I don't mind admitting, I was nervous. Bloody nervous, in fact.
Tony Mac, the top man behind Irish Big Race Trends, had invited me up.
It was my first appearance on a Cheltenham Preview Night panel, at the Revelstoke Hotel, Bridlington.
Take a tough-to-impress East Yorkshire crowd, add in some top names - Graham Orange, Mr 'Go Racing in Yorkshire'; Tony Stafford, former newspaper champion tipster and racing editor at the Daily Telegraph; Brian Ellison, tip top trainer; and, Kristian Strangeway, renowned punter and head of Koo's Racing Club... and chuck in little old me!
We started with the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and there were many mutterings for Darlan from the respected and known names on the top table. Then it was my turn. The microphone felt like it weighed two stone and contained half a dozen of those vibrating love eggs (about which I've heard tell!), such was its difficulty to manage in my sweaty fretting hand.
My quivering opening gambit of 'there are easier races than this' was not the 'here's a 20/1 winner' the audience had come for. I ventured that in a race as open as this (I surmised they might go 7/1 the field on the day, which was quickly countered by Luke from Star Sports, who felt they'd smash into the McManus beastie, Darlan), you might as well fire two bullets win only at 10/1 to 16/1, and see if your luck is in.
Again, not what the crowd had sought from me and, as the only member of the panel they'd probably never heard of, the consensus at this point may have been 'who is this nutter with the big nose and no opinions?'. Ha! Little did they know what was to come...
We moved onto the Arkle, and there was unity around Sprinter Sacre... except from me. I tried to explain the notion of value and looking for a reason to get short-priced horses beaten, but the media portrayal of horses as bomb-proof goes deep into the psyche of the casual punter.
That, in point of fact, is excellent news for those who do dig deeper, for on the occasions that the media get it wrong (which is plenty often enough), there is value galore elsewhere.
So I mentioned SS's record off the bridle, and his Cheltenham record and the fact that he'd bullied inferior horses whereas Al Ferof had taken on proper Grade 1 seniors. I also mentioned there was a good chance that SS would win, but not for me at a shade of odds on.
Kristian, a man who makes a tidy living from gambling, seemed to warm to me at this point, as he recognised a kindred spirit in terms of framing a race and finding value (if not in terms of lumping several grand on said horse!)
Onwards we went. Champion Hurdle. All said Hurricane Fly. What a treat for the paying punters. Two quid in (oh yes!), and they'd been given the first three favourites.
Well, I had to row in with Hurricane Fly, though not as a bet. I said I hoped he'd win, but that I was very happy with my 16/1 voucher, mentioned right here on November 21st 2011. Yes, I managed to call one right! 😉
Dangers for me were the Nicholls pair for the frame, Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby. And the rest don't count.
Onwards we went, and into day two. First up the Neptune...
I didn't realise we were doing this race and had nothing prepared specifically for it. Luckily, I was able to pull out a stat attack which was relevant here. 24 of the last 31 horses priced 3/1 or shorter in novice events have been beaten at the Festival, including Dunguib, Aran Concerto, Denman, Comply Or Die, War Of Attrition, Our Vic, Inglis Drever, and Pizarro.
There are so many unexposed horses in the novice events that one frequently 'improves over the top' of the existing levels of form to win.
Caution was thus advised about Boston Bob and Simonsig at the head of the market.
Stupidly, and because I didn't have a view on the race, I opted for Simonsig despite the evidence of the facts above. It was a poor choice in a race that I have yet to delve into. I will be lucky, not smart, if that one pulls through.
Forwards we went, and back onto something akin to punting terra firma for yours truly, as we considered the RSA Chase. A majority verdict for Grands Crus, particularly Brian Ellison, who said 'Grands Crus will win whatever he runs in. He's a machine'.
Ellison was succinct and entertaining in equal measure, and he seems like a really nice bloke. And [insert expletive here] shrewd as well!
Myself and Mr Strangeway were against the crowd. I rowed in with my stats again, as well as why I thought they were material. For instance, none of the 17 Feltham Chase winners who came to contest the RSA have won. But five beaten horses in the Feltham have won the RSA.
The last 48 winners of the RSA Chase had run in the same calendar year. Not Grands Crus, whose last run was 79 days ago in said Feltham Chase.
That stat did for 7/4 chance Time For Rupert last year, who'd previously run on 11 December 2010.
