Friday, 25 March 2016

Cheltenham 2016 - What now?

The All-weather championships from Lingfield are doing very little for my Festival hangover this glorious Good Friday afternoon. I’ve ‘hearted’ a few of the pretty pics on Twitter of racegoers sunning themselves at the track. That’s as far is it goes.

Uttoxeter’s fine Midlands National meeting the very day after the Gold Cup struggles to hold my attention for long, so a smattering of tapeta action in rural Sussex doesn’t stand a chance. This is the trouble with buying in to the Festival heart and soul. Nothing else comes close.

In the cauldron of the Barley Mow, deep into the afterglow of Don Cossack’s authoritative  victory in the Blue Ribband last Friday, Bacchy looked at me through the alcoholic hubbub and asked,

“So what now Davoski?”

He knows very well the post-festival void, but has a much stronger flat hinterland than I do.
“I’m not having the Lincoln meeting!”

“The Lincoln’s shite. What about the Dubai World Cup?”

The finest horses in training competing for the richest prizes at the most opulent track in the sport. It should be an easy sell. Bacchy is all over it. Despite his love for the jumps game, I swear finding flat winners comes easier to him. In the run up to the Festival he facebooked a link to some horse running the next day in Japan, FFS! Duramente it was called. It won.

So whilst Duramente lines up in the Sheema Classic tomorrow night at 10/3 and the £4m World Cup field has only two horses I’ve ever heard of, I’m still picking over the Festival.

Rare, as mentioned in a mid-Festival blog, for me to finish in healthy profit at the same time as the bookies take a hit. Like a punting see-saw, backing value usually means I’m down when they are up. So no surprise that when the dust settled, the bets that put me in profit were actually horses towards the top of the market. In order of profitability: Altior - 2nd fav, +19pts; Don Cossack - fav, +15 points; Sprinter Sacre - 2nd fav, +5pts; Yorkhill – 2nd fav, +3.5 pts.

Compared to other years, I got the staking right. The biggest bets were on the biggest winners – Altior and Don Cossack. That they were also in races where I had never before reeled in the winners was doubly pleasing.

The Gold Cup was a shade disappointing in hindsight. Cue Card coming down at the third last robbed us of a thrilling finish. Plenty are saying he would have won had he been able to lay down a challenge. I can’t have any of that talk. Having grappled with the race for 30 years before finding a winner, I’m not about to meekly hand over the moral victory to a faller. Don Cossack is a thorough stayer and was barely pushed out coming up the hill. Was it only December when shrewd commentators were calling Cossack the likeliest winner of the King George had he not come down at the final fence?  There are no stamina doubts about Elliot’s charge. Still, I wish Cue Card had stood up.

The value aspect didn’t yield any win results (place returns are discounted for this analysis). The closest, and it was bloody close, was Battleford in the Bumper. Struck at 28/1, Ballyandy’s nose deprived me of a big winner.  Even in a successful campaign that reversal was hard to take.

Every year I have a facile debate about the ante-post strategy. It’s time to come clean. On the whole, my approach is not profitable. Once or twice I’ve landed a big touch with one at fancy prices. But they haven’t paid for the losers. Apart from those who fall by the wayside before the Festival starts, my stats show that those who do turn up at big prices aren’t winning often enough. This year Yanworth was the best example of that (backed at 8/1). Zabana (backed at 22/1) in the JLT was worse, unshipping Davey Russell during a farcical standing start.  Identity Thief ran no race at all despite the double SP I had in tucked in the locker.  

When we get nearer the big days, there is value to be plundered from the NRNB markets, particular where combined with best odds guaranteed and the plethora of free bets sloshing around. Following this argument through, even though they were towards the head of the market when I backed them, Altior was two points shorter on the day and Don Cossack three.

So the only reasons to continue with a pure ante-post strategy are emotional ones: to enjoy the cut and thrust of the markets during the winter; and to celebrate wildly the big winners when they do go in. Is this sufficient justification to continue? Yes, probably…

The final analysis is encouraging enough, though. A smart 23 points profit at a 45% ROI. That comes in as my third best set of results since, er, records began, as they say. 2009 remains the Daddy of Festivals at +31 points when I managed to snag good wins with Punjabi, Cooldine and Big Buck’s in his first World Hurdle win. All with decent ante-post bets, I might add.

