This blog is nothing to do with nature – it’s to do with the Cheltenham Festival which takes place in the Cotswolds next Tuesday-Friday. And that’s where I will be next week – but, never fear, the blog will go on.
No-one could seriously claim that which large brown horse, with a small man perched on top, runs round a racecourse the quickest is a matter of any crucial importance, and I will not make that claim here (but I must point out that horses of other colours, and jockeys of other genders are available). However, everyone needs a break and my choice of get-away-from-it-all break is to plunge into the glorious irrelevancy of National Hunt racing for these four days of the year, without fail.
Four days, hmmm – that’s a bit of a bone of contention actually as the Festival used to be three days – Tuesday-Thursday – until the marketing folk realised that they could stick in a few more races of little quality and spread the feast out over an extra day. So now the Festival is a bit like drinking a whisky into which someone has poured a little too much water – you get the same thrill in the end, you get the same hit in the end, and it has the same impact in the end, but each sip is just a little diluted.
I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
Here’s a guide to the four ‘big’ races at the Festival – one each day.
Tuesday – Tuesday is a great day! It’s the first day, and so when you arrive you haven’t yet (probably) lost any money unless you had a bet months ago on a horse that has died, got ill or decided to go to Sedgefield instead. The ‘big’ race of the day is the Champion Hurdle (although the best race of the day is the Arkle Chase).
The Champion Hurdle is a race over hurdles (little things that people have put in the way of the galloping horses) over a distance of two miles. It’s called ‘Champion’ because it’s a very prestigious race to win and the best horses try to win – and sometimes they do.
There are lots of examples of horses winning this race several times in a row, and last year’s winner, Hurricane Fly, will be trying to do just that on Tuesday starting at 3.20pm – by 3.24 we will known whether he did or not. Hurricane Fly is odds-on in the betting. That means that he is more likely to win than lose according to the market so, in theory, the Champion Hurdle is a bit less interesting than a coin toss.
As a birdwatcher, perhaps I should back previous winner Binocular – but I have never seen Binocular coming. I have tended to bet on him in races when he has lost and not bet on him when he has won – so unless you want to phone me up at 3.19 on Tuesday to find out which I have done, so that you can do the opposite, that isn’t much use to you.
Looking back on the history of the race over the last 25 years reminds me that I have rarely backed the winner of this race. The most frustrating race of all, for me, was in 1995 when Alderbrook won it. No-one had ever heard of Alderbrook a few months before the race as he was really a horse that chickened out of real racing to run in Flat races where you don’t have to jump over anything. Alderbrook beat two of my favourite horse, Large Action and Danoli, both of whom I had backed (each way I am glad to say) with real money. And they came second and third behind that flat horse.
Wednesday – Wednesday is a great day! It’s probably the very best day of the Festival and it certainly has the very best race – the Champion Chase.
The Champion Chase is a race over fences (big things that people have put in the way of the galloping horses) over a distance of two miles. It’s called ‘Champion’ because it’s a very prestigious race to win and the best horses try to win – and very often they do.
You should try very hard to bet on a horse with ‘Flagship’ in its name because Viking Flagship won the race twice (with my money on it both times) and almost won it several other times and Flagship Uberalles also won it (also with my money on it) – but this year’s runners don’t have a Flagship so we’ll have to try another way to find the winner.
The difficulty for me is that last year’s winner, Sizing Europe, is one of my favourite horses ever. That is partly because he won the Arkle Chase on the Tuesday of the 2010 Cheltenham Festival (and I bet on him, 6/1) and then won last year’s Champion Chase (and I bet on him, 10/1). He is the most likely winner of this year’s too – but will be at a silly price – about even money – coin toss territory again.
I have three tasks on this race this year: resist betting on my favourite Sizing Europe as his odds do not represent good value for my money, resist betting on anything else (as he will probably win) and resist looking pissed off when he does win (even though I haven’t had a bet). It’s going to be tough.
My worst Champion Chase was 1997 when I had cleverly bet on almost every horse in the race except the winner (Martha’s Son). One of my best Champion Chases was 1999 when a fragile horse called Call Equiname won at 7/2 which I had backed at 25/1 months earlier – if only I had put more money on!
Thursday – Thursday is a great day! Thursday is Ladies Day but since this is Cheltenham in March, not Ascot in June, and the ladies won’t be racing over hurdles or fences we can quite safely ignore that. Thursday is really World Hurdle day. The World Hurdle does not involve a circumnavigation of the globe otherwise Channel 4 would lose interest but it is a long race – of about 3 miles. It used to be called the Stayers’ Hurdle – and still is where I live.
The difference between the Champion Hurdle over 2 miles and the Stayers Hurdle over 3 miles – is a mile! And that’s a world of difference – believe me. Very few horses can cope with both distances and some are ideally suited to a distance in between – and I fear that applies to another of my favourite horses, Oscar Whisky. OW is not quite fast enough to win the Champion Hurdle and may not stay quite well enough to win the Stayers Hurdle – but we’ll see on Thursday. If he is to win then he has to beat Big Buck’s who won this race in 2011, and 2010 and 2009 in a string of 15, so far, unbeaten races.
Friday – Friday is a great day! Friday is Gold Cup day. The Gold Cup is not the best race of the Festival – though it is a very good race – because the Champion Chase is the best race. But the Gold Cup is the most famous race and has been won by racing legends such as Arkle, Desert Orchid and Best Mate. It is run over fences and a distance of 3 and 1/4 miles.
Last year’s winner was Long Run ridden by amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen. Since amateur jockeys practically never win the Gold Cup Mr Waley-Cohen has already had his share, so Long Run won’t win (and he doesn’t seem the same horse as last year). Also, the wonderful Kauto Star – who was the winner twice in the past is now 12 – and therefore officially past it (although no-one seems to have told the horse as he has had a wonderful season away from Cheltenham).
So it has to be a longer priced winner this year and we should look to Burton Port, Weird Al or Midnight Chase to win or come very close at a decent price.
The Gold Cup has been a very good betting race for me. Kicking King (2005) paid off the mortgage and I backed Cool Ground (1992) at 50/1. Add in Desert Orchid, Imperial Call, Imperial Commander, Best Mate and a host of long-priced placed horses (remember Dubacilla? – I do!) and this is a race that has helped put a slightly better bottle of wine on the table over many a year.
Has that helped? I doubt it! But then it wasn’t really meant to. You can find plenty of tips in the newspapers, on the radio and down the pub.
Betting is the purest form of decision making – if you are good at it then you win money, otherwise you don’t. Over the medium term there are no excuses and nothing remotely like luck. But if you have a bet – good luck!