Cheltenham Festival Fever is here again! Setting the scene for Jumps racing’s big week
Ever felt like pressing a button to eject yourself from the reality of horrors such as Brexit, austerity, racism, xenophobia, Trump, extremism and yet more Brexit?
Well, racing fans are strapping themselves in to do just that this week for the Cheltenham Festival.
A sporting event par excellence that is not just an unmissable, annual ritual or pilgrimage but also the purest form of escapism.
For four days, from Tuesday to Friday, up to 280,000 on track and many millions of TV and online viewers around the world retreat safely into what we like to refer to as The Racing Bubble.
A bubble where nothing else matters. Where a quiet corner of the Cotswolds is transformed into a spectacular cauldron of sporting theatre, bolstered by nigh on £5 million of prize money. The best Jumps racing in the world. The best Jumps horses in the world. Twenty-eight races, each one an equine event in itself. And all cloaked by an atmosphere of partying bonhomie and camaraderie that is hard to match.
It is also a bubble oft ridiculed by those why cry that racing must attract fresh and different followers. But with that comes added public scrutiny. And public scrutiny that is currently focusing hard on animal welfare.
It’s fair to say that the past year has not been a good one for Cheltenham. Six equine deaths at last year’s Festival, including three in one race, added to 11 over the previous two years and led to a full-scale review. On top of that, high-profile owners, Paul and Clare Rooney, temporarily boycotted the course over safety fears.
As a result of the review, significant changes have been introduced for this week’s meeting. Field sizes have been reduced, a fence has been moved, the inexperience of some jockeys has been challenged, races have been given new slots in the timetable and all horses are to be examined by vets before they are allowed to race.
The debate over jockeys’ use of the whip remains high on the welfare agenda too. A veiled warning has been issued to jockeys who refuse to take responsibility or heed the whip rules that they could face stringent penalties at Aintree’s Grand National meeting.
All this means the national, non-racing media (ie: those not within the bubble) are hovering like vultures. One or two extreme stories have already been published, with a headline in the ‘Mail On Sunday’ screaming: ‘Is Festival’s Future On the Line?’. Make no mistake, this week’s jamboree is an acid test of public opinion.
The alarm is similar to that which enveloped the Grand National a few years ago. The great race made the modifications required to appease most of the critics, and fervent Festival fans must be praying that Cheltenham can also emerge unscathed.
For that to happen, the meeting badly needs to be remembered for all the right reasons. For the kind of high drama, spine-tingling excitement and pulsating performances, both equine and human, that have elevated the Festival to its stratospheric status among global sporting occasions.
Quite how that will be fulfilled is not at all clear after a most curious, even bizarre, Jumps season that has been blighted by unseasonably, unsuitably dry ground. It is almost certainly the reason why so much of last season’s form has been deposited in the dustbin.
The rain wouldn’t stop in 2017/18, so Soft and Heavy ground horses had a whale of a time, including at the Festival. Yet so many of last term’s Festival flagbearers have failed to fire this term. It’s almost impossible to believe that Cheltenham heroes of 2018, such as Gold Cup one-two Native River and Might Bite, sparkling novices Footpad, Shattered Love, Samcro, Summerville Boy and Farclas, crack mare Benie Des Dieux, Ryanair Chase victor Balko Des Flos, and handicap winners Bleu Berry, The Storyteller and Veneer Of Charm have not won a single race between them.
In Ireland, the campaign has barely taken off at all because of the lack of rain. Trainers were cautious about risking their charges at Leopardstown’s Christmas extravaganza, while the newly-created Dublin Racing Festival in February was marred by non-runners because of the ground and the omission of obstacles thanks to low sun, a combination of which rendered the form dubious. Given such circumstances, maybe Ireland’s domination of the Festival, which has seen them take 36 of the 56 races in 2017 and 2018, might relent this time round.
Perversely, the rain has now arrived, and Cheltenham, so often bathed in spring sunshine, might well, for the second year running, unravel on Softish ground. So is this season’s form now to be deposited?
The conundrum very much adds to the fascination of the meeting. And while it also deepens the problems facing punters, at least the week looks sure to be bejeweled by diamond-carat renewals of the showpiece races, the Magners Gold Cup and the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Tuesday’s Champion offers BUVEUR D’AIR the chance to become only the sixth horse in Festival history to land the prize three times, following in the hoofprints of legends such as Istabraq, See You Then and Persian War. Nicky Henderson’s JP McManus-owned 8yo suffered a shock defeat at the hands of a stablemate, the mare VERDANA BLUE, at Christmas, suggesting that he could be vulnerable against stronger opposition than he has faced in the race before.
The pick of that opposition comes in the shape of two other mares in APPLE’S JADE and LAURINA, representing the big-gun Irish yards of Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, and both, tellingly, receive 7lbs from the champion. Many will not hear of defeat for Apple’s Jade, whose disappointing effort in mares’ company at last year’s Festival is now being attributed to her being in season. Others feel that her front-running style will only serve to set the strong pace Buveur D’Air needs to show his best. They also point to her worrying tendency to jump out to her right and to the fact that most of her best performances have come over further than the minimum trip. She has certainly beaten few, if any, top-class 2m specialists in her career.
Laurina lacks experience of any kind at the highest level but, as a result, she is the least exposed of the trio and the most open to oodles of improvement. A big, strapping mare, she has been undeniably impressive in all her easy wins, and while you get the impression that this ambitious tilt at the Champion Hurdle is more to do with the whim of owner Jared Sullivan than the reasoned judgement of Mullins, those who know the trainer insist he is not one to be bossed about by owners and would not be letting Laurina take on such illustrious rivals unless he felt she had a genuine chance of beating them.
