Although favourite backers will be extremely happy with the way things have gone so far, for those of us who dig a little deeper for our selections, it's been an extremely disappointing Cheltenham harvest.
But where there's racing light, there's punting hope, and today brings us not just the pinnacle of the sport in the Gold Cup, but also seven opportunities to resuscitate our Festival fortune. Well, that's how I start day four in any case!
We kick off with the Triumph Hurdle, a race in which they go 6/1 the field. That, my friends, will be the recurring theme of the afternoon, as if we didn't already know how hard it is to find Festival winners...
1.30 Cheltenham - Triumph Hurdle
Very little consensus on the race this year, which makes a change. The race that is normally most instructive as a trial is the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton. Indeed the form was franked most robustly on Wednesday when Une Artiste - fourth in the Kempton race - won the Fred Winter.
Although she'd have been glugging the Hendo juice, which has seen the yard grab six winners so far this week, the race still looks worth taking note of. With that in mind, the 1-2 from there, Baby Mix and Sadler's Risk, must be of interest.
Baby Mix also has an impressive Cheltenham win to his name... and an inexplicably poor defeat at the same course. He could well win if running to form, but the more reliable - and progressive - horse is probably the one that came closest to him that last day.
Sadler's Risk is trained by Philip Hobbs, a man who has trained two winners of this race in the last eight years. Also on two winners in that time are Alan King, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson.
King saddles a strong team with Balder Succes and Grumeti, and they're both well fancied. It's difficult to pick between them, which implies that they'll either both go close, or both be nowhere. I respect the yard - and like Alan King too - but I'm betting elsewhere here.
Pearl Swan represents last season's winning stable, that of Paul Nicholls, as does lively outsider, Dodging Bullets. These two are closely linked on form with Grumeti.
Form judges believe that Dodging Bullets can reverse form with Grumeti, and stable judges think that Pearl Swan is better than Dodging Bullets.
Hendo is not represented here.
For me, it's between Pearl Swan and Sadler's Risk, with slight preference for the latter.
One who might run well at a big price, is Countrywide Flame. He's tough, goes on all ground, and ultra-consistent. Sure, he's not open to improvement but some will under-perform and he likely won't, meaning he might make the frame.
Best of the Irish could well be Hisaabaat and, if they're better than ours, I'd give him a chance.
2.05 Cheltenham - County Hurdle
Five and six year olds are the percentage call in recent times, having won seven of the last eight.
Again, recent form is important, though not necessarily last time out victories. All of the last ten winners had been in the first four in one of their previous two starts, but only four had prevailed in one of those two runs.
Only one horse has won from a rating above 144 in the last decade.
Amazingly, eight of the last nine renewals have been won by either Paul Nicholls or an Irish trainer.
The one that stands out like a sore thumb for me is Jessie Harrington's Citizenship. His win last time in the super-competitive Boylesports Hurdle was cosy, and off second bottom weight here, with a preference for the yielding ground, he looks almost certain to run his race. Robbie Power is the man to do the steering, and I'm hopeful rather than confident.
Dangers abound, including Gordon Elliott's Plan A, who was sixth in that Leopardstown race won by Citizenship, and was never nearer than at the finish.
Having been fourth in the Fred Winter last term, and another who goes on any ground, he could give us a run at 20/1 odds.
And finally Ifyouletmefinish is a horse who has progressed hugely and may not be done yet. His dead heat with Urbain De Sivola may get a franking in the Triumph Hurdle, and he's got a nice low weight in a race where fit horses (having run a number of times) do well.
My three off the tee are those then: Citizenship, Plan A, and Ifyouletmefinish.
2.40 Cheltenham - Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle
This is all about Boston Bob. If he's as good as they think he is, he'll probably win. But... he's 6/4 in a race with a lot of unexposed horses.
I think he might well win, especially on the softer ground. But I'm going to bet elsewhere and each way.
As one shrewd reader commented, the race which Grand Vision won last time at Haydock has worked out rather well. Specifically, Cape Tribulation, Alfie Sherrin and Sunnyhillboy - all winners this week at the Festival - were behind him that day, as was Houblon Des Obeaux who was placed at Cheltenham.
He's 33/1 and on the huge upgrade. It's a punt for sure, but 33/1 for a penny or two each way, is a better value play to my eye, albeit one less likely to pay off.
Brindisi Breeze also won that day at Haydock, and has the highest Topspeed and second highest Racing Post Ratings. He's progressive too, and 11/1 for your money. Not for me, but could have a hand in the finish.
Interestingly, six of the seven winners had previous Cheltenham experience. The one I like with that in mind is Sea Of Thunder, who was running a massive race and winning on the bridle at the December meeting here, before taking a crashing fall.
He was well beaten behind Boston Bob last time, but that was on very heavy ground, and he's worth another chance on better ground.
