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.
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.
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.
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.
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…!)
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.