Monday Musings: The Power of the Pen

They used to call it the power of the pen, writes Tony Stafford. If the response to my plea last week for anyone who might normally have expected to have heard from me over the previous couple of weeks, to call and /or send me their number, that power is much diminished as we approach the year AD 2020.

My thanks go out to Kevin Howard. He read the piece and responded, not immediately, but more so than anyone else, especially his brother Steve, but that busy chap has probably been too preoccupied with his preparations for Cheltenham.

It was through Steve’s good offices that last year we (me and Harry Taylor) got a great rate in a nice hotel in Worcester for Cheltenham week. He wasn’t there last March, but will be back in his old stamping ground from tonight. Having been confronted with a near doubling in room rates, we’re in a pub somewhere. Not sure which one, you’ll have to ask Alan Newman.

I hope the pub has wifi. I’ve some work to do for the first time in years and that involves the use of a laptop. I had one of those back in the Daily Telegraph days and it took plenty of lugging around. This one’s okay but I have visions of getting to the premises and finding I have to go to a café or somewhere to get coverage.

The second issue of last week’s offering ended with a jocular reference to my rapidly-increasing age, and the fact I’d need to be going to the café and buy the Racing Post to check I’m still around. I wasn’t and felt a strange chilly feeling of real unease at the thought of being summarily excluded as my friend Steve Gilbey – “former owner with Nicky Henderson” was the identification - had been a few years ago. He’s still a former owner with Nicky Henderson and might even have been a 50% owner (with Ray Tooth) of a Betfair (Schweppes) Hurdle winner had Know The Law been less fragile, but he’s still excluded.

If my birthday wasn’t in on Monday, Lucy Wadham’s certainly was, as she was to find out every few yards she stepped around Fakenham racecourse that afternoon. The congratulations required constant rebuttals: “It’s tomorrow” she declared many times. The following day, confirmation of that truism appeared in print, along with the absent list of Monday people.

In true Stafford style I’d protested to the nearest to authority, past and present, that I still know at the Racing Post, among them Howard Wright, their former Industry Editor. Howard will be in the chair as usual at tonight’s annual and always the last of the pre-Cheltenham Festival race nights at the Bedfordshire Racing Club. No, I will be coming Howard, after all.

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The excuse came back about a “new staff member inputting the wrong list” and that’s just about what happened. Those few of us who still buy the paper were to be a little surprised that the management was unable to wait until Royal Ascot for the customary annual price hike.

If you thought £2.90 a shot was prohibitive, like me – poor old codger on a limited income – the sudden 30p extra to £3.20, as happened on Saturday, would appear excessive. Ten per cent is a chunk, but it’s in line with the equally-harsh increase on the online service that kicked in a couple of weeks earlier.

Two rather more serious issues graced its pages over the past couple of days. The farcical initially wrong and then soon after corrected result, not for the first time because of the necessity for separate winning posts at Sandown for chase and hurdle finishes, caused great embarrassment all round on Saturday.

In congratulating Hughie Morrison yesterday morning – he’d been very gracious in saying he didn’t like winning in those circumstances – I discovered that Third Wind’s trainer had played quite a part in getting the result amended before the weighed in announcement.

Historically, “weighed in” was the sacrosanct moment before which bookmakers never paid out on winning bets.  Its status used to be like “under starters orders”, which has been lost in the mists of time and starting stalls.  Life is so helter-skelter these days that nobody can wait a moment longer. What was different about the £42,000 to the winner EBF NH Novice Handicap Final was that One for Rosie, 12-1 and originally declared the winner, and 9-1 shot Third Wind, eventually rightfully given the prize, were such big prices.

Many on course bookmakers, having paid out on One For Rosie, then had to stump up for Third Wind, but having already paid some punters for their place part of an otherwise losing bet, were assailed by claimants whose Third Wind tickets had been left with the layers.

Hughie’s part in the regularisation of the result – in his opinion, the change would not have happened before the “weighed in” announcement without it -  was that having seen the image and heard the initial announcement, he went into the weighing room to seek out Third Wind’s rider Tom O’Brien to instruct him to object.