This isn’t smugness. I’ve had some shocking years with barely a win to scrape over the four days.

Yet again, the 2016 renewal yielded not a single handicap win to add to the stash. Some trends really do scream out a warning in capital letters: just two wins in the handful of handicap chases annually across 16 years. That’s 2 out of something like 80 races - an estimate because there hasn’t been five handicap chases every year, where conditions of races change. The point is clear, however. Minimum stakes only, if that. The handicap hurdle return is hardly copper bottomed. A mere five wins across the same period. A lot more place returns have offset some of the damage.  Nevertheless, stick to the conditions events, lad.

So the prepping for the colossus meetings of Aintree and Punchestown begins, with lively Spring festivals at Ayr and Perth in between. There’s plenty to focus on over the jumps at this time of year. It means I’m a slow starter on the flat. Too slow. That’s Bacchy’s point. Maybe I’ll have a quick look at Meydan tomorrow.


Thursday, 17 March 2016

Cheltenham 2016 – Up for the cup

The thrills keep coming. Another wonderful day at Prestbury Park. I don’t know whether Thistlecrack didn’t impress just as much as Vautour. Scintillating performances, the both of them. A joy to watch. Hard to disagree with Rich Ricci’s perplexed comments in the post race interview that suggested he remained baffled about Vautour not running in the Gold Cup. When Mullins revealed that Vautour’s ‘poor’ work was alongside Djakadam, that one was quickly backed in to favouritism for the race. Thistlecrack was quoted at 10/1 for the 2017 renewal, such was the power and poise of his performance.

On a personal level, this was an average punting day that saw me trying to give back plenty of the hard won profit of the first 14 races. The starter didn’t help me. Snapping up the tapes whilst Zabana was side on ensured jockey Davey Russell was dumped on the ground. He was furious. I was despondent. But then Russell was aboard the winner of the next – the Pertemps Final. Mine was only 2nd.

The final day punts are looking like this, with a few blanks to be filled in during what will be a frenetic stretch back in the Barley Mow:

Triumph

Sceau Royal, 16/1, 0.5pt win (ante-post)
Zubayr, 16/1, 0.5pt win (ante-post)

Decent ante-post bets, but this is a really open renewal and I couldn’t be over-confident about either of them.

County Hurdle

Blue Hell, 10/1, 1pt win

Gutted that Desoto County has come out of this. I really fancied him.  Blue Hell is hard to ignore after his defeat of Diamond King. Even though that was on bad ground, there is some form on sounder surfaces from France (although I was not sure that such a situation even existed on that side of the Channel).

Albert Bartlett

Bleu Et Rouge, 20/1 1.5pts e-w (ante-post)

Backed after he beat Tombstone in the Deloitte Hurdle in February, but only once there had been a hint from Mullins that the horse would be stepped up. In fact the master of Clossuton is seven-handed here. I’m happy with the price and the relative chances of my pick. I think he’s improving rapidly. This now looks a very tough race though, and one I am anticipating with relish. Shantou Village who has very strong form on good ground has joined Barters Hill at the head of the market. I have him in a covering combi with Thistlecrack and Don Poli.

Gold Cup

Don Cossack, 5/1, 3pts win (ante-post)
O’Faolains Boy, 33/1, 0.5pt e-w (antepost)

I’ve blogged elsewhere about the chances of Don Cossack. I remain bullish. O’Faolains Boy has next to no chance after two shockers since I plunged into the ante-post markets on the back of a good win over Sausalito Sunrise in December. No Vautour, of course, but this will still be a real spectacle. Licking my lips.

Foxhunters

No bet yet.  

Martin Pipe Conditionals Hurdle

No bet yet

Grand Annual

Red Spinner, 20/1 0.5pt e-w
Croco Bay, 20/1 0.5pt e-w

Nightmare race. Two at big prices against the field: one solid handicapper with form in this race off 2lb lower (Croco Bay); and one improver who needs to put a below par run last time out behind him (Red Spinner).



Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Cheltenham 2016 – Return of the Black Aeroplane

If Annie Power’s thrilling Champion Hurdle romp set the emotional bar high on Day 1, Sprinter Sacre’s extra-ordinary Queen Mum performance booted it into orbit on Day 2. I’ll bore rigid anyone who cares to listen about my love for this race as a fast-paced jumping test with no margin at all for error. The Black Aeroplane just sealed the deal on one of the most populist renewals ever run.

