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It’s expected that around 250,000 people will roll into the Cotswolds for the Cheltenham Festival determined to enjoy themselves and, at various times, to ‘raise the roof’.
How things have changed on the roofing front since the days, early in the 1800s, when racing at Cheltenham took place high up above the modern-day course on the vast, rugged expanse of Cleeve Hill.
A fiery local parson Francis Close led protests against it, and in 1830 a large stand that had been constructed for viewing was burned, roof and all, to the ground.
How the cleric, after whom one of Cheltenham’s principal schools, Dean Close, is named, must have spun in his grave as the Festival grew into the most significant stand-alone event of the early part of the British and Irish sporting calendars.
Those who attend are said to boost the Gloucestershire economy by £100m, while goodness knows how many more following from afar ensure an estimated £200m betting bonanza – no wonder the gloom that surrounded the Foot and Mouth cancellation of 2001 continues to feel so fresh.
Then, the intended format was three days – increasing to four in 2005 – but a fifth afternoon, a Saturday, with the extra income and the new weekend-crowd it will engender, is probably soon to come, by 2024 I’d guess.
Those who thought that the latest reincarnation of this often-debated and dismissed issue would spark a Close-like level of fury have been mainly disappointed.
Amongst the backers is Nicky Henderson, who has been readying another power-packed team at his Seven Barrows base at Lambourn; having two more races – all that’s needed to go to five, six-race days – at which to aim has obvious attractions for trainers.
Henderson, for many years the Festival’s leading trainer until Willie Mullins edged by, will be out to regain the initiative this time.
No one would fall over in amazement if five high-profile fancies, Shishkin (Supreme Novice Hurdle), Epatante (Champion Hurdle – despite recent coughing), Champ (RSA Chase), Altior (Queen Mother Champion Chase) and Santini (Gold Cup), made up into a winning Super-Yankee.
No horse has been more discussed than Altior, who is due to face Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi in the ‘Race of the Week’, during the jumps season.
A first-ever defeat over obstacles suffered by the winner of races at the last four Festivals, at Ascot in November, was probably just an unprecedented blip, and there’s no reason why he won’t show his brilliance again, and at slightly juicier odds than might have been anticipated.
I hear too that the Henderson-trained Palladium (Boodles Hurdle) is expected to put in a good performance, and though no one is counting any chickens about the rejuvenation of Might Bite, there is a quiet confidence about a good run – maybe more – in the Cross Country Chase.
Unsurprisingly, the market to be Top Jockey in the first ‘post-Ruby’ [Walsh] Festival is headed by Paul Townend, who has seamlessly replaced the now-retired winning-most Festival jockey as Mullins’ number one.
With connections to Jessie Harrington and Team Tizzard, Robbie Power is a popular selection too, as is Henderson’s main-man Nico de Boinville, and Davy Russell, on the presumption that he’ll ride many Elliott-trained hopefuls.
Also bang in there, and potentially most interesting if you compare odds and mounts, is Rachael Blackmore, the rider of her first two Festival winners in 2019.
Blackmore and Henry de Bromhead have become the most potent of jockey/trainer combinations, and they bring a striking challenge from County Waterford.
Names like Notebook (Arkle Chase – beware, it can be slight hold-your-breath-time before the start); the unbeaten Irish Champion Hurdler Honeysuckle (Mares Hurdle); A Plus Tard (Ryanair Chase); novice hurdler Minella Melody; and Aspire Tower (Triumph Hurdle). See what I mean?
With Blackmore in the saddle, the buoyant de Bromhead as trainer, that nice, catchy name plus the unbeaten record, Honeysuckle would be a significant winner, both in terms of the Festival and the profile of racing as a whole.
With the Irish teams of de Bromhead, Mullins and Elliott so strong, it just goes to show what Henderson, Nicholls, Tizzard and co. are up against in trying to keep the twenty-eight prizes and £4.5m in prize money at home.
Elliott’s extensive challenge is spearheaded by the Grand National winner Tiger Roll, seeking a third Cross Country victory and a remarkable fifth Festival success (he’s also won the Triumph Hurdle and NH Chase) since 2014; there’s also unbeaten novice hurdler Envoi Allen; The Storyteller (Pertemps Hurdle); and form-horse Delta Work, the one for me in the Gold Cup.
As with Elliott, it’s hard to know how to start with Willie Mullins’ biggest hopes.
Wherever she goes Benie Des Dieux brings formidable credentials; the same applies to Chacun Pour Soi (Queen Mother Champion Chase) and that real trouper Min; Faugheen, now chasing, is just Faugheen; and Asterion Forlange won a Leopardstown novices hurdle that’s generally a good guide.
Al Boum Photo, Mullins’ first Gold Cup winner after six second places, attempts to become the first back-to-back winner since Best Mate (2002-2004); and, elsewhere, former winner Penhill is an each-way shout against defending Stayers’ Hurdle champion Paisley Park.
Ah yes, Paisley Park: with his commanding authority, his colourful owner Andrew Gemmell and his ever-engaging trainer Emma Lavelle, ‘Team Paisley’ is amongst jumping’s most popular.
News of a repeat success might well go viral, and, in 2020, let’s hope that’s the only sort of viral to concern us.
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