He stated that as he was talking to O’Brien, the stipendiary steward was on his way out having also seen that the initial result was incorrect. In true big organisation style, the blame has been put on the Racetech technicians who lined up the camera for the photo-finish on the chase finish line, rather than the hurdles one a few yards further on, because of the different angles from which the horses approach the line at Sandown in chases and hurdle races. There is a single point on the stands side from which the two finishing posts both originate and it is always surprising to me how far apart the two finishes apparently need to be.

Third Wind’s victory was pretty ironic for the Tooth team. When Apres Le Deluge, his bumper winner of the previous season, was preparing for his hurdles campaign he was reportedly galloping all over Third Wind, and when he made a promising enough start in fourth at Exeter, the EBF Final was Hughie’s big plan.

Training problems ended that objective, but Apres is back in work, while Ray’s useful miler Sod’s Law is starting his preparation for the Lincoln, actually the consolation Spring Mile, with some encouragement coming from the trainer yesterday.

Also yesterday I was reminded of Michael Dickinson’s scathing criticism of US dirt racing in his recent appearance on Nick Luck’s Luck on Sunday show where he was suggesting dirt’s lifetime may be under a greater threat than anyone appreciates.

His comments came home in yesterday’s Post in a report which said that Santa Anita had cancelled race meetings and training indefinitely after 21 equine fatalities in ten weeks. Frank Stronach’s Stronach Group announced the measures last week and significantly the same group owns  Gulfstream Park where horses running in its multi-million dollar Pegasus Cup races were allowed 7lb if they did not run on medication. Magic Wand ran in the Pegasus Cup Turf race with the allowance and was rewarded with a lucrative second place. Previously Aidan O’Brien had normally taken the opportunity to use medication where allowed on his US runners.

O’Brien and his wife Anne-Marie, both champion NH trainers in the past, will I’m sure be at Cheltenham to run the rule over son Joseph’s attempt at a first Festival winner in his own right.  Three years ago when Ivanovich Gorbatov surprised Apple’s Jade in the Triumph Hurdle, he was credited with having done all the work while Aidan was the official trainer.

Among a couple of potential Joseph winners, the one I’d like to see victorious is Sir Erec in the same juvenile championship race. A former Aidan stayer, he was classy enough to run a close third to Stradivarius in the British Champions Long Distance Cup and has looked a potential Champion Hurdler in his two hurdles runs to date. He needs to recover from a stone bruise to appear, but if he does, he’ll be my banker, as Kalashnikov was when caught late on in last year’s opener. What price Amy Murphy’s star will come back to life in the Arkle tomorrow?

- Tony Stafford

Tizzard To Taste Hennessy Glory

Arguably the greatest handicap chase in the calendar takes place at Newbury on Saturday.

Many would side with the Grand National at Aintree, often called ‘The World’s Greatest Steeplechase’. It’s certainly the most famous Jumps race in the World, often dramatic, and full of surprises. The race proves incredibly difficult to win, and for trainers, jockeys and owners, is undoubtedly the most coveted. It’s hard to knock the National, but I will, (just a little) in saying that the race remains something of a lottery. Winners at 33/1, 25/1, 25/1, 66/1 and 33/1 in the past five years, endorses the point, and it remains the case that plenty of luck, along with talent, is needed to be victorious.

I’m therefore of the opinion that the Hennessy Gold Cup is the number one handicap chase in the UK and Ireland. The race has a stunning roll of honour, with a history of outstanding horses coming out on top, which makes this race one of the great fixtures of the winter.

Mandarin took the inaugural running in 1957, when the race was held at Cheltenham. In 1961 he won again, though this time at the event’s new home, Newbury. The horse was owned by Peggy Hennessy, a member of the family which sponsored the race.

Arguably the greatest horse to ever jump a fence, Arkle, had back to back victories 1964 and ‘65. Mill House had defeated him in the Hennessy of 1963, having won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March. He went on to win the King George, though never again got the better of the mighty Arkle.

The legendary pair had hauled top-weight to victory, and some 20 years later the race witnessed another spate of impressive weight carrying achievements. Diamond Edge set the ball rolling in 1981, when bravely holding off all-comers whilst carrying 11st 10lbs.