The reasons? Kempton's Feltham Chase is a 'class horse' race, designed for finessed stayers. The RSA Chase is a street fighter's race, designed for hard horses.
Fitness is important for a tough old scrap like the RSA, and nearly three months off a fit horse does not make.
Grands Crus is almost certainly the best horse in this race if he runs. But he's a massive lay for me.
The one to beat him, if he can stand up all the way round, is Bobs Worth. His defeats in the Feltham and Reynoldstown at Ascot (similar classy types win that but get beaten here - sorry Invictus fans, as if his 'doubtful runner' status wasn't enough) actually embellish his prospects rather than diminish them, to my eye.
His record of three from three at the track gives confidence that the undulations won't trouble him, and nor will the trip. Of course, he's yet to clear a fence here, as the three wins were all over hurdles.
This was my case, and I told any who were still listening that Bobs Worth was one of my bets of the meeting (and that I was happy with my 6/1 voucher to the same end).
In the Queen Mother, there were whispers for Big Zeb and Finian's Rainbow from various quarters...
...but of course not from me.
I can't have either of them, and reckon that if you're not already on the bombproof Sizing Europe, there is each way value further down the lists. The beauty here is that there aren't many entered, so there is value if you share my views about Big Zeb (regressive at 11 years old) and Finian's (weak finisher).
The ones I put up as each ways at a price were Somersby if he runs here, Kauto Stone, and Blazing Tempo (with the mares' allowance). But then you knew that if you'd read my Queen Mum preview.
Break time, and a(nother) large gin helped to steady the nerves. I was actually starting to enjoy things now, and had a very interesting chat with Kristian - seated to my left on the table - about how he frames a race from a punting perspective. Rather than paraphrase that here, I'll try to persuade him to share a few pointers another day. He certainly knows his betting onions from his gambling tomatoes...
Thursday next... and the Ryanair demonstrated its depth by being the first race to really split the panel's opinions. If the audience got anything from this, it was probably that it's a bloody hard race to decipher.
My take was that there are doubts about a good number: Riverside Theatre tends to bounce after a big first run of the season; Poquelin beaten here twice and this is tougher; Medermit seems to always find one too good and may go for Gold Cup; Somersby has stamina doubts and may go for Queen Mum; Rubi Light might not like the faster ground [one panelist suggested he actually improve for it...]; Albertas Run is eleven and has been off since October; Kalahari King ditto; Captain Chris can't jump and will probably go for the Gold Cup; Great Endeavour has been off a long time; and, Gauvain has issues with his jumping.
All of which left, by a process of elimination, Noble Prince as the standout at the top of the market. I haven't backed him because I don't really feel this is a race to bet in. Rather, it should be a sensational spectacle, and one of the highlights of the week. It is growing into its Grade 1 status.
Of course, Blazing Tempo is still in here - and still gets the mares' allowance of seven pounds - and her versatility regarding trip and ground mean she remains of interest. However, a best price of 25/1 NRNB tempers enthusiasm until the declarations are down later this morning.
I tentatively suggested Wishfull Thinking NRNB, and was told that Hobbs has elected for the Champion Chase with him. Given that he hasn't been able to go a yard in the two mile races he's run in, I was surprised by that and he's another that ought to be out of the frame in the shorter race, meaning value for each way thieves like me!
Then it was the World Hurdle. Most felt Big Buck's turning up equated to him winning, and I agreed he'd be hard to beat.
With my heart I want BB to win, because he's such a star of National Hunt racing. But with my money, I'm looking for something to make the frame at a price.
Despite the Irish being 0 from 44 since Dorans Pride last winning for them in 1995, I felt that Willie Mullins might hold the key to the places. Given that he's still got SEVEN entered, that was only half the conundrum solved, even if I was right in my initial assertion!
I am against Thousand Stars, who simply doesn't have a race for him at Cheltenham. He wants two and a half miles, and he'll get that at Aintree, but not here.
Oscar Whisky has to prove his stamina and quotes of 4/1 are rather presumptuous that he will.
Which brings me to Zaidpour and So Young, both of whom I believe are better than Mourad, the third placed horse last term. It is interesting to subsequently note that So Young has been scratched from the Champion Hurdle but Zaidpour is still in there, which may be a clue as to what is running where...
Both Mourad and Dynaste were beaten far enough last time behind Big Buck's to make it hard to fashion a case for them reversing form.
And on we leapt to Friday, and the Triumph Hurdle.
