There’s no feeling quite like it. For many, winter is a bleak time, those endless dark nights with nothing but rain to dampen the spirits. However, travelling through the picturesque Cotswolds, with its charming villages and rolling countryside, heading for the home of jump racing, I cannot help feeling that winter is by far my favourite time of the year.
Cleeve Hill is a stunning backdrop for one of the finest racecourses in the land. And over the coming days Cheltenham will hold its second most prestigious event. Known as ‘The Open’, the three day meeting, with top quality racing throughout, is only surpassed by The Festival itself.
The Paddy Power Gold Cup is the showpiece, and takes place on Saturday. It’s a Grade 3 handicap chase run over 2m4f, and was first run back in 1960. Imperial Commander was the outstanding winner in recent times. He led the way in 2008 before winning the Ryanair in 2009 and then the Gold Cup at The Festival in 2010.
Last year’s renewal was won by Johns Spirit, and Jonjo’s horse attempts a repeat victory after winning his seasonal reappearance at the track in October. Half Free in the 80’s and Bradbury Star in the early 90’s are the only two horses to have won the race in consecutive years. It’s a tall order for a horse that has been raised 17lbs since last year’s success. But he is a fast improving type, and the stable appear full of confidence.
Present View is the current favourite for the race, having won at the Festival in March in the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase. He warmed up for this with a narrow defeat over hurdles at the course in October. Only a six-year-old, he looks progressive and clearly enjoys his trips to Cheltenham.
Buywise was fifth to Present View back in March but looks likely to go off at similar odds on Saturday. He made several bad errors that day and returned in April to win comfortably in a Grade 2, though again his jumping was somewhat patchy.
Oscar Whisky looks a certain runner for Nicky Henderson. Unable to catch Uxizandre at Aintree in April, he had beaten JLT winner Taquin Du Seuil earlier in the campaign. A faller himself in the JLT, he is a class act and goes well fresh. Henderson last won this race in 2003, with old favourite Fondmort.
The famous green and gold of owner JP McManus will be arriving in numbers. Shanpallas is a possible starter from Ireland. Though the Irish have a poor record in the race, he was last seen winning the Munster National in impressive fashion. Colour Squadron runs for a Philip Hobbs yard that is in terrific form. The horse will be trying to win his first chase at the ninth time of asking.
If the Paddy Power looks an impossible puzzle to solve, then the main event on Sunday appears similarly difficult.
The Greatwood Hurdle is a Grade 3 run over two miles, often looked on as a trial for horses with Champion Hurdle aspirations. The horse that appears most likely to fit that lofty billing, is the top-weight and race favourite Vaniteux. Third in the Supreme Hurdle, Nicky Henderson’s young hurdler will be running under rules for only the fifth time. Said to be “a very exciting prospect” by his trainer, he will be ridden by Barry Geraghty, who has given up a ride on Champion Hurdle winner Jezki .
No trainer has dominated this particular race, though Philip Hobbs has won three of the last 12. He looks set to give Garde La Victoire another crack at this trip, though he appeared to appreciate further at the end of last season. He’ll need to improve his jumping if he is to land a blow in what should be a brisk affair.
David Pipe won this last year with Dell’ Arca. On Sunday he runs the very promising Baltimore Rock for owner Roger Brookhouse. He was last seen running a great race behind Josses Hill at Aintree.Trainer John Ferguson won the Elite Hurdle last weekend and goes for a thrilling double with Mijhaar and Pine Creek. The latter was joint favourite for this last year when fading to sixth up the famous hill.
It may lack the kudos of several other Champion Hurdle trials over the coming weeks, but in Vaniteux the race definitely has a horse with star potential.
Cheltenham’s Open meeting is always a cracker. It’s an event in every sense of the word. The racing will be ultra-competitive, and the crowds will flock to soak up the wonderful atmosphere. There really is nowhere quite like Cheltenham in the winter.