The story of this horse with the film star looks has all the dramatic elements of triumph and tragedy - and triumph again – that we lap up. The perfume of vindication and restoration permeated the races on Day 2.  Phrases like ‘dreams do come true’ and ‘the power of sport to thrill and unite’ were bandied about Prestbury Park with all the misty eyed schmaltz of a Disney script reading.

This is no fairytale though. It’s as 24-carat reality as the signet ring on Nico De Boinville’s little digit. Coming back from a fibrillating heart condition and other physical issues after carrying all before him as recently as 2013 must rank as one of Nicky Henderson’s greatest training achievements. I’ve not been his greatest fan over the years, lobbing a few acid barbs his way. No doubt I will do so again. Hats off to him for this one though.

We all have personal histories with horses. I’m often too swift to call time on the greats. I made this mistake with Kauto Star and I had done the same thing with Spinter Sacre. His renaissance this season has enabled me to restore some balance. I backed him today, but I didn’t really believe he would get within a sniff of odds-on Un De Sceaux. Four out, Nico later admitted, he thought he was outpaced. The result looked a forgone conclusion at that stage.

Last week Henderson said that he wanted something to serve it up to Un De Sceaux, just to see what the horse really had. “I hope it’s us”, he said. That is exactly what happened. Nico urged Sprinter forward and into the lead. Ruby was still motionless on UDS and though the crowd threw up an almighty roar, it looked like a token effort.

Until they turned for home at the top of the hill, that is, when Sprinter began to stretch the lead. Swoop. That’s where he won the race. UDS couldn’t quicken off the firmer going. Ruby never really got animated with his charge once he knew the after burners would not kick in. Mullins said later that if a horse comes up to UDS and he can’t respond, it means he has given everything. By now I was on my feet, shaking my head in disbelief and screaming the aeroplane onwards. Sprinter slowed to a sluggish crawl after the last, but had enough of a lead to get home. Cue the emotional outpouring.

This was part of a very good punting day. Two winners and two places. Day 1 gave me 11.5 point profit, courtesy largely of Altior. Day 2 was plus 10.5 points from more diverse sources. Things did not start well, however, with Yanworth’s reversal. Geraghty plotted the wrong course around the outside whereas Ruby found more luck on the golden highway up the inner.  A saver on Yorkhill provided some compensation.

Apart from SS, there were place returns on Baoulet Delaroque in the Coral Cup and Battlefront in the bumper who was an agonising nose away from providing me with a big three-figure payout. Ballyandy and this lad had a right ding-dong up the home straight and though Battlefront appeared to be finding more, NTD’s horse held on. Chinned.
So into Day 3 with a reasonable cushion. I’ll need it because there is very little to get excited about in the ante-post locker. This is how the bets are shaping up.

JLT

Zabana, 22/1, 0.5pt win (ante-post)
Outlander, 5/1, 1.5pts win

This is an intriguing race with loads of chances. Loved the style of Zabana’s gritty chase debut win over Christmas and backed him accordingly. He was then slammed by Outlander over further at Leopardstown. This slicker surface will help and his 2nd in the Coral Cup last year provides grounds for optimism. The wily Davy Russell in the plate is a positive.

I’ve topped up with a straight win on Outlander in the Skybet money-back-if loses offer. Just a bit concerned about the ground for him.

Pertemps Final

Arpege d’Alene, 14/1, 1pt e-w

Impressed last time out.

Ryanair Chase

Village Vic, 16/1 (BOG), 1.5pts e-w (ante-post)

A race that revolves around Vautour, now that connections have decided his work at home is not electric enough to justify a place in the Gold Cup. That hints at vulnerability. Though I have decided not to go in again. Village Vic was backed when it appeared as if Vautour, Road To Riches and Valseur Lido would head elsewhere. Vic has a squeak but this is a huge step up from handicap company.

World Hurdle

Martello Tower, 16/1 0.5pts e-w (ante-post)

The selection was an early season punt. Too early. Martello Tower has shown nothing of the potential shown last season in the Albert Bartlett. Arguably the ground has also gone against him. A poor bet. Thistlecrack looks bomb-proof and I may try to get him involved in some combis or accas just to have a proper interest in the race.

