It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us...
- A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
The Cheltenham Festival. The very best of times. Betting on it. Can be the worst of times. Wisdom. Foolishness. Belief. Incredulity. Light and Darkness. All of them in four days of hope and despair, magic and mayhem.
It started with the roar. The release of 362 days (leap year!) of waiting in a single throaty extended expulsion of air, compelling our chosen beasts to render us clairvoyant and wealthy in equal measure.
Alas, it doesn't always work out that way. Indeed, it doesn't often work out that way.
But the sport never deviates from the path of compulsion or class.
I was lucky enough to be there for Tuesday and Wednesday.
I had no strong views in the opening Supreme, and enjoyed what was an excellent race, though I was disappointed at how Vulcanite emptied out - as though something went awry - after travelling extremely well into contention.
Cinders and Ashes, as Mr McCain had insisted, is indeed a better horse on fast ground. And he held on well, despite battering the last hurdle, from the well-bet Darlan. This is probably a race worth following, as it seemed to have real strength in depth.
Last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle produced a profit of 11.72 points from blindly backing its runners subsequently, and I'd speculate that this season's will do, too.
Then it was time for the Arkle, and the first odds on favourite of the week...
This, again, was among the fictions of Coketown. Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn't each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don't you go and do it?
- Hard Times, Charles Dickens
Yes, I was against Sprinter Sacre. Many told me how easily he would win, and I dared to wander elsewhere in search of value. My many contentions about the merit of the Sprinter's form were misguided or at least less than perfectly formed.
In truth, I'd always bet against a horse who has previously shown fragility at the close of his races. But the combination of surgical intervention (wind operation) and the 'magic feed' at Seven Barrows (aka Hendo juice) saw this chap fair bound away.
He jumped brilliantly, was always moving best, and bolted in, barely coming off the bridle. Timeform make him their best novice chaser ever, I believe, and that is a measure of the horse.
In a two mile chasing division crying out for a new champion, he is the archetypal heir apparent. Cue Card fared next best. Well, in truth, fresh air and respectful distance was second, with Cue Card the next horse home.
Al Ferof stopped tamely after stepping on the tenth. He was airborne maybe seven or eight metres from the fence, and extremely clever to retain his upright posture, but it was a shuddering error and Al hope ended there for Ferof-fanciers, such as myself.
In truth, he wouldn't have beaten the winner, and may not have beaten the second. I'd expect both Cue Card and Al Ferof to be looking at the Ryanair next season, rather than the Champion Chase.
I'd had a small bet on Cue Card, courtesy of Paddy Power's exceptional 'money back if SS wins' offer, and my stakes were returned. This was the first of many second placed finishes of the week, though most failed to extend me the courtesy of a refund.
The next of those multiple silver medals of the week came in the very next race, the JLT Festival Chase. Fruity O'Rooney ran a gallant race, and gave best only deep up the hill to the handicap blot/plot Alfie Sherrin.
Alfie had been given to me (and all other attendees at the London Racing Club Cheltenham Festival Preview night) by none other than Phil Smith, senior handicapper at the BHA. I, of course, determined that he wouldn't get up the hill.
That was the second time in two races I'd made that mistake. (In truth, I didn't think Cinders And Ashes would either! Have they flattened out the last part of the course?!)
Onwards and downwards: such was my day one trajectory. The Champion Hurdle, and I was certain of a payday here. I had Binocular each way at 16/1, and Hurricane Fly in a double with Sizing Europe at 7/2.
But it was not to be. Overturn ran his normal brilliant race, and stuck on for second. But in the finish he was no match for Rock On Ruby, a horse on the upgrade, but who had not been seen for some time.
The previous two Champion Hurdlers could manage only third and fourth. Whether they were undone by poor tactical riding, or simply weren't good enough, is a matter for conjecture. My own view is that the horses at the front had first run, and that Hurricane was ridden out of his ground (as is often the case with Ruby Walsh, especially at Cheltenham), and Binocular's idea of following the Fly showed a lack of ingenuity from the multiple-times champion jockey.
