A great post here by Horseracingchat delving into the history of the Mackeson Gold Cup. It prompted me mark the start of the Open meeting at Cheltenham meeting with an affectionate reminisce and a preview of my own.
The Paddy Power meeting is usually regarded as the first in the season’s crown jewel festivals, glittering alongside the Hennessy meeting, the King George at Kempton and the Spring Festivals at the top of the pile.
I first became aware of it in the days of Mackeson’s long and fruitful association with the Gold Cup until 1995. The race regularly produced high calibre winners who have won top honours elsewhere. The pick is probably Bradbury Star.
My anticipation of the fixture was ramped up around the turn of the century when, in company with a few of the lads, the Friday of the meeting became a diary date for an afternoon skiving off work, lounging in the Jugged Hare over a few London Prides and dashing round to the Ladbrokes next door, usually leaving insufficient time for Nev to get his complicated combination trifectas down before the tapes went up. “Scuse me mate, can you watch our pints”, would be the shout as we hurtled through the engraved swing door, only to see some amateur jockey flailing away like a lion tamer after misjudging the grind of the hill up to the finish and getting caught by something out of the pack. (Like in 2001 when Samuel Wilderspin buried my wedge when catching an almost stationary Guns N Roses in the last 50 yards, despite his young jockey’s fervent urgings. Yes, the pain is still palpable. Sometimes the losers are more memorable than the winners).
The card on the first day has seen an overhaul and that amateur jockey’s race is no longer the opener. The day is known in our circles as Latalomne Friday after Bacchy confidently pro-punted Brian Ellison’s horse in the 2m handicap chase in 2001 and smashed in to fancy prices for the Champion Chase at the same time. Latalomne coasted home that Friday and ran an absolute blinder in the Champion Chase. He came down at the infamous second last with the race at his mercy. TV images of jockey Vinnie Keane punching the turf in despair are only marginally more memorable than Bacchy’s haunted, ashen face next to me in the Grandstand. We coined the term feeling flatalomne in the aftermath, but those words don’t really do the moment justice.
The other decent race on Latalomne Friday is the 3m novice chase. Denman and Imperial Commander have won this en route to big things. But on too many occasions I have taken this race as too literal a barometer for the RSA at the Festival. Martin Pipe, who turned this fixture into a Pond House benefit for so many seasons, sent out Standin Obligation to dazzle back in 2006. In the boozer afterward, Bacchy and I were mulling the performance and attempting to be as rational as possible. But we were both clearly very impressed with what we had seen. Sinking pints during such discourse does not help logical thought. By the end of the afternoon we had called up William Hill and staked far too much on his RSA chances at far too short a price. He ran dreadfully in his next two races and didn’t even show his long face at the Festival. Poor.
I’m looking forward to seeing Fingal Bay in this year’s renewal, though I think he’s vulnerable. He only does enough and I’m not convinced about how much he does of the bridle. Dynaste could give him a real race and Nicholls looks to have found a useful French recruit in Unioniste. This will be a good race to watch.
In Latalomne’s race, I have Arctic Ben running from the 40 to follow project, which is just about washing its face so far. Arctic Ben has the right profile and likes a scrap, but ideally likes bottomless ground. Nonetheless I’ll have an interest in him here.
Dodging Bullets won here last month in a 4 year-old hurdle. Another 40 to follow horse, he comes here with a great chance, though he’ll be short enough. Tominator will be the big danger. A real moneyspinner for me on the flat this Summer, he took to hurdles with alacrity last month and in the care of Jonjo O’Neill, I can’t wait to see him convert his talent to the jumps.
The opening day of The Open meeting also sees the opening exchanges in the Tote Ten To Follow competition. I enter every year with high hopes. The lads have a side competition (almost inevitably) around this too, with slightly tweaked transfer rules. My chase-heavy, bonus-targeted stable this term is: Finian’s Rainbow (King George, Ryanair), Silviniaco Conti (King George, Gold Cup), Simonsig (Arkle, Jewson, er, Champion Hurdle?), Sprinter Sacre (Champion Chase), Big Buck’s (World Hurdle), Zarkander (International, Champion Hurdle), Hurricane Fly (Irish Champion Hurdle, Champion Hurdle), Flemenstar (Irish Hennessy, Ryanair, Gold Cup), Grand Crus (Paddy Power, Hennessy, Ryaniar), Bob’s Worth (Hennessy, Gold Cup). In the bag isn’t it?
I tend to have better results at the main event on Saturday than on the opening day. The Paddy Power is one of my most successful big handicaps. Cyfor Malta, Celestial Gold, Tranquil Sea and L’Antartique have been high points. Celestial Gold was a particularly sweet moment to savour back in 2004. It came at the start of a crazy tipster offer I’d put up at our girl's primary school promises auction. The offer was a simple £2 bet at my expense based on my selections every day for a month, starting with the Paddy Power Gold Cup. The lucky bidder got to keep any profit on selections. Unfortunately, the lucky bidder in question got carried lashed at the auction and bid all the way up to £140 for the service. Needless to say I didn’t win all his money back! But Celestial Gold at 12-1 was a cracking way to start and briefly allowed me to dream. I vividly remember dancing round the living room, flushed of face and jibbery, as he extended up the hill.
The 2012 renewal looks hot with a string of current and potential Grade 1 performers. Grand Crus will love the trip and has plenty of class, but is a skinny price and he’s got it all to do off 11st 6lb. Hunt Ball is fascinating perched on the same weight. Keiran Burke’s rags to riches charge last year was only found out in the Grade 1 Betfair Bowl and surely will have improved since. His exuberant racing style is only matched by his owner’s e enthusiasm. Expect to see the horse campaigned in every staying chase between now and Punchestown in April. There are a couple here with reputations, if not quite as tarnished as Newsnight’s, then at least lacking in lustre: Al Ferof off 11-8 has something to prove and Quantitaveasing has failed twice after a clear cut and promising success here a year ago.
One I like at double figure prices is another Henderson inmate, Nadiya De La Vega. Her win here last month reads well. Maybe she lacks for a little consistency but the pick of her form gives her a shout here and she’s one I liked in novice chases last season. This is a great race though, with so many live chances and a plot more complicated than Abu Qatada’s extradition case.
The supporting card is shaping up nicely too. If Problema Tic lines up in the three-mile chase earlier, I’ll be on him and the three mile handicap hurdle looks to be hot too.
Sunday’s highlight has traditionally been the Greatwood Hurdle, rechristened the Racing Post Hurdle this year. It’s history is studded with winners who have achieved high rank: Sizing Europe, Rooster Booster, Detroit City for starters. Hard to know if there’s a star in the field this season. But half an hour earlier, we see the seasonal debut of one who burns with searing intensity. Sprinter Sacre will be unbackably short in the Schloer Chase, but his reappearance is one to set the pulses racing.
A meeting with a rich history. And plenty to look forward to this weekend.