Brown Advisory Plate

Stilletto, 10/1, 1pt win
Buckers Bridge, 20/1, 0.5pt e-w

I like the improvement of the former and the latter has slipped to a good handicap mark.

Mares Novice Hurdle

Smart talk, 7/1, 1pt win, grudgingly

Honestly, haven’t seen many of these race. I don’t fancy the Mullins horse at odds-on here. Smart Talk I have seen and liked. Minimum stakes though. This together with the Fulke Walwyn next seems like a tame end to the day. Low key stuff.

Fulke Walwyn Chase

I hate this race. I’m never gonna find the winner. I’m not putting one up now. I’ll probably have a token fiver on something like Upswing. Or maybe I’ll just follow the good Irish amateurs.

Pants.





Cheltenham 2016 – Making the calls

I got two big calls wrong yesterday. Annie Power was most definitely up to the task in the Champion Hurdle. The mare, as everyone refers to her, was imperious and won in the style of true champions: flag fall to post, with Ruby gradually turning up the burners all the way round. She’s no supersub for Faugheen, she’s the real deal. And to think that without the reigning champ’s injury, Annie Power might have been confined to the shallow pool that is the mares hurdle.

That was my other wrong call. Vroum Vroum Mag proved easily good enough to beat an average bunch of mares. This has to be the softest Grade 1 at the Festival, given prominence in the collective psyche only because of the achievements of Quevega. My pick, The Govaness was running a big race and looked booked for good prize money until a horrible fall at the last resulting in her being put down. A sickening moment and a race I’ll not look back on too often.

The one I got right was the opener. I’ve finally shaken the tenacious monkey from my back by finding the winner of the Supreme. Altior was my most confident bet of the day and Henderson’s charge sealed the win with a very impressive performance. 

There were some other poor calls around too. I didn’t give MTOY a prayer after 709 days off the track and with a reputation for monkeyness (to stick with simian metaphors) that Whipsnade would blush at. But how well he ran. Only really seen off my Annie at the bottom of the hill. My other lumpy bet on Day 1 was Identity Thief in this race who was massively disappointing.

Clerk of the course Simon Claisse also copped a clanger with his ground call of Good to Soft. Not for the first time in his tenure here. Times were generally much quicker than standard and the Champion Hurdle was run in a new track record. OK, there have been changes in the way the timings are calculated now, but this ground call was way off the mark.

I could have told Claisse all about that even from over here in Hertfordshire. In an attempt to keep traditions alive for the Festival despite my non-appearance, I tested the going - in this case by walking the dog on the football pitch in the local the park. I also had a fry up - another key part of Festival prep; and gabbled incoherently about the races to anyone in earshot.

Rather than Bacchy, Nev, Colin or Si in previous years, the babbling was suffered by Daughter No 2. Trapped in the kitchen with the open fridge door blocking her escape route, she stared back at me open-mouthed and wide-eyed as I blurted out a stream of pent up inarticulation that I needed to unload about the coming day. “Ricci’s just switched Vautour to the Ryanair, can you believe it? Disrespect. Altior’s gotta win today otherwise I’m toast. Whaddayathink about the ground? The Festival eh? It’s like Christmas and birthdays rolled in to one isn’t it? Fantastic. I need a breakfast…” Her grasp on the smoothie on the middle shelf of the fridge tightened and she bolted for the lounge as soon as I drew breath.

I gushed a similar amount of rubbish on returning from the pub last night. Mrs A has seen this before and asked politely if I would eat my curry in the dining room. With the door closed. This will feel like a long four days for her with me actually in the house and not at the track. Even with a skinful of Sambrooks Pale Ale I sensed the lack of understanding from the assembled household. I suggested that I should talk to Daughter No 2’s boyfriend as he would probably appreciate things better. “Tell your Dad I said ‘hi’”, she later reported. That sounded like a brush off to me.

Let’s get back to the business in hand. All the stars must have aligned yesterday because not only did I have a good day, but so did the favourite backers. A rare occurrence. Today could be a knockout blow for the bookies.

