival, he will try to win the Racing Post Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase with Valdez, an up-and-comer on the British scene who races for Clancy and his Riverdee Stable partners.

Racing over the jumps in America is a niche within a niche, an endeavor with a small, deeply committed following, like fans of atonal jazz. This makes it a challenge to explain to a domestic audience the fervor with which the Cheltenham Festival is greeted each year, with its 27 races spread over four March days attended by upward of 200,000.

The greatest ’chaser ever to grace Cheltenham was named Arkle, an Irish horse from the 1960’s whose image adorns the walls of every Irish pub within shouting distance of a racecourse or a betting shop, which is to say every Irish pub. There were ballads written of his exploits. Known, simply, as “Himself,” Arkle’s skeletal remains are on display at the Irish National Stud.

Arkle won the Cheltenham Gold Cup – the festival’s signature steeplechase – three straight years, as well as just about every other ’chase worth winning, usually under knee-buckling weights. The Arkle Novices’ Chase is a time-tested proving ground for horses with similarly lofty aspirations.

“I’m not going to lie to anybody,” Clancy said. “I bought Valdez as a 4-year-old and thought, ‘Okay, here’s our Cheltenham horse.’ Over there, for anybody who owns a jumper the absolute be-all, end-all goal is to get to Cheltenham.”

Clancy was still at home at his northern Virginia farm, packing for the trip, attending to details. A large contingent of family and friends would be following the Valdez bandwagon.

“I learned my lesson the hard way the first race I rode,” Clancy recalled. “I told everyone not to come. I don’t know why. But then I won. I looked around and said, ‘Where is everybody?’ ”

Win or lose on Tuesday, Clancy is prepared for an experience like no other.

“For America the Breeders’ Cup is probably the closest thing to Cheltenham,” he said. “Every year I go to the Breeders’ Cup I look around and think about all the people who don’t have any runners there, really successful, huge stables. So I know all the pitfalls and challenges of getting to that point.”

Although he has won his last two races, jumping with a degree of style, the white-faced Valdez is considered a cut below the best in the Arkle field, while given a chance to hit the board.

“It’s a demanding, tough course,” Clancy noted. “You’re going fast. The jumps are imposing. Just getting through the race is an arduous task, and the people over there get it. You watch people as their lives change.”

Clancy hung up his boots as a professional rider at the end of 2000. In 2002 he made his first pilgrimage to Cheltenham. It might as well have been Lourdes.

“After the very first race they brought a horse into the winner’s circle and I heard a great roar,” Clancy said. “I thought that must be for the winner. No, it was for the horse who finished fourth, then third, then second, and then finally the winner. And the roar for the winners of the premier Grade 1 races is hard to describe. The place just erupts.”

It was on that first day Clancy watched as the great hurdler Istabraq took the field in an attempt to win his fourth Champion Hurdle at age 10.

“Things were not going right for him,” Clancy recalled. “He had fallen in his prep, and the writing was on the wall. But he went favored anyway, and he was still Istabraq.”

After two fences Istabraq was at the back of the field. His rider, Charlie Swan, did the right thing and eased him to a trot. Jaws dropped.

“Cheltenham is in a natural amphitheater, where everything kind of rises up in front of you,” Clancy said. “Istabraq pulled up at the very top of the hill, and when he did there was silence, complete silence, while the race is still being run.

“When we saw he was okay, you could feel it start to build in the crowd,” Clancy said. “It was an ovation for their champion, in the middle of a race still being run, and the place is going wild for Istabraq, who has just lost and taken all the money down. But it didn’t matter. They were paying what they knew was a final tribute.

“At that point I’d seen exactly two and a half races at Cheltenham,” Clancy added. “That was it. I got it. The hook was set forever.”