I feel like this is a much deeper race than the betting implies, and I'll side speculatively with Sea Of Thunder at a working man's price. Let's see if the second Bob of the week can win...
3.20 Cheltenham - Gold Cup
The main event. And yet I can't help but feel that there's something weak about the race this year. No offence to the 'big two', but they seem beatable.
Kauto Star is TWELVE, and the last of his age group to win was What A Myth in 1969. Plus, Kauto has had a recent injury scare and presumably missed a beat of work as a consequence. Plus, he is a doubtful stayer - almost caught at Kempton last time over a quarter mile less and on a flatter track.
So no, as much as I love the horse, my money is elsewhere. If I'm wrong, sweet sporting joy. But no return on investment.
Long Run. The Champ. The ultimate Corinthian connections. Or so they'd have us believe. Waley-Cohen Jr and his untruths in the stewards room and slightly incongruent travel arrangements to country sports events is not to my tastes.
Parking my personal feelings, the horse is head and shoulders the most likely winner, and may well win. If he jumps better than he has so far this season, he will win. But that's a reasonable sized 'if', and - despite the suggestion of the ratings - he might not have it all its own way.
If this turns into a race for the grinders, then perhaps Burton Port - who gave him such a fright under a tender Geraghty ride last time - or Synchronised, multi-regional National winner and surprise Lexus Chase winner last time out, can provide the headlines.
Burton Port, if he runs to the level of last time... and a few more pounds... can give the champ a real race.
Synchronised? Well, he has very little common form with Long Run. In fact, he's only ever run against one horse in the race - Knockara Beau - who he beat out of sight when third in a fixed brush hurdle last year. Hmm, hardly instructive.
So what are we to make of him? There seemed to be no fluke about his runaway success in the Grade 1 Lexus Chase, and he has an impressive win ratio of eight from eighteen. Moreover, he stays forever, carries weight just fine and the race may be run to suit.
What I mean by that is there is pace aplenty here. The Giant Bolster will want to go on. So will Midnight Chase. And Carruthers. And possibly King Kauto himself.
I see Midnight Chase probably faring best of these, and TGB faltering first. Carruthers will probably plug on without ever threatening to be good enough.
Long Run will stalk if he jumps well enough. Synchronised and Burton Port may be outpaced early, and that will test their jumping. But I see both running on robustly. Can they catch Long Run? Probably not. But that's why they're four and five times the price.
Of the others, Quel Esprit doesn't look good enough and is a dodgy jumper; ditto China Rock and The Midnight Club.
What A Friend is another who ought to stay on, and he has some decent finishes here to his name, as well as a touch of class. I'd not be too worried about his run behind Burton Port (and Long Run) in the Denman Chase, as this will have been the plan for him.
Diamond Harry has had a wind operation since his last run and, if that stops him from running out of gas half a mile out, he would be interesting. But it's a leap of faith I'm unprepared to take.
Which leaves Weird Al. He's been off for four months. But that's actually a positive for this chap. Indeed, his record after 60 or more days off is four wins from five starts.
Alas, the one non-win was a 'pulled up' in last year's Gold Cup, where he folded tamely. And, aside from a novices hurdle where he outclassed his rivals, he's not won in a field bigger than seven. He won't outclass these, and the field size is a worry.
All of which thinking aloud leads me here:
Long Run will probably win and, whilst I can't boo him in because he's a very good horse, I openly dislike connections. I don't expect readers to share my view, but I cannot hide it in a preview as expansive as this one. I also cannot bring myself to back him, which means I won't have a 'proper' bet in the race. Just a few each way shillings.
And they will be placed on Synchronised, the unknown in the context of this race. McCoy steers, Jonjo trains, McManus owns.
Let's hope it's a great race, and Kauto - and all the rest - enjoy it and fare healthily.
4.00 Cheltenham - Foxhunters Chase
The amateur gold cup, as it's referred to, is a decent race, which is often won by an up and coming pointer.
We need to focus on last time out winners, aged ten or younger, and with a previous win under rules (including in a hunter chase).
I really like - as much as one can 'really like' a horse in a race like this - Salsify. I put that up as my charity bet last week, I've had a reasonable bet, and I'm very hopeful.
Although Salsify tends to be held up, which means he'll need some luck in running, he jumps brilliantly and won both of the major Irish trials.
First, he took in the Irish Champion Hunters Chase - holding on gamely from the vastly more experienced Newbay Prop. Then he won the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters Chase last time out, from Saddlers Storm and On The Fringe.
Of the UK fancied runners, Chapoturgeon has been favourite for a long time but is a seriously doubtful stayer here. His last time out win, over 2m6f, represented a career furthest. And he'll have another half mile to travel here on a more punishing track. Difficult to see him lasting out, though he unquestionably retains a lot of his talent (2009 Festival Novices' Chase winner).