Bregawn carried the same weight to victory a year later. Trained by Michael Dickinson, the classy chaser won the Gold Cup the following year, with his trainer famously filling the first five places.

Burrough Hill Lad was next to make-light of the hefty burden, when thumping his rivals in the 1984 renewal. Trained by Jenny Pitman, he’d won the Gold Cup earlier in the year, and followed his Newbury success with victory in the King George at Kempton.

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In more recent times both Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls have captured Newbury’s showpiece. They were responsible for the latest pair of weight-hauling-heroes, in Trabolgan and Denman.

The former had won the RSA as a novice chaser and was allotted 11st 12lbs for his tilt at the Hennessy. Mick Fitz took the ride, and crept into contention as the race came to the boil. He led at the second last, and kept on powerfully to give Henderson his first success in the race.

Denman became one of the modern greats when capturing the prize in 2007 and 2009. ‘The Tank’ was in a class of his own when romping clear for victory number one. Later in the campaign he spread-eagled a field including Kauto Star, to win the Gold Cup. He missed the Hennessy of 2008 due to heart issues, but was back at Newbury in 2009, when again defying top weight for a famous second success.

There’s no wonder the Hennessy Gold Cup sparks such excitement among the jump racing fraternity.

This year’s renewal may lack a true heavyweight, but the race, as competitive as ever, is stacked with horses of huge potential. A Coneygree or Cue Card at the top of the handicap would certainly have added spice. Nevertheless, Saturday’s showpiece looks a cracker.

The horse that does have to overcome top-weight tomorrow is last year’s winner Smad Place. Now a nine-year-old, he was certainly impressive 12 months ago, though he’s 11lb higher in the handicap this time around. Denman is the only horse aged nine to have won the Hennessy this century. It looks a tough ask for Alan King’s courageous grey.

Seven-year-olds have a great record in recent years, with five wins from the last 10 renewals. It’s often proved a race that favours second season chasers, and there’s plenty that fit the bill. Un Temps Pour Tout and Blaklion are the right age, and were both successful during their novice chase campaign.

The former came off second best to Native River on a couple of occasions last season, but was impressive when winning the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. David Pipe captured this race in 2008, with another seven-year-old in Madison Du Berlais. Un Temps Pour Tout has had a spin over hurdles, and looked impressive when winning at Aintree.

Blaklion won the RSA Novices’ Chase in March and looks fairly treated by the handicapper. He ran well for a long way in the Charlie Hall, and is sure to strip fitter this time. Nigel Twiston-Davies has sounded bullish in the lead-up to this, and the horse looks to have a serious chance. He’s a gutsy, strong stayer, and is likely to be doing his best work late on.

The aforementioned Native River runs for the all-conquering Colin Tizzard stable. He finished his novice chase campaign with an impressive win in the Mildmay at Aintree, beating both Un Temps Pour Tout and Blaklion in the process. He’s another gutsy type, who appears to find plenty for pressure. Richard Johnson keeps the ride, having won on him at Aintree. He’s another that arrives after a prep run at Wetherby, where he finished second in the Bet365 Hurdle. He looks to have a great chance.

Paul Nicholls has a pair of seven-year-olds in the field. Saphir Du Rheu was fifth in this race 12 months ago, though is now 10lb lower in the handicap. He returned to something like his old self, when third in his seasonal return at Ascot. One gets the feeling that he wasn’t quite ready, mentally or physically, for the top flight a year ago. Classy enough to finish runner-up in the World Hurdle in 2015, if he jumps well enough, he is another that looks to have a huge chance.

Vicente rounded off last season by winning the Scottish Grand National, a victory that went a long way toward helping Paul Nicholls retain the trainers’ title. He has a decision over Un Temps Pour Tout at Cheltenham, and though behind Native River in the National Hunt Chase at the festival, he’d incurred traffic problems three-out. He needs better ground to have a chance, and may just get it, with a few dry days forecast.