In short, I don't believe that the first two would have beaten the next two if the pilots had ridden their best races. Others will have a different view.
Four races down, and my strong-looking wagering portfolio for the first day was in tatters.
But injustice breeds injustice; the fighting with shadows and being defeated by them necessitates the setting up of substances to combat.
- Bleak House, Charles Dickens
No matter. For in the next race I had my bet of the week. Yes, my bet of the week was in the Cross Country Chase. And it went by the name of Scotsirish.
I have no desire to dwell on what history relates elsewhere, except to say this. Two accomplished veteran soldiers of banks races will not race, or breathe, again. The ground must be no firmer than good on this course, with its steep drops and multi-disciplinary jumping tests, and this day - the race was won in a time 12.3 seconds FASTER than standard - it was clearly like tarmac. Accidents happen, but the misinformation from the official going report - on both courses, all week - cannot be allowed to continue.
Simon Claisse, and Jockey Club Racecourses, must put financial gain second to horse (and rider) welfare. And they must commit to doing it now, in my opinion. The ongoing joke about the 'official' going at Cheltenham is anachronistic and, frankly, embarrassing. That horses should expire as a probable consequence makes it grotesque.
It was with a sombre heart that we looked to the Mares' Hurdle, and the mighty Quevega, to dispel the horrors of the previous contest, and to finally put the Irish on the scoresheet. The mighty mare did not disappoint.
Off a leisurely gallop, she quickened best to settle things in a matter of strides. She has won the last four Mares' Hurdles by an aggregate of 32.5 lengths, and is clearly the best of the fairer sex at this trip over hurdles. She will presumably head to Punchestown now where she'll be bidding for a World Series Hurdle hat-trick there. Wonder mare.
It was a bunch for the places, and I managed to nick the exacta as Kentford Grey Lady enhanced Emma Lavelle's excellent Festival record by snatching second.
Alasi, my each way bet, of course finished fourth. Beaten two necks from second.
One more, no more, was the racing order of the day. And that was the Novices' Handicap Chase. I had a cheeky wager on the miraculous Hunt Ball, who was sent off the 13/2 favourite, and who won in imperious fashion.
This fairy tale horse has now won seven of his last eight races, and been elevated from a mark of 69 to something close to 155 when the handicapper reveals his latest rise. If he can continue his improvement, he is an interesting contender for Grade 1 honours, a statement that would have been preposterous less than three months ago. Perhaps Aintree will tell.
Battle Group also ran a blinder in finishing fourth, as the plot horse I did spot in the race!
And then it was time to head for the bar...
"I don't quite recollect how many tumblers of whiskey toddy each man drank after supper; but this I know, that about one o'clock in the morning, the baillie's grown-up son became insensible while attempting the first verse of 'Willie brewed a peck o' maut'; and he having been, for half an hour before, the only other man visible above the mahogany, it occurred to my uncle that it was almost time to think about going."
- The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
Day Two was greeted with red eyes and bleary mind, but the notion of a day on Cleeve Hill is enough to cleanse the most toxic of systems, and sights were set firmly on the afternoon's action as we pursed and quaffed the first of many at the Kings Arms in deepest Prestbury Village.
The National Hunt Chase is where it starts on Wednesday, and this is a race I'm growing to detest. You see, it's one of those affairs that screams at me to back a horse at a price. And when I back a horse at a price, I usually back two, sometimes three. All at prices.
So for it to be won for the second year in a row by the 5/1 favourite is extremely frustrating. That the winner, Teaforthree, was mentioned by Gavin as his bet of the week in a text message that morning, and I ignored him, added financial insult to obstinate injury.
Harry, who is a Viking, was second. And I scraped through the placepot with Four Commanders back in third. Let's move on.
It was the Neptune next, and another race where I believed the favourite, Simonsig, may not get up the hill. Yet again, my contention was rendered ridiculous by Henderson's highly promising and vastly improving six year old, who fair hacked up.