Like Buveur D’Air, the favourite for the Gold Cup, PRESENTING PERCY, is also on the cusp of history. For he is aiming to become the first horse since Easter Hero way back in 1929 to take the great race without having run over fences during the current season. In fact, an added measure of what Pat Kelly’s 8yo is up against is that he hasn’t jumped a single fence in public as a non-novice.
Even though the gelding is by a sire, Presenting, well known for Good-ground progeny, Kelly has refused to risk him this term on going without considerable dig. As a result, for all that he is obviously a class act, Presenting Percy faces a monumental task on Friday, even though the welter of market support for him cannot be ignored after stylish wins at each of the last two Festivals.
If Presenting Percy isn’t to win, the cup could still return to Ireland because its champion trainer Mullins saddles a formidable trio of BELLSHILL, KEMBOY and AL BOUM PHOTO in his bid to land the race for the first time.
Bellshill, the likely mount of the irrepressible Ruby Walsh, top Festival jockey no fewer than 11 times, is beginning to fulfil the enormous potential he has always had. Kemboy has made dramatic improvement over the last year, although the merit of his big-race victory at Leopardstown at Christmas was possibly deceptive, given that he was allowed to dictate matters at the head of a dawdling gallop. And I am sure we have yet to see the best of the lightly-raced, mud-loving Al Boum Photo, who has each/way value written all over him.
Also three-handed is Colin Tizzard, trainer of last year’s winner, NATIVE RIVER after an epic duel with MIGHT BITE. The rain is very much in the champion’s favour, although both he and Nicky Henderson’s runner-up have looked laboured and flat so far this season as if that duel might well have bottomed them.
Tizzard’s other representatives, THISTLECRACK and ELEGANT ESCAPE, are second and third strings in name only. The former was just about the best staying hurdler we have seen, while the latter, winner of the Welsh Grand National, is a progresive stayer sure to relish the gruelling stamina test next Friday’s contest looks likely to be.
The injury-plagued Thistlecrack has not been as effective over fences as timber, but he is a King George winner and was a gallant second in that same race at Kempton on Boxing Day when chasing home the new kid on the block, CLAN DES OBEAUX. On the strength of that display and his subsequent romp at Ascot, Paul Nicholls’s 7yo should be favourite, in my view. He has developed into a polished performer who has everytbhing in his favour to land the Ditcheat handler his first Gold Cup since the mighty Kauto Star in 2009. Incidentally, Nicholls can still be backed at double-figure odds to wrest the Festival trainers’ title from the dominant duo of Mullins and Elliott, who have bossed it for the last six seasons.
As for the Festival’s other three showcase championship races, the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle and the Ryanair Chase, there is a genuine fear that they will lack strength in depth. But at least we might witness a world record, no less, in the Queen Mother thanks to the seemingly invincible ALTIOR.
Henderson’s superstar has won all 17 of his starts over Jumps and if he justifies cramped odds on Wednesday, he will set the longest sequence of victories over fences, which currently stands at 12. He would also equal the longest sequence of Jumps wins of 18, set by Big Buck’s.
Most observers say he cannot be beaten. After all, he has stuffed most of these opponents before. But I’d be worried about the alarming tendency to jump out to his left that he showed on his last outing at Kempton, and I am sure Mullins’s brilliant MIN is capable of getting much closer to him than on their last two meetings when he has trailed by seven lengths.
In the Stayers’ Hurdle, the level of support for PAISLEY PARK, who has shot to favouritism on the back of impressive triumphs at Ascot and Cheltenham, has been infectious. One pundit, when asked for a £50 charity bet, said he would like “£25 on Paisley Park and.... £25 on Paisley Park.” However, what Emma Lavelle’s 7yo has achieved, in terms of the opponents he has disposed of, does not, in my opinion, match that of Irish raiders FAUGHEEN and SUPASUNDAE. The latter was runner-up in last year’s renewal to PENHILL (absent this time), who then went on to be slaughtered by a revitalised Faugheen at Punchestown. That race is the best bit of form on offer for Thursday, and it would be a wonderful sight if the 2015 Champion Hurdle hero could regain his Festival pomp.
Like Faugheen, stablemate UN DE SCEAUX is now 11yo, but he will also be back for more this week, bidding to add to a CV that already boasts nine Grade One victories and a level of consistency that only be marvelled at. If it continues to rain, he cannot be ruled out of an open-looking Ryanair that is difficult to call at this stage, given that many of the contenders hold alternative engagements.
Two who definitely won’t be in the field are CYRNAME, breathtaking winner of the Ascot Chase last month but a horse who must race right-handed, and the enigmatic WAITING PATIENTLY, who is fast running out of time to prove just how good he is. Their failure to show up sadly embellishes the long list of high-quality absentees that seems to tarnish every Festival these days.
Happily, it also adds merit to the records of those who keep turning up, and keep delivering the goods, year after year. Horses such as the amazing TIGER ROLL, winner of the Grand National last April and this week set to repeat his triumph in the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase after previous Festival successes in both the Triumph Hurdle and the 4m National Hunt Chase.
If he pulls it off, Elliott’s immensely popular 9yo will, like the aforementioned Altior, join an elite band of horses to have won at least four times at the Cheltenham Festival. Only six have managed it before -- Big Buck’s, Quevega, Istabraq, Sir Ken, Willie Wumpkins and the incomparable Arkle.
Names to conjure with, names to celebrate, names to toast a glass to when members of The Racing Bubble reconvene at the natural amphitheatre that is Prestbury Park on Tuesday. We wouldn’t miss it for the world, Certainly not for the world’s problems.
CATCH UP with my selections for every race at the Festival which will appear on this website from 9 pm on Sunday.