I’m off to Cheltenham tomorrow for the first of four days racing at the Cheltenham Festival.
Despite the deluges of much of the winter the ground has been drying out, as it always does these days at Cheltenham, and the going will probably be just on the soft side of good. But we’ll see how the first few races go.
People correctly talk about ‘horses for courses’ – British (and Irish) racecourses are all different (unlike US racecourses which are all built on the same model). Some are flat and some are hilly; some are right-handed (the horses run in clockwise circles) and some are left-handed; some are pretty some are ugly; some have hard fences for the horses to jump, some have easy fences and some have no fences; and there are other differences too. Cheltenham is a left-handed, hilly course that has a lovely view of the Cotswolds behind it but has developed an awful lot of clutter in the middle of it over the years which reduces its beauty. The beauty probably doesn’t affect the horses much but the other factors do – some horses love the place and others hate it. If you are thinking of having a bet then a previous winner at Cheltenham, particularly at the great racing of the Festival, is a good pointer. But I’m not letting you into much of a secret there – almost every habitual loser in your local Ladbrokes will tell you that – and it won’t have saved them losing all the time.
People talk less often about ‘horses for the going’, possibly because it doesn’t rhyme, but it’s just as important. There will be some trainers who will be removing their horses from the races if the ground is too soft and others who will be withdrawing theirs from the same races because it isn’t soft enough for them.
There aren’t really such clear ‘jockeys for courses’ although there are a few jockeys who seem to perform better than average on some courses and the current and multiple-champion jockey, the great (but rather miserable looking) AP McCoy, often seems to have poor luck at the Festival even though riding a large number of really good horses.
The Champion Hurdle is the ‘big’ race of the first day of the Festival. It is run over 2 miles (and 110 yds) and the horses have to jump over smallish obstacles called hurdles, and the jockeys have to stay attached to their mounts, to win. There have been five triple-winners of this event in the past and Hurricane Fly is bidding to be the sixth (having won the race in 2013 and 2011) and he (though he is a gelding) has a good chance again (current odds 5/2). He’d like the ground to be pretty soft but we know he likes Cheltenham because he’s performed here before.
Up against him are eight other horses of which the best are probably The New One (11/4), Our Conor (4/1) or My Tent Or Yours (also 4/1). I have dabbled in the ante-post betting market and will be happy if the Hurricane, The New One or MTOY wins.
My favourite race of Day 1 though is the Arkle chase. This is for young horses and is also run over 2 miles but this time over fences rather than hurdles. Hurdles can be brushed aside if you hit them while jumping them (if you are a few tons of horse travelling at 30mph anyway) whereas fences are like hedges and tend to trip you up if you don’t get it right while jumping them.
The Arkle chase is named after the famous racehorse, who in turn was named after the fairly famous Sutherland mountain by the Duchess of Westminster (married to the 2nd Duke), and the current (4th) Duke of Westminster, named Gerald , owns a grouse moor in the Forest of Bowland, where the occasional Hen Harrier nests (that is about as birdy as this blog will get – it’s Cheltenham!).
This year’s race might be fought out by the Irish favourite, Champagne Fever (current odds, 3/1), and the former Champion Hurdle winner (between Hurricane Fly’s two victories), Rock On Ruby. Rock On Ruby (9/2) seems to like Cheltenham and so does Champagne Fever. The Irish horse has only raced in the UK twice, at the last two Festivals, where he won the Bumper (I’ll tell you what that is tomorrow) and the Supreme Novice Hurdle (the clue’s in the name – it’s a good race for young hurdlers) last year.
If Hurricane Fly and Champagne Fever win then the Irish will be on top of the world. We’ll see. I’m not telling you who will win because I don’t know!