The triumphs and tragedies of the week thus far, dear reader, will seem like a series of minor speed bumps on the Cheltenham 2010 road when compared to the properly titanic clash between two full-on juggernauts of the winter game. A million words will have been written about this elsewhere (and a few of them might be more eloquent too 😉 ) but I still feel the urge to add my tuppence worth - as ever.
Kauto Star is the best three mile chaser I've ever seen. The manner in which he finesses through his races is jaw-dropping. He seems to have eradicated the formerly alarming tendency to - excuse me - twat one every now and again (usually at the last, giving odds-on punters palpitations).
He travels like a dream for three full miles. But then he relies on his class to supplant gas in the last knockings of a race. Last season, he beat a cardiac patient by thirteen lengths, with the patient protected from the possibility of a murmur by not adopting his usual prominent 'grind the blighters down' tactic.
This season, Kauto was breathtaking in the King George, over a flat three miles. The undulating nuanced New Course at Cheltenham is a far greater stamina test than the speed and grace of Kempton's perfect oval. And it is this which will be the fly in the ointment for Kauto fans.
If Kauto Star is pressurised more than a mile from the finish, he may come up dry in the last desperate exchanges. It is a vast 'if'.
Denman... dear old Denman... recently, dodgy Denman? Having gone seventeen races without a letter next to his name, Denman now has a U and an F in the form column. Is this a literal case of 'how are the mighty fallen'? Or is it just a dramatic blip in the Hollywood life story of racing's most belligerent bully?
Then there's the weather and the track watering policy. On good ground, Kauto is unlikely to be pushed beyond his stamina limitations. On softish sod, he might well get rumbled.
The forecast is for rain, possibly heavy rain, but not until Thursday night.Â If the rain doesn't come, the track will be dangerously fast. Although the course management would never dare put the word 'firm' in the going description, check the race times and draw your own conclusions...
So they can't afford to gamble, and the watering has begun. By Thursday night, when the rain may or may not arrive, the track will have been sprinkled to maintain the perennial (and occasionally correct) going recording of 'good to soft'. Heavy overnight rain would surely move it to soft, which would compromise Kauto's odds on status.
Denman however is no formality, even on soggy ground. His jumping, as mentioned, has been a bit hit and miss: and you can't afford to hit them or miss them in the Gold Cup.
But a repeat of his Newbury perseverance, or of his 2008 verdict here, would likely be enough on muddy ground.
As always in races of more than two horses that get billed as a match, there remains the possibility that one or both key protagonists fail to deliver on the day, and we look for an unlikely impostor to win out.
I can't have Cooldine. Let me say that clearly, right now. I don't think he's good enough, and I don't think he stays well enough (remember Florida Pearl in the same ownership?)
That single (offensively?) dismissive line brings me to Imperial Commander, who has some tip top form in the book. He has also had a remarkable nine of his sixteen races here, including four wins from his last five tries.
The last time he raced here, he won the Ryanair Chase a year ago. But, and it's a big butt (think Oprah in her depressed days), he's not won beyond the Ryanair distance of 2m5f. Fully half a mile further in the Gold Cup must be a huge concern.
All of this elimination brings us to Tricky Trickster. This horse stays. He seems to jump quite well too. Although he's a novice, he does have a chance here. But I'd be against him in the Grand National. If he has any hope of winning going to the last, he'll be 'bottomed' (have his energy reserves firmly tested), and there's only three weeks before the National. No. Chance. At Aintree.
One outsider worthy of mention is Carruthers. A fine jumper, and a decent stayer, he comes here in very good form and might just be each-way value at 50/1. Better yet, you can have 12/1 without the big two, and still get a quarter the odds 1-2-3. That looks a great wager.
Hopefully, Carruthers will finish third, a respectful distance behind the tussling titans. My preference is clear, and for Denman, but this is a sentimentalist rather than a scientific selection.
What of the rest of Friday's card?
Not since Scolardy won in 2002 have the Irish bagged this race, but this year they have three of the first four in the betting. Personally, I'm not in the Irish winner camp this season either. Indeed, I nailed my (light blue) colours to the Advisor mast back in late January, and you can read that here: Triumph Hurdle preview (it's at the bottom of that review - should have done them in separate posts with hindsight).
Of the Irish, Carlito Brigante might be the best. I can't see why Alaivan is preferred in the betting, given the convincing tumping CB gave A when they met earlier in the year.
I also wish Gavin the best of luck with his long range tickle, Westlin Winds, which has very good looking form now that Mille Chief is scratched from the race. (Alas for the horse, if he wins, everyone will say Mille Chief would have won, which is unkind at best and unfair at worst for Westlin).
Back to the handicap hurdles, and the County used to be the last race on the card. As a get out stakes, it's not great, so there's a small mercy from the fact that it's moved to earlier in the day (though that is somewhat mitigated by its replacement, the Grand Annual, being equally unfathomable!)