Neptune

Yanworth, 8/1, 1pt win (ante-post)

In a twist of the ante-post markets, I find myself on the side of the favourite backers in the opener. Backed before his impressive Cheltenham trials day run in January, I now wish I’d shovelled more on at 8/1. The ground is a question mark though. He’s never run on anything this quick. I’ll probably use my free Skybet token as a saver on Yorkhill. The switch of that one from the Supreme gives this race more depth. There are plenty of encouraging noises around for the Gigginstown House pair A Toi Phil and Bello Conti, too. I may top up Yanworth with some double-action. He’s my banker of the day.

RSA Chase

Vyta Du Roc, 12/1, 1 pt win

Backed a couple of weeks ago after I spent a little while mulling over his win last time out at 3 miles. He beat Minella Rocco and that now looks like good form. I had been unimpressed by his earlier chases, but the step up in trip appears to have brought the best out of him.

Taking on the big two here will be tough and we have a classy race in prospect. Looking forward to seeing how much talent More Of That retains at this level. No More Heroes has put together a fine, if unspectacular sequence. History tells us that you don’t need to be flashy to win this. It is a gruelling race.  I would also have been interested in Roi Des Francs, but the suspicion is he won’t be as effective on this better ground. I’ll stick with this one bet.

Coral Cup

Rock The Kasbah, 12/1, 0.5pt e-w
Baoulet Delaroque, 14/1, 0.5pt e-w

Minimum stakes here on a couple that have eye-catching profiles, but neither of them are strong fancies. As ever, this will be a fun race to watch.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Sprinter Sacre, 5/1, 1pt win (ante-post)
Sizing Granite, 33/1, 0.5pt e-w (ante-post)

Both early bets, and both now available at bigger odds. This is Un De Sceaux’s race to lose. I can’t be confident of much of a return here. The best scenario barring UDS tipping up sees Sizing Granite, whom I really like but has shown nothing much this season, running in to a place on much better ground.

Cross Country

Nothing yet.

Fred Winter

Ardamir, 18/1, 0.5pt e-w

I don’t have a good record in this, so this is a quiet bet on one that seems to fit the profile and will like the quicker ground. Diego Du Charmil is the talking horse, though he has yet to be seen out on a British track. Surely this is only a bet if you follow the stable banter.

Champion Bumper

Battleford, 25/1, 0.5pt e-w

Just an interest on one of Mullins’ that seems to have some resolution about him. May go in for Ballyandy too, if the day is going well.


We go again.


Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Cheltenham 2016 – Absent without leave

I do acknowledge, albeit at a barely conscious level, that the Festival is not the centre of everyone’s world. I was reminded of this yesterday when Mrs A’s business partner, on speaker phone, enquired of her whether I was off to Chelmsford “or wherever” this week. “FFS” I spluttered from the other room, before wiping flecks of granola spittle from my Oddschecker screen. “Chelmsford?”

The grim reality, though, is that I am not visiting the gladiatorial cauldron of national hunt supremacy this year. For the first renewal since 1999 I will be watching the action only on telly. I’ve been reconciled to this self-imposed year out for some time. At least I thought I was. Come Cheltenham morning it’s a different story of course. Watching the Morning Line I’m suddenly aching to go. Shots of last year's heroes streaming over the last in front of packed stands, Cleeve Hill staring down serenely on the theatre. Scenes that have me shaking my head and wondering why I’m not heading there right now.

And then my longing turns to rage as Rich Ricci casually drops in that a 90%-ready Vautour would go for the Ryanair instead of the Gold Cup. I haven’t touched the horse but this flagrant disregard for the punting public has my blood boiling. Only a few weeks ago Ricci said ‘it was the Gold Cup or he stays at home’. It sounds like a Mullins call when he later claimed that it was always at the back of his mind. Totally at odds with Ricci’s pronouncements. Why wasn’t the Ryanair at least kept open as an option? Putting people away like this sours the relationship between connections and the public. It is arrogant and disrespectful. And disgraceful. And plenty of other disses as well.

Spleen-venting over, back to the action at beautiful Prestbury Park today. What a card. I’ll be down the Barley Mow to enjoy the feast this afternoon with a few of the boys. The atmosphere will feel like a poor second best when the roar rolls up the hill, out of the telly and into the bar. I’ll take it, though. Colin will be in the pub. He summed up the anticipation in an e-mail this morning: “I was hanging the washing out at 6.30 this morning, I was so hyper. But I'll be calmer by the time I strike my first bets at 11 today. Possibly.”