The right horses finished in the right places behind, to give the form a most solid look, and Simonsig is the pick of these by a margin. He might become a Champion Hurdle prospect next season, depending on how connections see it, and follow in the hoofprints of last season's Neptune second, Rock On Ruby.
Then came the RSA and my second best bet of the week, Bobs Worth. Grands Crus was the horse I felt wouldn't come up the hill this time, and he was sent off at 6/5 and favourite.
At last, I got one right. And as I'd backed him at 6/1, this meant I wouldn't be losing on Day Two at least. He jumped well, travelled better than I expected, and outstayed First Lieutenant in the finish, the pair pulling eleven lengths clear of Call The Police, with Grands Crus back in fourth.
Whilst the RSA Chase can ruin a good horse, this felt like it was a less punishing renewal than normal (shorter field, better ground) and I'd think Bobs Worth will be challenging in staying chases, including the Gold Cup, next year. Don't expect him to win the King George though!
Two for Hendo on the day, and three overall, put him firmly in command of the trainers' title approaching the half way juncture. But this was just a hint of what was to come...
"Please, Sir, I want some more."
- Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
The Champion Chase saw Hendo notch the hat-trick on the day, in consecutive races, as Finian's Rainbow - yes, I believed he was a weak finisher - outsprinted the reigning champ, Sizing Europe, up the hill.
But that only tells the tip of the tale.
This was the contest which left poor Gallic snapper, Jean-Charles Briens, bleeding and battered after the recalcitrant Wishfull Thinking decided the right approach to chasing was the Fosbury Flop. In truth, it was probably more of a Western Roll, but in either case, he squirted sideways, underneath the double rail and into the spectators and cameramen there assembled.
With a circuit to go, it was immediately clear that the human was hurt, and it was soon after clear that both horse and jockey - Richard Johnson - were ok.
The final fence was dolled off, firstly across the entire length of the fence, and ultimately on just one side.
The jolly flagman was placed in position some fifty metres from the fence, and waved feverishly at the oncoming riders of Finian's and Sizing to bypass the last. Both jocks were in the drive position, head down and animated, and it seemed they didn't see the flagman until quite late.
Consequently, their swerve around the last fence was exaggerated, which would have inconvenienced the innermost horse - Sizing - more than the wider of the two.
Nevertheless, it is my opinion that the result would not have altered if they'd run straight and jumped the last.
It is also my opinion that the rules were applied well - with the possible exception of the movement of the arrows to one side of the fence - and that the on course team handled things correctly.
Alistair Down's pompous prodding of the ground staff on Channel 4 afterwards did little for the sport's reputation, and still less for his own waning media star. When will racing stop this incessant addiction with self-harming?!
Quite simply, you cannot jump part of a fence. A fence is either in play, or it is not. In this case, with an injured person on the landing side, it was not. Cut and dried.
Kauto Stone was obviously a massive disappointment in the race, failing to get beyond the very first fence.
"A man can well afford to be as bold as brass, my good fellow, when he gets gold in exchange!"
- Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens
If any man could afford to be as bold as brass just now, it was Nicky Henderson. The Hendo juice was in full flow, as Une Artiste registered a scarcely plausible four-timer on the day in the Fred Winter Hurdle, and at fat, juicy odds of 40/1!
That this horse was fourth in the number one trial for the Triumph Hurdle, the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton, meant she probably shouldn't have been anywhere near these odds. Especially considering the stable form. Hindsight is 20/20...
And then came the bumper. Willie Mullins won it. For a change. (Actually, it was the first time since 2008 he'd won it).
The shocker was that a horse who had been close to ante-post favourite all winter, should win at... 16/1!
Gettable winners at 40/1 and 16/1 had slipped by, and I was frustrated, despite coming out slightly in front on the day, courtesy of Bobs Worth.
It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.