Peter Bowen has an interesting contender in the Mildmay runner-up Henri Parry Morgan. That Aintree run behind Native River, marked him down as a staying chaser with a bright future. He’d won very easily at Uttoxeter prior to the Aintree outing, and I wonder if he arrived on Merseyside a slightly fresher horse than some of his opponents. Nevertheless, he can’t be discounted.

Vyta Du Roc has been touted as a potential winner, and Henderson’s seven-year-old creeps in towards the bottom of the handicap. He was slightly disappointing in the RSA, when some distance behind Blaklion, and then failed to get home when fifth in the Scottish National. His comeback run at Aintree over hurdles was also disappointing, and he now has something to prove at this level. Despite having little weight to carry, he’s not for me.

I’m coming down in favour of three progressive young chasers. I’m struggling to split Native River and Blaklion. I think they’ll both go close, and am just edging towards Tizzard’s fella. I’m also confident that Vicente will run well for the champion trainer.

A Magical King George

The Mighty Vautour

The Mighty Vautour

There’s something distinctly magical about the King George at Kempton.

Clearly the time of year has a bearing on the character of the race. With Christmas festivities in full swing, the event has something of a celebratory feel. The track and the trip also lend themselves to the drama. The race is always run at a high tempo, and any horse hoping to claim the prize has to possess a high cruising speed coupled with the ability to jump with pin point accuracy. The King George is the three mile version of the Tingle Creek.

Many legends of the sport have taken this prestigious event. The mighty Arkle won in 1965; Desert Orchid dominated in the late 80’s with four victories, and Kauto Star created history in 2011 when winning the Christmas Spectacular for the fifth time at the age of 11.

The profile of many winners is understandably similar. Dessie won a Tingle Creek and a Victor Chandler during his spell at the top of the sport. A bold front running style, relentlessly applying pressure to his pursuers, he was a truly outstanding racehorse.

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Kauto may not have been a trailblazer like the famous grey, but his ability to travel beautifully through the race, whatever the pace, proved such a crucial asset. At Kempton, he would usually take charge turning for home, before stretching clear of his exhausted opponents.

His win in 2009 was a perfect example. Nacarat, another talented grey, had led at a scorching gallop. One by one, the field had faded out of contention, until only Nicholls’ star remained in touch. But like Dessie before him, Kauto had the pace of a top class two mile chaser, with the reserves of stamina to last a strongly run three. He breezed past the fading Nacarat before galloping clear with the opposition a distance adrift.

One Man was another terrific grey, capable of winning a Champion Chase at two miles and yet having the fortitude to win back to back King George’s. Yet another that travelled through a race with ease, before being delivered with a challenge when the rest were crying ‘no more’.

So what of this year’s challengers? We certainly know that both Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti have what it takes to go close. Paul Nicholls’ dual winner is likely to attempt to force the pace. He won with something to spare last Christmas, but a year earlier appeared in all kinds of trouble before Cue Card faded into second spot late on.

Strangely enough, of the two, you would have to say that Tizzard’s revitalized chaser probably has the ideal profile for this race. He was a classy two mile chaser earlier in his career, second to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle of 2012. He won a Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter by a country mile, and destroyed a strong field in the Ryanair of 2013. If the breathing operation has truly worked and if he can hit the level of performance he achieved at Haydock in last month’s Betfair Chase, he surely has to go close.

Al Ferof has been here before, though not under the guidance of Dan Skelton. He’s lacked the gears to go with Silviniaco and Cue Card in previous King Georges, and though he impressed first time out at Huntingdon this is a totally different proposition. He could again run into a place, but it would be a surprise if at the age of 10 he suddenly developed the ability to win such a race, especially in what appears to be a star-studded renewal.

Gigginstown may have several entrants, including race favourite Don Cossack. He’s looked outstanding so far this season, with stunning wins at both Punchestown and Down Royal. He also defeated Djakadam and Cue Card in a pair of Grade 1’s at the end of the last campaign, though the former had been involved in that gruelling Gold Cup, whilst Cue Card was clearly some way short of his best.

The race that fills me with doubt over ‘The Don’ is his failure in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham. He had his fair share of bad luck that day, but at no point did he look like getting close to Uxizandre. He was outpaced coming down the hill and only when meeting the rising ground did he look likely to challenge. I could be wrong, and Lord knows I’ve been wrong many times before, but my gut tells me that he will struggle to lay-up with the likes of Cue Card and Vautour, and that he will be forced into crucial errors. I just can’t see the King George at Kempton suiting him.