Here’s where I am.

Supreme

Altior, 7/1, 1.5pts win; 6/1, 1.5pts win (ante-post, Jan and Feb)

Sticking with the ante-post bet here, which looks like a decent bit of value for a progressive horse in what will be a fiercely competitive race. A batallion of unexposed types primed for this better ground. Is it any wonder I’ve never backed the winner of this race? Nevertheless, this is my most confident bet of the day.

Arkle

Sizing John, 11/1, 0.5 pt win

One point down here already after a rash bet on Ttebbob before Christmas and his subsequent regression. I like Sizing John on good ground, but he’s been put away by Douvan four times now, including last time out over fences. There’s nothing to suggest the result tomorrow will be any different.

I took a punt back in December on John stepping up to 2 ½ miles in the JLT. The wrong call. So this bet here is a bit like good money after bad. I feel I can’t desert the lad now. But it is a minimums stakes effort. And I’ve stuck Douvan in a spawny acca with UDS, Yanworth and Thistlecrack! The sort of tactics about which I usually snort abusive derision. Spineless. 

Ultima Handicap Chase

Young Master, 12/1, 0.5pt e-w

Class act two seasons ago, including a win at the track, and signs of a return to form recently. Handled by Neil Mulholland who is also bang in form. Out Sam has not done much to justify 7/1 here, beating only 6 horses in his two wins.  

Champion Hurdle

Identity Thief, 14/1, 1.5pts e-w (ante-post, Feb)

Backed before Faugheen picked up his injury. The better ground will suit and I like his chances. The markets are moving against him, though. This does not look a strong renewal, with question marks against many. That is of course a view magnified by the champ’s absence and by the evidence of our own eyes in his destruction of the Irish Champion Hurdle field. I wouldn’t begrudge Annie Power her win here, after last year particularly, but she looks up against it.

I’m a point down following Old Guard’s injury at the weekend. That was a crap bet though and I could never be confident.

Mares Hurdle

The Govaness, 20/1, 1.5pts e-w (ante-post)

Better than last year, better than last time out and better on this ground. A lively outsider and I’m happy with this price. Vroum Vroum Mag is a better chaser and seems too short on what’s she’s done over timber (although that did include a comfortable win over my lass). She’s also unraced for these connections on anything better than soft. (Watch her trot up…!)

Four-miler

Southfield Royale, 7/1, 1pt win

Admirably consistent, had a break since Christmas and appears to go on this ground. Nina gets the leg up which is another plus. Her hold up style of jockeyship could well be the key to the race.


Novice handicap chase

Five In A Row, 20/1, 0.5pt e-w

Progressive and at the foot of the weights, though it is a tight handicap. Plenty here have questions and so this is purely a minimum stakes price call.


We go.




Saturday, 5 March 2016

Thirty years of hurt

Here’s a repost of a piece I wrote for the Gold Cup Blog website...


I have never backed the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Ever. The most prestigious race in the jumps calendar. And I am potless. It is a shocking admission.

The first Gold Cup bet I really remember, as a callow youth cutting my teeth in smoky northern betting shops, was a punt on Wayward Lad in Dawn Run’s astonishing 1986 victory. Everyone remembers ‘the mare getting up’, as Sir Peter O’Sullevan so memorably called. All that I remember though, is Wayward Lad patently not getting up – the hill, that is. A little form study would have revealed the same thing happening in 1983, during Michael Dickinson’s staggering 1-2-3-4-5. Dickinson was a legend in the north. Wayward Lad was one of his stable stars, winning the King George thrice. However, the Gold Cup was a stamina test too far.

By the time I began attending the Festival in 2000, sampling that unique, heady atmosphere in person, I was a bit better prepped. Like many that season, I had been blown away by the scintillating, front-running novice, Gloria Victis who had won three of four races in his debut season in Britain. The manner of his bold jumping Racing Post Chase victory off top weight meant connections were unable to resist a shot at Gold Cup only 18 days later. I backed him and watched open mouthed as the horse threw himself at the fences, hitting some, jinking right at others but regaining the lead tenaciously on each occasion. He was in front again, being rousted along by Tony McCoy, when he came down at the 2nd last.