There were fancies for Grumeti, Pearl Swan, Sadler's Risk. At bigger prices, both Hisaabaat and Countrywide Flame were mentioned in despatches.
For me, I liked Pearl Swan, Sadler's, and Hisaabaat of the Irish (in case they're better than the Brits this year).
But it's wide open and most felt it was tough to call.
The Gold Cup saw the panel united on one thing: that, as Tony Stafford so eloquently put it, "the Waley-Cohen boy is a tosser". My sentiments exactly, though I may have tempered my words marginally more.
It was a consensus that Long Run was the one to beat - shock, horror - but that most wanted to get him beaten.
Kauto Star with or without setback wasn't for most, which left the door open for each way plays.
Midnight Chase was well spoken of, as was Burton Port.
Brian Ellison told us that if Grands Crus runs here, he wins. "He's a cert, whichever race he runs in". Fair enough.
For my part, I ventured that looking at the ratings, and track/trip form, Long Run is probably 'bar a fall' material. But with the dodgy driver, I'm happier siding with something each way.
Synchronised interests me as a plodder who's been under-rated, and in a race where plodders do make the frame regularly. But it's the 'super plodder' Junior that I put up as a super speculative each way, at 66/1 NRNB. He has other entries of course, but if he shows up here, he jumps and stays well enough to roll through a lot of non-staying dead wood up the hill.
Past Festival form of 6th in the Fred Winter 2007, 3rd in Coral Cup 2008, and hacked up in the Kim Muir over this track/trip last year says he's of interest wherever he runs, despite being primed for the Grand National. [And I'd normally be against horses prepping for the National, but there's an extra week between the two Festivals this year]
And that was that... or very nearly.
We were finally asked for our handicap picks and charity bets.
Notable mentions in the handicaps were Cape Dutch (Tony Stafford), and Alasi (not actually in a handicap but in the Mares race).
I put up Scotsirish in the Cross Country (which is a handicap), and also Zarrafakt, which I believe has a knocking each way chance for Emma Lavelle in the JLT Chase on Tuesday.
Brian Ellison gave a good mention for his Red Inca, which is a horse Tony Stafford always liked at his previous yard (Brian Meehan's). Red Inca has a very strong Fred Winter profile, and I've backed it as a consequence of the evening.
Charity bets of note: Kristian put up Bobs Worth, and I put up Salsify in the Foxhunters (took the 8/1 much to the horror of the Star Sports rep, who was 7's only. He's as low as 5/1 now, and I'm certain he'll go off shorter, and favourite).
And that was that. A short round of applause from the East Yorkshire faithful and away to the bar we all retired.
The ensuing chinwag with Messrs. McCormack, Strangeway, Stafford, and Star Sports was engaging enough.
The following day, Wednesday, I ditched plans to return early on the rattler as I discovered a) Tony Stafford - racing manager for Raymond Tooth - was heading to Catterick where one of his purchases for his guv'nor was making her debut, and b) Tony Stafford lives half a mile down the road from me in Hackers!
I've not been to Catterick before, and it looked a stamina-sapping track on a day like Wednesday, with heavy ground and a very strong headwind in the home straight.
Tony Mac drove us via Malton and Thirsk racecourse - beautiful countryside in North Yorkshire.
We had coffee with Wilf Storey before racing, and the older guard entertained us youngsters with tales of the old days and the old faces, both human and equine, which was (and always is) absorbing and enjoyable for a racing nut and all round softie like me.
Then it was time for the young French madam, Ms Cordelia, to make her bow. She looked the part, and is well bred.
In the race itself, she travelled beatifully until let down, and took a while to quicken on. Alas, the bird - Countess Comet, in this case - had flown and Ms Cordelia ran a decent enough second, with the third horse, Hidden Identity, beaten nineteen lengths.
Chris Bealby, trainer of the winner, was gracious enough to invite us for a glass of champagne afterwards, in the absence of his own winning connections. He hadn't expected Countess to win he said, and she stuck on well. He's looking forward to a rummage through the programme book now to find her next race.
Then came the long drive south, and the onset of the lurgy... We left around 3.45 from Catterick, and were home in Hackney by 9pm. I went straight to bed, and have been here since. Feeling a good bit better than Wednesday night, and hopefully on the mend ahead of a hectic week upcoming! 🙂
Finally, stay tuned over the weekend, as I have a competition where you can win some nice cash prizes... More on that tomorrow.
In the meantime, stay healthy, and back winners!