It was the best of weeks, it was the worst of weeks, as Charles Dickens once famously didn't write, and now it is time to recount the highs and lows of a phenomenal week of sport from the home of National Hunt racing, Cheltenham.
The anticipation leading up to the Cheltenham Festival grips me more fervently with every passing year, and this time around I was convinced that I'd found the right beasts to make the whole damn fiesta pay. Alas, history now relates that my optimism was misplaced, albeit not by very far at all.
Here's how I saw Cheltenham Festival 2011...
Tapes up on the Supreme, and the excitement was palpable. I'd considered Cue Card the best bet on form, but had invested elsewhere, namely in the shape of Gibb River (45/1 Betfair), Magen's Star (40/1 totesport) and a cheeky tenner on Al Ferof (16/1 Betfair).
Throughout the race, I was watching Magen's and Gibb go further and further backwards and then suddenly realised that Al Ferof was making good progress. He was brought with a well-timed run by Ruby Walsh to get there after the last and win going away in the style of a nice horse.
The first three and the fifth were French-bred's meaning I won't be trying to avoid them next year!
Cue Card ran another solid race in fourth and, whilst the annual theme of at least one horse improving past the baseline best form in the race was repeated, he was probably done by lack of fitness as much as anything else.
So almost more by luck than judgment, I had started on a winning note and, hindsight demonstrates, this might have been the ideal time to withdraw from the betting battle fields. But where's the fun in that?!
Next up the Arkle, and I'd backed Realt Dubh, then laid him back at a shorter price and re-invested my stakes equally between Finian's Rainbow and Medermit. On the day, I had a real feeling for Captain Chris as a rock solid each way horse. That he went unbacked was more down to me having most of the others at the top end of the market.
Medermit was never going and needs further (I'd had a cheeky tenner on him for the Ryanair after he won so well last time over 2m4f, but the trainer obviously knows better than me... ahem). Finian's might have won if he'd actually been put in a proper race before the day, but again the trainer knowns better than me... double ahem.
And Noble Prince might have won rewarding my ante-post ton at 25's, but his trainer did know better than me and bagged the new longer race a couple of days later! Bugger. Thus was the tone set for the week, of pretty good opinions not being rewarded.
Actually, I did have some bad opinions too, and the strong belief that Bensalem could not win the first handicap chase came back to haunt me as I backed Mrs Matt's favourite horse, Carole's Legacy nicely each way at 14/1. She finished second to Bensalem at 9/1 and, whilst the place money was trousered, both Carole (for she is Mrs Matt) and I were left with a sinking feeling...
The other point of note here was the fifth placed finish of King Fontaine, who I'd backed ante-post each way at 50/1. Obviously, my place terms were the first four only and it was another close but no cigar.
If a trend is starting to emerge, then the Champion Hurdle really nailed it to the mast. I had publicly stated my investments on Peddlers Cross, Oscar Whisky and Menorah to win a handsome sum on each, and it was the recurring
nightmare theme of the week that they finished 2nd, 3rd and 5th respectively.
Hurricane Fly stamped himself an exceptional - if fragile - horse and, should he make it back next year, will take some passing. There were lots of other taking performances in the hurdle ranks at Cheltenham this year, meaning 7/2 about a repeat is not remotely worth entertaining. It also means that the Champion Hurdle 2012 is already shaping to be a cracker!
Honourable mention in despatches goes to Peddlers Cross who ran the Fly all the way to the line in not ceding his unbeaten record without a real fight.
For me, it was the blueprint of how the week was shaping from a betting perspective. Another crossbar rattled, money invested, no money returned.
The Cross Country Chase came next and I had another robust opinion, and it was yet another case of metaphorical woodwork hit and literal wager lost, as Garde Champetre ran well but not well enough to beat all bar Sizing Australia, and register yet another second place for me.
Nina Carberry has been presenting this horse way too late in recent runs, as it's well known that after jogging around for three and a half miles the sprint the last three furlongs. At twelve years young and carrying topweight of 11-12, I didn't really think a catch-me-if-you-can setup was ideal. The horse had a damn fine attempt at it, but Sizing was gone and they weren't going to get him this day.
At least on this occasion, I'd had a good bet on the place and got some recompense back. Maljimar came to win the race and folded like an easy iron shirt in the final throes. He's a one man game plan for turning a large fortune into a small fortune...
The Mares' Hurdle and my nap of the week. Quevega is her name and, with the possible exception of Carlito Brigante in the Coral Cup, she was the easiest winner of the week, sauntering through the race before cantering by her rivals with the kind of disdain that implied a crack at the World Hurdle might not have been beyond her. Certainly, she saw out the 2m4f here with ludicrous ease - again - and recorded an official ten length verdict over one of the finds of the season, Sparky May.