Cloudy Lane, also a Festival winner (2007 Kim Muir), is getting on now and looks too old at twelve.
On The Fringe needs to reverse form with Salsify, which is possible, but the latter has much more scope for improvement, being just seven years old.
My Flora is a danger. A prolific winner, on the upgrade, and from the stable of 2009 winner, Mrs E Crow (Cappa Bleu).
It's a typical big field with most not having much chance, and I am happy to side with Salsify, who I believe could become a decent Graded chaser in time.
4.40 Cheltenham - Martin Pipe Conditionals' Handicap Hurdle
Not much data to go on here and, in truth, if we still need a 'get out of jail' winner, we're likely in trouble.
All three winners were carrying 11-02 or more, and were aged five or six.
In fact, the first three home in all three races to date carried eleven stone or more. Whilst focusing on weight only knocks out the bottom four, adding age into the mix brings us down to eleven runners.
And it looks as though good form at the track is a major positive, with two winners and a runner up matching that sensible criterion.
The one with the best track form at a massive price is Ski Sunday. Second in the Fred Winter in 2009, ninth (but beaten less than five lengths) in the County Hurdle last year, this chap gets in here off eleven stone dead, and whilst he's a seven year old, he's interesting.
At the top of the weights, I'msingingtheblues hasn't run over hurdles for a long time - since 2008 - he has top class form in chases and plenty of good track form. He runs for David Pipe with a decent conditional booked, in the bid to win his dad's race.
And there's very little else with course form, excepting Charlie Longsdon's Grandad's Horse, who was seventh here behind Fingal Bay in a much hotter race, and has been off since. Before that, he'd won five of seven starts, finishing second the other two times. Not quite Hunt Ball territory but not far off!
I'm going to back a couple here with course form, and one without. Firstly, I'm taking Ski Sunday and Grandad's Horse at monster prices - the latter I notice has been backed into 18/1 best price. The former is a 40/1 best price.
Then I'm going to add in two Irish raiders, from the same owner as last year's winner, Sir Des Champs - Toner d'Oudairies. He was Gordon Elliott's best chance of the meeting in the Coral Cup and yet for some reason he ends up here.
Toner has been running well, and mainly under the radar, in defeat and he's ready for today at around 8/1. Gigginstown's other runner, Make A Track, ran fifth behind Citizenship in what could be a race to follow. He's available at 14's.
So yes, four against the field here! Ski Sunday, Grandad's Horse, Toner d'Oudairies and Make A Track.
5.15 Cheltenham - Grand Annual Handicap Chase
And we close what is a very tough week of punting with a very, very tough handicap chase. It's run in honour of Hendo's pa, and he has only once failed to make the frame.
With this race being a speed test, it is little wonder that older horses have a poor record. Tiger Cry, as a 10yo in 2008, was the only double digit aged horse to win in the last dozen years, and only the third such horse to win since the race's inception in 1980.
Weight is a key factor here again, with no winner shouldering more than 10-13 since Edredon Bleu back in 1998. (He went on to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase the following year, highlighting the type of class required to prevail from the top of the handicap in this contest!)
This race, along with the cross country chase, has proven the best for the Irish, with Space Trucker, Fadoudal Du Cochet, Fota Island and Tiger Cry all winning in the last twelve runnings. It may be pertinent that three of these had their preparatory race over the smaller obstacles.
From the home defence, all of the last eleven British winners had already won at Chelters. Course form a pre-requisite then.
Moreover, to further accentuate the theme of protecting handicap marks, eleven of the last twelve winners had won just once or not at all that season.
A perfect trends fit for the Irish is Idarah, running off a lovely mark, and with Nina Carberry booked. Eight runs this season have yielded just the one win, last time out in a handicap hurdle.
This chap had previously won a Grade A handicap chase, beating some extremely reputable sorts. His punting connections have a fit and ready to go runner here.
At the business end of the market, Astracad ran second in a Grade 2 novices chase here earlier in the season, and followed that up with a win in a tough all aged handicap chase. He's closely weighted with last year's winner Oiseau de Nuit on that form, and goes well fresh (has been off since that December run).
It's a really difficult finale, and I hope you've found winners before this point. If not, Astracad or Idarah might just save the day.
And that's it. Another superb week of sport will have come to an end by 5.30pm this evening, and we'll already be looking forward to next year's Festival.
Some will be doing that from the flush comfort of a full wallet. Others will be mightily relieved that they have 361 days to recharge the stack.
I do hope this week has been kind to you, that the sport has been compelling for you, and that you - like me - consider yourself lucky to be passionate about something as spectacular, colourful and challenging as the Cheltenham Festival. There's no other pageant quite like it anywhere in the world.
Good luck for Day Four!
p.s. what's your punting story so far? Bagged a bunch of favourites and made a sackful? Or followed the less travelled route, and down on your luck? Leave a comment and let us know. 🙂