Smad Place looks set to take his chance. The Hennessy winner will look to emulate those famous greys mentioned earlier in the piece. He was spectacular at Newbury but I find it hard to imagine that he is quick enough to lead this field such a merry dance.

And so to Vautour for the all-conquering Mullins team. His win in the JLT at Cheltenham in March was something to behold. He won a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle a year earlier in devastating fashion. He appears to have oodles of pace and if Ruby and Willie are to be believed, is probably one of the best to ever be housed at Closutton. He has to prove he stays the trip, and he has to put behind him a less than emphatic performance at Ascot last time. However, he looks to have the right kind of profile, and although I thought the same of Champagne Fever last year, this fella could well prove to be the 'Real Deal'.

It’s a sensational looking renewal with a stellar line-up in keeping with such a prestigious event. Forget the turkey, the Christmas pudding, those presents under the tree and even the Queen’s speech. The real meaning of Christmas can be found at Kempton every year when the tapes go up for the King George VI Chase.

Creating Legends – The Hennessy Gold Cup

Hennessy Hero Denman

Hennessy Hero Denman

It’s a race with a rich history and a stunning roll of honour.

Established in 1957 and originally run at Cheltenham, the Hennessy Gold Cup was transferred to Newbury in 1960. Run over the same trip as the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 3 miles and 2½ furlongs, the race has been won by some of Jump racings all-time greats.

Arkle took the race as a seven and eight-year-old back in 1964 and 1965. Trained by Tom Dreaper in County Meath, and owned by the Duchess of Westminster, Anne Grosvenor, the wonderfully talented chaser was named after a mountain the stands on the border of the owner’s estate in Northern Scotland. An imposing natural phenomenon that has stood imperious over the Sutherland landscape for more than 500 million years seems appropriate for this legendary racehorse.

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A glorious period in the early eighties saw further epic victories for Jump racing royalty. Fulke Walwyn trained Diamond Edge to success; Michael Dickinson and Graham Bradley teamed up to win with Bregawn and then Jenny Pitman and John Francome were the famous combination for the wonderfully talented Burrough Hill Lad. All won under the enormous burden of top-weight.

In more recent times the undeniable hero of the Hennessy was the mighty Denman. It’s always a pleasure to include this sensational racehorse in an article, and reminisce over his incredible achievements. Such equine heroes are one of the main reasons we become hooked on this wonderful sport.

A son of Presenting, Denman was trained by Paul Nicholls and fondly known by the racing public as ‘The Tank’. Owned by Paul Barber and Harry Findlay, the raw five-year-old started out as a novice hurdler in the winter of 2005. He won his first two races at Wincanton; the second in particular an impressive all the way romp. Stepped up in class for his third appearance, he took the Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle, run at Cheltenham, by a yawning 20 lengths.

Few doubted that we had witnessed the arrival of a new racing star. Another with similar credentials had mirrored Denman’s achievements during the winter and many hoped for a clash in March at the Cheltenham Festival. However, the unbeaten Black Jack Ketchum ran in the three miler at the Festival, winning easily, whilst Nicholls’ charge was to meet with his first defeat when caught for speed by Nicanor in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs.

There was never a doubt that fences would bring out the best in this giant horse, and sure enough his novice chase campaign brought five wins from five outings, culminating in a stunning victory in the RSA at Cheltenham.

His first appearance out of novice company came in the 2007 Hennessy, when off top-weight he slaughtered all-comers in one of the most awesome displays of raw power. Just a few months later he was to savage a high-class field, (which included one of the all-time great chasers Kauto Star) when victorious in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

That incredible performance appeared to leave its mark, and a period on the side-lines followed due to a heart condition. Yet incredibly, just 18 months after his famous Cheltenham Gold Cup success, he was back at Newbury winning another Hennessy, hauling top-weight to a mind-blowing success. Though sent off favourite for that famous win in November 2009, few could believe what they were witnessing as he tenaciously fought off the challenge from stable companion What A Friend. It was classic Denman.