Now Quevega might have been my nap of the week, but I don't bet horses at Cheltenham at odds on, and I was never going to get the 6/4 I wanted (unless a leg fell off her!), so she went unbacked by me. Instead, I plumped for Banjaxed Girl each way.
She didn't get her own way on the front end, and was beaten two out. That she went off 8/1, and I'd backed her at 20/1 was another sound spanking of the market on my part. Alas, that is only half the battle...
Closing out the opening day was the old Jewson, now known as the Centenary Novices Handicap Chase and, having written about Ferdy Murphy being one of the trainers to follow in handicap chases at the Festival, I backed Tullamore Dew. Tullamore ran a fine race to finish third, having clouted a couple on the way round (well he is a novice!), and of course, Divers off bottom weight, came with a fantastic late run to bag the pot for Ferdy and his fans at 10/1.
I hope some of you were smarter than me in helping yourself here.
And so ended my opening day - about even - after a pick up in the first and a couple of reasonable place collects as well. But it could have been so, so much better. I always consider Tuesday to be my best chance of the week and so the writing was probably on the wall by then...
Day Two, and it was a very early start for me as I was heading to the track for the first time since Istabraq pulled up in front of the stands on 12th March 2002. The reason for my lengthy absence was the fact that I'd had such a bad experience last time, when I couldn't get a drink, nor get a bet on, nor get to the loo, nor get anything to eat, nor even especially see the blooming racing!
Myself, Mrs Matt, and a few mates went Club class this week and, whilst obviously more expensive, it did at least facilitate all of those fair fundamentals that were so conspicuously hard to come by on my last venture there.
In fact, it was a great day out, and I certainly plan to head back next year.
The racing resumed where it had left off for me, with Chicago Grey ignored on my ticket. My bets were 5th, 6th and 7th so I don't have much to complain about here. I'm not sure I've ever backed the winner of this flipping novices race, and I'm not sure I ever will! Credit where it is due on this occasion, as sixteen set out and only one of them parted company with the rider (three were pulled up).
That's probably testament to both the firmness of the ground and the improvement in the riders. There don't seem to be so many Hooray Henry's and Henrietta's as there once were, so hooray (Henry/Henrietta) to that.
The novelty out of the way and it was time for the serious racing to start, with the Neptune Hurdle. I'd backed So Young immediately after his debut win at 14/1 and whilst I'd have liked to see him take on better horses before coming here, it's hard to be unhappy about getting 14/1 on a 2/1 chance - his returned SP.
As you'll have figured by now, beating the market does not in or of itself generate profit (unless you're one of those arbing types... I generally am not, and at Cheltenham I certainly am not: rightly or wrongly, it's pure sport for me here).
So Young ran very well and finished third, but was no match for either First Lieutenant or Rock On Ruby. Oscars Well might have bested the front two had he not made a howler at the last. But he did make a howler and that's why the obstacles are there.
Onwards and downwards, and it was time for the RSA Chase. I was against Time For Rupert, the very short priced favourite, who'd not run since mid-December and as it turned out did very well to finish a six length fifth.
The top of the order was contested - and contested fiercely - between Bostons Angel and Jessies Dream, with the former edging out the latter by an ever-shrinking margin (a neck was the official verdict).
As game as this performance was by the first two, it is hard to envisage either troubling the Gold Cup front rank next year, unless significant improvement occurs. That of course is a possibility, and it may be that Time For Rupert does become the pre-eminent novice when they step up to all age Championship class next season.
For now though, I'm happy to maintain that the Rupert form is over-rated. He has after all only won a Class 2 novice chase and, despite reports that he bled in the RSA, I'd be happy to oppose until he's beaten top class. Indeed, the bleeding incident makes me more, not less, likely to oppose him next time he runs in top grade.
I backed Wayward Prince, who ran a great race in third, beaten a length. He was closing but never got there, and my win only wager was yet another which went Wayward-ly west.
Next up was the main even of the day, The Queen Mother Champion Chase, and it was a cracker, with Big Zeb and Master Minded lining up against the very best of the speed chasers, including last season's Arkle winner, Sizing Europe.
I'd backed Sizing Europe with my biggest bet ever at the time to win the Champion Hurdle back in 2009, and he was sent off 2/1 favourite before going wrong in the race.
I didn't back him last year in the Arkle because of my previous experience and of course he won. And this year, I'd backed him for the Gold Cup, believing connections would step him up, not down, in trip. I was wrong about that.