- A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
Being in Cheltenham for the Festival is a social event with few peers, and - in a group of kindred spirits - there are those who are up and those who are down. But all were good humoured and laughing, as we enjoyed swapping 'war stories' on Wednesday night back in Prestbury Village, before our northern contingent (JR, Mr Wass, Primarolo senior, and friends) headed out onto the tarmac for the marathon trek back home.
For me, it was an early start Thursday morning to head back to Hackers and Geegeez Towers, for a spot of live blogging.
Despite the tardiness of London Transport (a rarity these days, I'm happy to relate), I got home about ten minutes before the first race and got straight to it.
"Ride on! Rough-shod if need be, smooth-shod if that will do, but ride on! Ride on over all obstacles, and win the race!"
- David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
The first race was all about Sir Des Champs for me, and I was against Peddlers Cross. And I was right, for only the second time all week.
Getting 5/1 about the 3/1 winner on the morning of the race represented a hefty clouting of the market too, and surely this set me up for the day.
Erm, no. It was to be the last hoorah of my Thursday, as I lived every scratch of my head and furrow of my brow in embarrassing public show.
First up, Gavin's brother Gary was very sweet on Cape Tribulation, which he'd nominated earlier at 33/1. 33/1! I of course ignored him - and Gavin, who was in my lounge with me, cheering the thing on! - and paid the price.
I didn't even include it in my placepot perm, which bit the dust then and there. Bollocks. Or even ruder words to that effect.
Some of the craftiest scoundrels that ever walked this earth . . . will gravely jot down in diaries the events of every day, and keep a regular debtor and creditor account with heaven, which shall always show a floating balance in their own favour.
- Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens
To make matters worse, Thursday was a Favourite-Fest. After the Coral Cup, Riverside Theatre ran a remarkable race to give Hendo his sixth winner of the meeting as 7/2 jolly; Big Buck's dished up yet again - in what was surely his best performance in the string of sixteen unbeaten; and, then, the unthinkable...
In the two toughest races of the week, The Kim Muir and the Byrne Group Plate, both favourites obliged!
First Salut Flo, this year's well executed Pipe plot, got out in front and stayed out in front, to win by six lengths as the 9/2 market leader. Then, Sunnyhillboy thundered up the run-in to bag the last at 13/2 and favourite.
For many, this will have been a great day of ticket-cashing. For me, it was an afternoon of consternation and over-complication. Still, there was always Friday...
From the death of each day's hope another hope sprung up to live to-morrow.
- The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens
Ah, the last day of Cheltenham. And, truth be known, I was feeling it and counting the races off. But Cheltenham is about 27 races across four days, not twenty races across three days.
Though confidence was low, this was to be my day at the Festival. You can read my Friday post here, but suffice it to say that mentions for Countrywide Flame and Hisaabaat (WON 33/1, 2nd 20/1) in the Triumph Hurdle; Plan A (4th at 20/1) in the County Hurdle; Grand Vision in the potato race (3rd at 25/1); Synchronised (WON 8/1) in the Gold Cup; Salsify (WON 7/1, 3rd best bet of the week); and, Toner d'Oudairies (2nd, 7/1 should have won!) and Make A Track (4th, 12/1) meant it was a great day for plenty of readers who kept the faith.
Gold, for the instant, lost its lustre in his eyes, for there were countless treasures of the heart which it could never purchase.
- Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens
Reading the comments on that post more than made up for not financially optimising the day when I got it right more often than not. Many of you took something from Friday's scribbling to enhance your own ledger position, and that brings me joy always.
Salvaging a degree of professional pride from a favourite-infested tipping carcass was also a treasure of the heart.
"What a world of gammon and spinach it is, though, ain't it!"
- David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
And at the finish, whether you were a winner or a loser in monetary terms, if you're any sort of racing fan, you'll have loved every minute of it, and be counting down the 358 sleeps until we do it all again.
What a world of gammon and spinach it is!
Yes, it truly was a Dickens of a week. 🙂
p.s. what were your highlights? Gammon and spinach for you? Or the poor house? Leave a comment and gloat/mope publicly!