The Hennessy Gold Cup is rightly seen as one of the great races during the winter months. The likes of Arkle, Burrough Hill Lad and Denman have caught the imagination and left an indelible mark on the events illustrious past.

Kempton at Christmas – Jump Racing Fans Rejoice

King George Kauto

King George Kauto

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The greatest since Arkle?

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Action over the GN fences this weekend

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Cheltenham: The Arkle. Have I Found The Winner… Again?!

It's time, dear reader, for us to put on our collective thinking caps (etymology: from 'considering caps', as in "...a considering Cap, almost as large as a Grenadier's, but of three equal Sides; on the first of which was written, I MAY BE WRONG; on the second, IT IS FIFTY TO ONE BUT YOU ARE; and on the third, I'LL CONSIDER OF IT."; 'The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, 1765).

All three of those possibilities will apply at the end of this piece, when I reveal my likely winner of the Arkle Chase...! So, without much further etymological ado, let's get to the meat of the matter...

Just before we do however, I want to point out that the brains at Nag Nag Nag (the same brains behind the Cheltenham Preview guide you'll have heard about recently) posted an article this time last year, entitled, 'The Arkle: As Easy As This?!', which correctly and confidently nominated a 10/1 shot called Tidal Bay.

Check out this season's Cheltenham Festival Preview Guide here...

Ok, plug over, and let's see if we can't repeat the dose, by reviewing the trends which were reinforced so emphatically last March.

There are 52 entries currently. Time to cut to the (Arkle) chase...

- 10 of the last 11 winners had finished no lower than 2nd in all completed UK chase starts. That eliminates all but sixteen of the entries, which is a fair start.

- 10 of the last 11 winners were aged 5-7 years old (four 5yo's, two 6yo's, and four 7yo's). We can strike out three more, including the fancied Kalahari King, who is eight years young.

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- Although sponsored by the Irish Independent, runners from the Emerald Isle have been successful just once in the past eleven runnings, with the other ten winners being UK-based. Just nine left in now (As well as the Irish raiders, I also struck out the interesting Frenchie, Original).

- Nine of the last eleven winners had run between two and four times over fences prior to Arkle glory. Just two fallers at this stat, leaves seven.

- Two final price-based trends to consider: ALL of the last eleven winners were 11/1 or shorter - this is not a race won by outsiders; and, only ONE favourite from eleven has won. Taking these things into account does for likely ante-post jolly, Calgary Bay (though he is challenged for market leadership by Tatenen), as well as Jigsaw Dancer, Palomar, Cornas, and Sa Suffit.

So, there we are: the winner will be one of Tatenen, Calgary Bay, and I'msingingtheblues. The first two named are vying for favouritism, and we know the market leader has a poor record. But usually the market leader is a stronger fancy than this season.

Last season, I wrote:

So we're looking for a 5-7yo, whose not finished lower than 2nd over fences, lightly raced, fancied in the betting but not the 'jolly', and came from the home team.

Step forward, Tidal Bay.

He won at 10/1.

My trumpet suitably tootled, and put away, I'll side with I'msingingtheblues. A winner of three of his four chase starts, his only defeat came at the hands of the classy Briareus (finished fourth in the King George on his only subsequent start). He also has a verdict over Calgary Bay from earlier in the season, when he was spotting the Bay six pounds in weight, and there is no obvious reason why the latter should reverse that running.

Tatenen is more difficult to dismiss than Calgary, as it's harder to crab a horse who's won two from three. Beaten just a short head on the other occasion, he may well have been done up by the slow pace that day, although he was in receipt of nearly a stone from the winner.

At the prices, I make I'msingingtheblues the one to be on.

Of course, I haven't considered pace angles here; or trainer patterns; or any number of other elements which appear in Nag Nag Nag's brilliant Festival Trends publication. If you haven't taken a look at the free sample (full preview of the Triumph Hurdle) already, you absolutely should!

Check out the Cheltenham Festival Preview Guide here...

That's all for today - remember the full preview guide is available THIS FRIDAY from midday.

Ciao pronto,