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Monday Musings: Cheltenham Looms

I’ve not had much to say about Cheltenham 2020 until now, writes Tony Stafford. Normally I would be preparing, as I have for almost all of the last 20-odd Festival Eves, for a trip up the A1 to the Bedfordshire Racing Club, but it has always meant a 12.30 a.m. arrival home and therefore a mad rush to get organised for the ride west the following early morning.

I reluctantly ducked out this time and I trust the rather more youthful replacement – I assume whoever he or she is, must be! - will add some vigour to proceedings. It has been a lovely privilege to see the members every year and as I sit down to dinner tonight in Pershore, I’m sure my thoughts will drift off to Langford a time or two.

Poor Nicky Henderson, newly-adorned with a well-deserved honour, has yet another ticklish issue with Altior. In a season where the best chaser of recent times – never mind Cyrname’s rating and defeat of him at two miles, five furlongs this season - now there’s an old splint flaring up to put Wednesday’s participation in doubt in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

For the past four years Altior has been a standing dish at the Festival. Initially as a 4-1 shot he beat Min by seven lengths in the 2016 Supreme Novice Hurdle. Then with a Champion Hurdle seemingly a future penalty kick, he was immediately switched to chasing and the following year he was 1-4 when winning the Arkle. His first Queen Mother Champion came the next year at even-money with a replica seven-length demolition of Min and then last season it was 4-11 as he swooped late after looking likely to be beaten by Politologue in his second Queen Mum Chase.

Now, Nicky OBE is wrestling with the will he?, won’t he? dilemma he’s faced a number of times before with Altior. The problem has been that a requirement to provide copy for the bookmaking firm that sponsors his yard brought negative publicity earlier in the season over another Altior issue. Now he clearly feels obliged to detail every step his horses take, so while other trainers would be quietly hosing down the culprit limb in total privacy, Henderson is duty bound to keep the betting public in the loop.

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In any case, Altior at 3-1 seems no bargain to me in a year when there are two truly top-class opponents in Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi. I don’t think I’d want to run him in these circumstances, especially as Hendo’s and Mrs Pugh’s sporting instincts clearly took over in face of public clamour before his sole jumping defeat in that ill-judged clash at Ascot with a fitter and stamina-proven Cyrname.

Henderson and Willie Mullins have been the overwhelming powers at Cheltenham this century and there seems no reason to think that they will not continue to dominate the four days at Prestbury Park. They have six between them in the 17-runner Unibet Champion Hurdle, Henderson’s quartet headed by Christmas Hurdle heroine, Epatante.

It is rare enough for a mare to head the Champion Hurdle market. She is the only female in tomorrow’s line-up as her stable-companion Verdana Blue has been withdrawn, presumably owing to the very soft ground, as has the unbeaten Honeysuckle, who has been switched to a mouth-watering opening-day clash with Benie Des Dieux in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.

In the 93-year history of the Champion Hurdle – four since 1927 have not been staged – only four mares have won the race. Even I can’t remember African Sister in 1939, but since then only Dawn Run (1984), Flakey Dove ten years later and Annie Power in 2016, have beaten their male counterparts.

Two of those four were of the highest class and if Epatante is to equal their achievements, she would need to be special, even if by common consent this might not be an up-to-standard championship race. In an open year I’m looking for a little each-way bet on Darver Star to help Gavin Cromwell gain closure for the understandable feeling that last year’s surprise winner Espoir D’Allen would have been the one to beat again had he not suffered a life-ending injury on the gallops late last year.

Darver Star’s rise echoes in many ways his predecessor’s arrival at Cheltenham last March, and while the 20-1 I should have taken is long gone, around 12’s is not too bad in this line-up.

I’ve been nagged ever since I’ve got to know him by a recently-acquired friend, Scott Ellis, who also makes the trek west today and in his case has done for 25 years, boy and man. He has been saying The Conditional, trained by David Bridgwater, is a certainty for the Ultima Handicap Chase, the race that precedes the Champion Hurdle. It is run on the Old Course’s version of the Gold Cup distance, so slightly less but just as severe a test and we have a full field of 24.

Scott was paranoid that the horse, originally in the 60’s in the first entry list, would not make the cut, and even on Sunday morning when at 9.30 there were still only 22 declared and 24 could run, he was worried The Conditional might not make it. In the event there are seven below him.

A course and distance winner in the autumn and then good enough to finish second to De Rasher Counter in the Ladbrokes Trophy (Hennessy) back in November, The Conditional then ran fourth over what proved a few furlongs too far at Warwick when favourite for the Classic Chase. I’m surprised considering it was stamina rather than ability that caused his defeat, that he was dropped 3lb to a rating of 139. I agree with Mr Ellis, he looks a big threat to all.

Solo on Friday in the JCB Triumph Hurdle has Gary Moore’s Goshen to beat among others, and I have to side with the latter, who could win by a cricket score. Solo won the race in which Ray Tooth’s Waterproof was being tested at Kempton. A burst blood vessel when apparently still well placed coming to the home turn ended Ray’s hopes.

Happily, after reassuring signals from the stable and the vet, he is being lined up for the Silver Cup on Friday at Fakenham, where he won his maiden. Last year there were eight runners in the race so we were hopeful when the entries came out on Saturday morning even though rated 127 in a 0-125 he’ll be the first to be eliminated. Depending on total entries on the day, the race can accommodate between ten (minimum) and 16. Thirty-two were nominated and I fear it won’t be like the Ultima. Instead it looks like a novice at Ludlow next week where he cannot be eliminated.

Great news that the mares’ bumper, lost to Sandown last weekend and the intended target of Geegeez’ smart filly Coquelicot, will be moved to Kempton on Saturday. If that track falls victim to the weather, I’ll give up. There’s more chance of being struck by lightning, or its modern-day equivalent, the CV!

- TS