But I did at least have Â£25 on him at 9/1 here, and a bigger bet on Big Zeb. Sizing Europe went off at 10/1 (doh) and beat Big Zeb.
At least I'd finally got some money back on him and I had something to cheer into the winner's enclosure. Nice.
In the Coral Cup, things were more straightforward. I backed Tiger O'Toole and Ballyhaunis both at much bigger odds than they were sent off at. Unfortunately, they were both stuffed out of sight! The winner, Carlito Brigante, sluiced up and may well emerge as a leading contender for RSA Chase honours next season, as he'll be routed to the bigger brutes then. He needs fast ground, and he could be a forgotten one if he gets beaten in so many slogs through the Irish mud earlier next season.
The last race is probably the only race of whole week where I felt mugged, despite having so many nearly bets. How anyone could have considered What A Charm is beyond me. Yes, I know Pricewise tipped him, but please, this was the job of all jobs - gamble landed.
Fair play to connections if they're not banned when the case is heard at Portman Square (because the case is going to Portman Square). But this is exactly the type of thing that has no place at the Festival. The horse had form figures of 757 and did indeed finish like an aeroplane to mug the gallant and extremely genuine top-weight, Kumbeshwar, in receipt of 18 pounds.
I had a tenner each way on Kumbeshwar, having backed him for more in the Triumph Hurdle. The neck verdict from something completely unbackable from my perspective was sickening. Obviously, lots of people disagree because the winner was no bigger than 12/1 in the morning and returned at 9/1. And please don't refer me to her flat form, because there are a million high class flat horses who do nothing over a longer trip and a line of timber! This was a good old-fashioned carve up, I wasn't in on it, and it hurt.
A losing day was made better by some good company, as I was spending the evening with Mrs Matt, and my mates Adie, Laura and their new addition, Archie (both a handsome and remarkably kind-natured baby - I never thought I'd say that!).
A very early start to head back to Smokey for St Paddy's day, and it got off on the wrong foot as I took us the wrong way down (should have been up, over and down) the motorway. As it transpired, there were a few more miles but no great difference mercifully.
I got to the Brown Bear, scene of a quieter day on Tuesday and an equally raucous one on Friday, just in time for the first race and a pint of the black stuff.
The first race had Noble Prince running in it, and after I'd lost my ante-post wager on him in the Arkle as he was re-routed here, I had a three figure bet again here. And the 9/2 was landed in good fashion, with AP McCoy doing the steering.
Presumably they'll be tilting at the Gold Cup next season, with the Ryanair as a back up plan.I can't see him being good enough for the big one, but he does love it round here, and clearly has improvement still to come.
Wishfull Thinking and Loosen My Load both traveled supremely well in the race, but couldn't quicken and scrap as well as the winner, who recorded a clear cut verdict over both, with respectable breaks between the remaining runners too.
The one I'm looking out for next time is Mr Thriller who ran well here in sixth, and I'm pretty sure has a decent race in him. He would be of serious interest in the handicap chases here next season if he doesn't burn too brightly between now and then.
The Pertemps turned into one of those races where you just looked at the telly and thought 'why the hell didn't I back that?!'. Buena Vista did exactly what he did last year. He went out front, unchallenged, set steady fractions, turned the screw on the home bend, and galloped resolutely to the line for a four length win.
I'd had another tasty wager on Queiros Bleu each way at 50's. I obviously got four places, and QB obviously finished fifth (beaten a neck by the fourth horse, Knockara Beau). I was gutted. So close again, but nothing doing.
The Ryanair was next, and it was a case of double deja vu, as Albertas Run followed Buena Vista's lead and retained his crown. He traveled ominously well, and clearly needs this better ground and the interim trip as he markedly improved on anything else he'd done this season.
Poquelin again disappointed in this ground/grade/race, and I'd be loathe to consider him next year.
My wager was each way and it was on the Kalahari King. He stayed on without ever looking like winning, despite a mere length separating him from Albertas. I got best odds on KK, and 7/1 was extremely generous for a horse with his Festival form.
Next was the World Hurdle, which I made a race to savour rather than play. I backed Berties Dream (6th) and Ashkazar (last!) for very small money, and got no more than a very small run for my money!
The business end of the race was extremely high class, with Big Buck's having to pull out all the stops to fend off the persistent and dogged challenge of Grands Crus, who showed me that he certainly is the key pretender for this crown now. I was very impressed with the second, and even more so with the winner who dug deep when needed and pulled out still more.
Big Buck's deserves his lofty handicap perch, and - barring the second - there isn't a staying hurdler to hold a candle to him currently. Next season will bring some of Bobs Worth, Oscars Well, Rock On Ruby and others who stick with the smaller obstacles to the party, which will make for a fascinating World Hurdle.