His leg was broken and this brave horse was put down. I didn’t know this until on the packed train home after racing. A mate and I had been licking our lips at the prospect of what was to come. The news was a shock. A low point in my personal history with the Gold Cup.

Rather more special was being in the cauldron to witness each of Best Mate’s three wins. I missed the value in that impressive first year. He returned at 7/1. For the repeats in 03 and 04, I was already locked into a value straight-jacket, a mantra I misrepresented that had me misguidedly opposing favourites at all costs. I wrote of his win later:

“An outpouring of emotion was wrung from the stands on that dull Thursday afternoon. Adulation and respect gushed down the steps like a river in full spate. The dam of affection had burst and it felt like all of Prestbury Park was awash with sentiment. Everyone’s Best Mate.”

But not mine. I had backed Sir Rembrandt at 33/1. During the race I had become distracted by a tussle between Harbour Pilot and Best Mate. I suddenly realised that Sir Rembrandt was flying up the nearside. Wedged by the rail I was struggling for a good view. The big screen broadcast was a mess: the director was showing a full-frame, flared-nostril close-up of Best Mate and Harbour Pilot slugging out the finish and ignoring the fast finishing Alner gelding on the other side of the track.

Maybe it was the collective gasp of the crowd that alerted the TV guys. The camera panned back to relay the last few strides of genuine knee-trembler. A fantastic finish saw Sir Rembrandt split Best Mate and Harbour Pilot. The closest I had come to a win since Wayward Lad.

Others got away too. Denman. I loved Denman. I loved his dominating gallop, I loved his fearless fencing. Heck, I even loved his alternating Barber/Findlay silks. So why did I not back him the year he beat Kauto Star in that epic, electric Gold Cup of 2008? I don’t know. My records show that I backed Halcon Genelardais at 16/1 in the pursuit of dogmatically interpreted value. I remember very little about that bet. The Tank won at 9/4, a plenty big enough price in hindsight. I cheered him all the way home. 

I then backed him on both occasions he was runner-up: to The Star a year later and then to Imperial Commander. Given my mindset in those days, I never touched Kauto Star at the short SPs he inevitably attracted. What a horse though. Even from the short distance of half-a-decade ago, those years feel like a golden era.

More recently, I have flirted with another Nicholls horse. In 2013, screaming at the telly in the pub (having returned from Prestbury Park earlier in the week) I was convinced Silviniaco Conti was winning Bob’s Worth’s Gold Cup when coming down at the 4th last. Backing him again in 2014, I realised the truth. Just like Wayward Lad all those years ago, Conti was defeated by the hill.

Last year, Road To Riches gave me a good shout. No complaints. Coneygree was a joy to watch.

So where does the Mug Punting pin fall this year? I love the ebb and flow of ante-post betting. Like a kid in a sweet shop, I can’t keep my sticky fingers off all those inviting goodies.

I think I’ve managed to refine my inflexible interpretations about value. I made up my mind about the Cheltenham Gold Cup 6 weeks ago. Before the Kinlock Brae Chase at Thurles, Don Cossack was backed lumpily at 5/1. I had concluded that his ability to maintain a good gallop off the pace and kick on in the closing stages in top company were the sort of attributes I was looking for. Over a trip where his stamina would come into play, he was the boy for me. The key pieces of form that franked that view were the Punchestown Gold Cup where he won well last April and the King George where he fell at the last but looked like getting up.

His run in that Kinlock Brae raised as many questions as it answered. In the aftermath, a lot was said about the lazy way he ran and the possibility of head gear. Whilst all that is a worry, trainer Gordon Elliot’s view that better ground will make all the difference is valid. I have to keep the faith now.

Don Poli is the rival I’m most concerned about. That was the case even before Djakadam’s fall in February. Don Poli is a grinder with stamina to burn. Just the type for that hill. I’m learning. Djakadam now goes into the race with the following stat hanging about his battered frame: Of the 103 horses since 2006 that have come into the Cheltenham Festival off the back of a last-time-out fall, only one has won. I don’t tend to hold such stats in very high regard, but that one is a cracker.

So for me it falls to Don Cossack to break the hoodoo and end 30 years of shame. Bring it on.

Just the Supreme to crack now. But that’s a whole other blog…