Here we go!

I have been struggling to focus on the day job over the last week. It's always the same just before Cheltenham. The anticipation kicks into overdrive and my mind skitters like some free-spirited arachnid over the highs and lows of previous festival adventures.

My unhealthy introspection about the ideal punting strategy usually reaches self-flagellation by this stage. Agitated fingers worry-beading over the imbalance between too many/too few ante-posts; shaky non-runner, no bet combinations; and too little/too much reliance on a day of race wagers. There are no cool-headed sure-handed bookie-beating plots here. An MRI scan (I've been watching Casualty again) of what passes for my noodle would resemble tail lights at spaghetti junction in stop-motion photography.

I've been hanging on six day declarations and breaking festival news more firmly than a suction-cupped mountain climber cramponned to the ice scree. Every new festival tweet or web headline sends me fumbling to Oddschecker for contractions, drifts and new opportunities. By the time I've scrolled through all 27 markets it's time to start at the top again. Helter skelter...

There's no shortage of advice out there to help me navigate these choppy waters. YouTube preview evenings, tipster blogs and a stunningly useless video post from Mick Fitzgerald, SportingBet's 'Racing Ambassador' who showed about as much insight as a favourite backer at Romford. I'm the mug for listening to this 'Henderson-or-the-favourite-preferably-both' analysis. His one departure from that routine was to 'take a punt on the ground being soft and back Rubi Light in the Ryanair'. I can safely say that will be the worst piece of advice you could take this drought-affirming week.

There's some better quality material available though. Marten Julian's thoroughly enjoyable Cheltenham Bulletin is one I read as soon as Bacchy forwarded it. Mark Howard's update is always worth a read too, particularly the Irish angle via Declan Phelan. So I've just got the Official Cheltenham Guide, The Racing UK Festival Debate and the William Hill Preview to go, sitting over there on the bedside table, silently mouthing more bankers at me.

At least the logistics have come together. After the Royal Mail lost my original tickets, I ordered some more and printed them myself. Then the original ones turned up three and a half weeks after being posted. Rubbish. At least I can get a refund. There's one result in the bag already! Sort of.

I'll be meeting Colin and his Mrs, Anne, together with another of the Fantasy Festival gang, Nev outside the Best Mate enclosure as the Grandstand clock strikes high noon. All three are Festival virgins, believe it or not. As an old hand, I'm happy to be mid-wife to their deflowering. I think I'm mixing metaphors again. And not in a good way....

Nev nearly made it to Prestbury Park for the 2008 Festival, only to be turned back at Paddington on the morning of Day 2. Heavy storms had ripped through the Cotswolds damaging the course and high winds made the site unsafe. The remaining three days' worth of races were shoe-horned into two. But Nev didn't make it for either. He had a scare this year too. A couple of months ago he casually mentioned that he'd booked up three nights accommodation in the heart of Cheltenham for £30 a night. I smelled a rat. Add another 0 on and I'd have believed it. "What dates have you got there Nev?", I inquired. "13th to 15th Feb, mate". "Nev, that's the wrong month! The Festival is 13th to 16th March!"

But he's landed right on his feet and has berthed himself in a fine looking B&B in genteel Bourton-on-the-Water. On the right days.

Colin's had the Festival in his sights for many a long year. As I write, he will be nose-deep in The Racing Forum, cross-checking stats and facts. Col is a thorough trends man and will have information at his fingertips on the morrow.

And now the final declarations for Day 1 are out. Further confirmation that my ante-post policy has lurched from acceptable to bloody awful. It's a long time since I've gone to war with such a meagre armoury of decent long range bets. My knee-jerk plundering of the NRNB markets has smacked of panic. On the plus side, three of my 40 to follow horses, rather belatedly, came to my rescue on Saturday: Ambion Wood at 20-1, Dover's Hill at 8-1 and place money on Sire De Grugy backed at 11-1 each-way. Badly needed contributions to the fighting fund.

Here is my Day 1 portfolio:

Supreme: Tetlami. A survivor from my first bout of ante-post punting at 20-1 e-w. Happy enough with this. I would hope to see him in the mix. I've supplemented this with Montbazon (a 40 to follow horse) at 8-1. This is a very open betting heat and I've struggled to split three of four at the head of the market. I thought I'd found an angle with Hinterland at 40-1 (NRNB), but he was pulled out this morning. So I'll stick with these two.

Arkle: Here I've been savaged. The defections of Peddlers Cross and then Kid Cassidy this morning have hit me like a freight train. I'm licking my wounds with a valueless  Al Ferof punt, in the hope that Sprinter Sacre is, after all, a bridle horse and gets found out by Joe Tizzard's prairie galloping atop a lit-up Cue Card. I imagine I will succumb to some exacta action on course as well. I won't be making my fortune in the Arkle this year.

3-mile handicap Chase: I like Zarrafakt here. Won really well at Wincanton last month and went close the time before at Newbury. Ground and trip should all be fine and the rise in weights can be overcome. At 16-1 its a fair each-way shout in a tricky - as usual - race. Money is flying in for the Pipe plot horse, The Package, who went very close two years ago. I'm also a big fan of Our Mick from the McCain yard. Admirable attitude and all that. Again, money has come for this boy, so I'll keep my powder dry and try to find a double-figure price tomorrow.

Champion Hurdle: Backed at 25-1 ante-post, the price of Oscars Well has contracted regularly since January. In truth he can be no more than a place prospect on all known form this season, though I have convinced myself that he's run better in each race. But he will have his ideal going and a strong pace pretty much guaranteed by Overturn. I've backed Rock On Ruby at 14-1 each way. A horse I like and with that strong pace his stamina should come into play. Hurricane Fly will win if he's at his best. Zarkander is the one who may improve again.

Cross Country Chase: I won't be getting very heavily involved. Maybe a fun bet on last year's winner Sizing Australia.

David Nicholson Mares Hurdle: Quevega is my idea of a festival banker. But at these prices, not one I'll be backing. One of my 40TF horses, Shop DJ, has been running quite nicely this season and was given a winning prep by trainer Peter Fahey at Dundalk recently. I backed her last week at 33-1 each way, really as a place shot. I may go in again on 'w/o the fav' markets where she's 10-1 or better.

Pulteney Novice Chase: Nothing fancy here. I've backed Bless The Wings at 9-1 straight win. In an uncomplicated strategy, I think Alan King's horse has very strong course, going and distance form and should be up to winning this. Love the profile of Hunt Ball as a handicapper going right through the grades. But off 12 stone, this will be a tall order.

And as if that's not enough, my traditional Day 1 grab-a-grand-crazy-each-way-acca rests on: Galileos Choice, Our Mick, Rock On Ruby and Triolo D'Alene. If that little lot comes in, I'm trousering thirteen grand.

Hahahahaharrrr!!!!!! Here we go.


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