The Festival Plate was next, and the big hope of many, Quartz De Thaix, was sent off a 7/1 shot having been plunged on at 20's. His never nearer seventh was a fine run, but not one that rewarded the judges who saw this prospect from a long way off.
I backed Beautiful Sound (3rd), Matuhi (6th) and Gansey (12th) win only and lost a few quid on the race.
Thursday is a long hard day, and we still had another handicap between here and the beer at the end of the (St Patrick's) day. The Kim Muir was the race, an amateur riders' handicap chase. I missed the price of 7/1 on Junior in the morning, and couldn't then back him at 10/3. He hosed up and was given an excellent ride by Jamie Codd, when the chips were down!
He did indeed bring home the bacon, and as my friends cheered, I was left with egg on my face, and not a sausage in my wallet. Actually, I was just labouring (heavily) the breakfast pun there, as I did have some money left in the wallet. A small winning day when stumps were drawn.
In front on the day for a change!
A hangover greeted me on Friday, which was pretty bad news as a large number of my comrades were joining me for the Gold Cup festivities in the Brown Bear. No matter, for Cheltenham week calls for the hardy and the brave, and I am at least hardy if not necessarily terribly brave!
The Triumph Hurdle was the first of the day, and it's another race in which I've found it extremely tough to land a blow. Here was no different, and my ante-post wagers (Â£50 e/w Sam Winner at 12/1 and Â£20 win Third Intention at 20/1, as well as a couple of non-runners) had firmly beaten the market... again.
Zarkandar won and won well, having bagged the key trial, the Adonis Hurdle on his last (and first) hurdling start. He was chased home by Unaccompanied, on whom I'd had a decent bet on the day, and Grandouet, with Sam Winner back in fourth.
My ante-post ticket paid three places only, so I managed to back the second win only and fourth each way for a place in the first three. The ride on Sam Winner had to be seen to be believed. Here's the sportinglife.com race comment for him:
mid-division, lost place 3rd, pushed along next, soon behind, struggling 3 out, 20th and still plenty to do next, ridden and headway into 7th approaching last, ran on flat, just failed for 3rd, not reached leaders
20th at the second last?!!!! Worst ride of the week by a margin.
That did nothing to help my hangover, although the Friday Guinnesses would soon kick in, and my punting day was a story of onwards and downwards.
In the County Hurdle, I'd backed a couple - Hunterview and Premier Dane - at decent prices but they were well beaten off. I really felt for McCoy when what I considered to be another poor ride from Ruby Walsh was rewarded with the narrowest verdict of the week, his Final Approach besting Get Me Out Of Here by a nose.
It was the second year in a row that Get Me Out Of Here had found one too good, and Walsh's exaggerated waiting ride didn't deserve the spoils it eventually got (in my opinion at least). One of our number subsequently showed his win only 16/1 ticket on the second horse, and I felt a kindred spirit was in the room. (Actually, Rob P, the man in question is most certainly a kindred spirit and is one of the chaps who goes racing at the Breeders Cup with me each year).
The Albert Bartlett was the race that Bobs Worth had been re-routed to, and I'd taken the hint and had fifty quid at 3/1 on the blighter, having been impressed with the way he quickened and won in a race with the same name here last time. He was sent off much shorter, but the result was the same and I managed to claw back a modicum of my earlier errant ante-post outlays.
But that was to be a brief respite, as I made such a bollock of reading the Gold Cup that it's borderline embarrassing to recount it here. I'd mulled this race numerous times, and come up with the story of the race in my mind.
Denman, Neptune Collonges, Carruthers and Midnight Chase were going to engage in a ferocious speed duel for the lead, which would in turn unsettle the doubtful stayer who may not like the track, Long Run. This would set the path clear for the late headway of Imperial Commander to win and Tidal Bay to pick up more place prize money.
As it transpired I got precisely none of that right.
Midnight Chase got a soft lead, with Denman, Carruthers and Neptune adopting more restrained tactics. Imperial Commander was persistently bugged by China Rock, who took off at every fence half a stride in front of him thus just breaking his concentration. I am convinced that's why he jumped with so little of his usual fluency, not that he'd have won in any case.
Denman and Kauto Star and Long Run all stalked close to the pace, and they quickened away in taking fashion. In a three horse race between these chaps, it was no surprise that Long Run had the legs of the venerable veterans. Of course, it was already a surprise to me somewhat that this trio were fighting it out.
The Commander clouted four out very hard, burst a blood vessel and was pulled up soon after. I'd had two hundred quid on him and that had clearly slowed him up!