Being a speed test, over two miles, five year olds have more than held their own over the last decade, and I'll not look beyond the 5 and 6yo's.
Two that will be any price, and might run well in a wide open contest, are Secret Dancer and William Hogarth. The former has Grade 2 placed form here from earlier in the season, and as a lightly raced sort (just five hurdles runs) might be ahead of the handicapper here. 33/1 looks big (as short as 16's elsewhere as I write).
The latter is more speculative, but still interesting. He's a maiden after nine hurdles runs, but has finished second no less than five times (Gavin's kind of horse!!!) He was only just pipped by Secret Dancer behind Loosen My Load in that aforementioned Grade 2, and looks sure to run his race again. Although he'll probably find one (or two) too good, 10/1 a place is fair enough.
Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle
Next up is Albert's race. The form points to Tell Massini for the Brits, and Enterprise Park for the Irish.
The race has gone to form horses so far in its five renewals, and it might be profligate to look for a dark horse here.
Tell Massini has two wins here, including one over three miles last time in a Grade 2, and that's my idea of the winner.
See above. Come on Denman (and Kauto, and Carruthers). And safe home all.
Haha. It is truly one of sport's great 'sublime to ridiculous' moments that the Blue Riband of the equine sporting calendar is followed immediately by the frantic mime artistry of so many bad jockeys on so many bad horses.
Again, look to the best jocks and the safest jumping horses. And look for recent form and stamina.
Bob Hall has Festival form, is on a four-timer and has a decent pilot in Mr A J Berry. 33/1 is tempting.
Drybrook Bedouin won here in May over 3m2f, and 33's is too big again. He was put up as a strong fancy by one of the bookies' point-to-point men as well.
Baby Run was third in the race last year, and has one of the best riders in the race. He comes here in form, and must go close again. 8/1 is reasonable if not great value.
And finally, Roulez Cool has been grabbed from France, been running in points, and might just blitz the lot of 'em. But 3/1 reflects that distinct possibility and, in a race full of schoolboy errors, I'd sooner project 33/1 shots than 3/1 shots.
Martin Pipe Conditionals' Handicap Hurdle
Almost there, but it's a fiendishly difficult run in, with the apprentices replacing the amateurs, and sub-plots aplenty in the script. I've short-cutted this, as it makes no sense to write a lot on a subject about which I know very little.
Mullins is my man, and Hampshire Express, if he gets a run, is my horse. If not, look for improvement from Pipe's pair, Ashkazar and Buena Vista, in his dad's race.
Grand Annual (Handicap Chase)
If only this was the Arkle! Both Tataniano and French Opera carried my money for the two mile novice race, and both have been elected for this instead, which is curious given the eminent 'winnability' of the earlier contest. I definitely feel that the Opera would have been in the first three in the Arkle, but of course that's idle (and cheap) conjecture on my part.
To the Grand Annual, the last of the 26 Cheltenham Festival races of 2010, and let's get ourselves out of a hole, or up like never before.
First of all, French Opera has it all to do off 11-12, as every one of the last ten winners carried at least a stone less than that. (Another reason why I believe Henderson got it wrong in plumping for this race.)
A glimpse of recent form and a relative lack of exposure are two key attributes here, as in many of the handicaps where trainers are attempting to hide their charges' respective lights under a battery of bushels.
By contrast, Tataniano has had a very public preamble to this race and, although carrying a couple of pounds more than ideal, he should go close if his jumping stands up. Or if he stands up with his jumping. Whatever. You get my drift!
A couple that fit the 'low key prep' bill lower down, however, are Matuhi and Safari Journey. And I really like the latter.
Philip Hobbs came into the Festival in brilliant form, and underlined that in the very first race, when he rolled over Dunguib with his 12/1 chance Menorah.
And I reckon he has a great chance of topping and tailing the meeting with victory here. Beaten just four lengths behind French Opera here at Chelters last time on soft ground, the faster surface will definitely play to his strengths and, if you give the Opera a chance, then you have to give this guy a chance too, at 2.5 times the price!
Matuhi is any price, because he might well not get in (he needs twelve to come out as I write). If he does make the cut, he might be very interesting. He's a novice, as four of the last ten winners were, and has just the one win to his name, when he beat The Package (2nd and just failed to get up in the William Hill Trophy on Tuesday).
Since then, he's run two nice third places behind decent sorts. He does make mistakes which, while acceptable from a lightly raced novice such as himself, would prove costly here. But, at the price and granted a run, I'd take a small chance on him in this.
... And then the bar beckons...
Wherever you finish financially, be your holiday plans changing to Las Vegas or Lowestoft, I hope you've had a wonderful week enjoying the showcase that is the Cheltenham Festival. Racing For Change and others might be scratching their collective head on the subject of how to improve the flat game's appeal.
But one thing has been firmly underlined, emboldened and otherwise typographically emphasised this week: the National Hunt season is a sporting treasure, and the Cheltenham Festival is a finale that any sport in the world would be proud to call theirs.
We can be proud to call it ours.