Long Run cleared away to win well, and he is most certainly the immediate future of the Gold Cup division. One point I want to make is that I am often quick to deride amateur riders for shocking performances on good horses. You will have noted in the above that I am comfortable doing likewise with professional pilots too.
In this case, I want to place on record my appreciation of the ride that Sam Waley-Cohen gave the winner. He was always in the right place, presented the horse well at every fence, and pressed the button at exactly the moment I would have if I'd been playing a computer game version of this (as close as I'll ever get to riding a winner anywhere, let alone round Chelters).
If it were Ruby, Barry or Tony, we'd have been saying, great ride. It was Sam, who normally gets to claim a few pounds allowance. Great ride Sam. Well done.
Tidal Bay was sixth without ever getting into it, and Midnight Chase was a gallant fifth having been headed, outpaced and stayed on. What A Friend nearly usurped Kauto Star for the final podium spot but his running on effort was ultimately only good enough for fourth.
My personal view is that this wasn't really so much a great Gold Cup as some journals have trumpeted, but rather it had the right horses - with the history of the race in their records already - in the right places.
I believe that, the winner aside, there wasn't really another horse in the race capable of winning a Gold Cup and that next year, very few of these will be re-opposing with any sort of chance. The W's, Wayward Prince and Wishfull Thinking, at 40's and 33's respectively made a splash of appeal for those brave enough to go in now.
I'm pretty sure though that next year's 1-2-3 will only contain the name of one runner who ran in this year's race.
The Foxhunters' came next, and my wagers were on three good priced animals, none of whom troubled the judge. Bizarrely, both Gavin and Jerry backed Zemsky, the 33/1 winner, who challenged the unlucky to fall Baby Run two out, and won with his head in his chest. That was tough luck on Will Twiston-Davies, and reflected the family form, as they had a Festival to forget.
In fact, fourth in the bumper was the best the yard could do from its eighteen Festival contenders, many at shortish prices.
But Will, Sam and dad Nigel, will be back, as sure as Arnie is a terrible actor!
A couple of races left and both are very tricky. The first, Martin Pipe Conditional Jockey's Handicap Hurdle, was one where I felt sure that Nicky Henderson would play a hand in the finish. I'd backed all three of his each way, and majored on Higgy's Boy, about whom I had a really good vibe.
Higgy ran no sort of race, bungling the first which did for him and 'plugging on' for twelfth (!), but First Point, one of the Henderson trio, did get third at 20/1 and about cover the outgoings on the race.
The winner, Sir Des Champs, made it three from three and may well prove to be better than a handicapper in due course. He was the 9/2 jolly and landed some very tidy bets in the process, none of them mine!
I was screaming for the end when the Grand Annual arrived, and my bet on Shoreacres was sunk a long way out. Gavin however, had reminded me of his brother Gary's strong fancy for Oiseau de Nuit, about which he'd commented on the blog here.
I steadfastly ignored them both, and listened to one of them cheer as the bird of night flew home unchallenged. At 40/1. Aaaargh! It kind of summed up my week in many ways. On so many occasions (though not too many on Friday), I'd been right in my opinion but not quite right enough.
The number of win bets that finished second, and place bets that finished one place outside the requisite number for a payout was a personal best (if that's not an oxymoron). It was also extremely frustrating. To be right and not get paid is harsh, and it is the law of the fixed odds racing jungle.
Despite all that, it was a truly excellent week of sport, and one which I will savour for many months to come. I've already booked my hotel for next year's Festival!
Now then, some things to clear up on the admin side. Firstly, the Fantasy Tipster Stable competition. Very well done to John Spencer, whose 1415.3 points was good enough for 30th position in the overall competition and bagged the spoils here. John, please email me your postal address and I'll send your DVD set across.
As a group, we Geegeez and Nag3er's (I think John is a reader of Gavin's as his team is called NagNagNag) managed to claim 3rd in the overall league of leagues, beating Betdaq and Bet365 and olbg, but just failing to pip Betfair's own forum league.
That was some fancy picking by all, so well done indeed. Just a few more points and we'd have been second.
Maybe next time.
My own personal run of bad luck continued into Saturday, as I had a fair bet on Khajaaly, the Geegeez Racing Club horse, to win and a big bet on him to place. Of course, you'll have worked out for yourself by now where he finished. Fourth.
Another solid race from our boy, and we'll give him a rest before having a crack at some turf races in the spring and summer.
That's all from me today. How did you get on at Cheltenham? Good time? Winners? More close but no cigar moments than me? (Surely not!). Leave a comment and let us all know.