It starts before the turn-in, nearly three furlongs from the winning post, but not until the final obstacle has been cleared does the gradient increase and the lactic acid-leadened stride of the leader begins to shorten; the more powerful stayers, outpaced earlier, now gain ground up the unrelenting climb, the guttural roar of the frenzied masses in the stands and on the lawn roar encouragement at the one chosen to carry their hopes and euro. Jonjo O’Neill was once asked how it feels to face it, this Cheltenham hill. “It’s like trying to get to heaven”, he said.
Nirvana, indeed, awaits the army of racing enthusiasts from South Tipperary and beyond who will head to the Cotswolds next week for the annual Cheltenham Festival. Alastair Down, sometimes prone to hyperbole, put it quite succinctly in a recent Racing Post article: ”And to go there and stand witness to extraordinary events is a rare and wonderful act of being at one with your fellow clutterers of the planet. The elements of pilgrimage are incredibly strong as time, effort, expense and often a wearying journey are involved, and if the target of the worshippers is not exactly holy, the centre of the festival universe – the winner’s enclosure – has about it a strong sense of something sacred not least for the sacrifices that have to be made in order for horse and humans to stand there”.
The Meagher family from Cahir are hoping to see a certain horse in that winner’s enclosure after Friday’s Gold Cup. Burton Port, third favourite for the week’s feature, was bred at their Kedrah House Stud outside the town. Owned by Trevor Hemmings, who has connections to the region himself, the Nicky Henderson trained eight year-old ran a race full of promise on his first start for a year at Newbury recently, finishing an ever-decreasing half-a-length behind current Gold Cup favourite, Long Run. He actually finished in front of his stablemate in the 2010 running of the RSA Chase so the Meaghers certainly have cause for optimism.
As I write this the news of Kauto Star’s schooling mishap is breaking and with him now only 50-50 to make the race the odds of a Burton Port victory have shortened. Whatever happens, Kedrah House has plenty to look forward to as they hold the dam and full sister to Burton Port, both of whom are in foal to Well Chosen, son of Sadler’s Wells, and their resident thoroughbred stallion.
Local hopes of Festival success among the training ranks will once again rest with the Edward O’Grady and Mouse Morris stables.
O’Grady, who trains at Killeens, Ballynonty, has only recently been usurped as leading current Irish trainer at Cheltenham by Willie Mullins. Given the size of the Closutton operation that is understandable, and while recent years have been barren, O’Grady is still a man to be reckoned with. His chances this time around are filed more under intriguing than obvious, with Cash And Go falling into that former category. His participation in Tuesday’s Supreme Novice Hurdle remains in doubt but if all is well he is fully entitled to take his chance. A Grade 1 winner at Leopardstown over Christmas, something was clearly amiss when he returned to that venue last month to finish only fifth of seven runners. In fact, he scoped poorly after the race and returned slightly lame. His trainer is quoted as saying this is his best chance of a winner at the meeting and if he does line up he will bid to give O’Grady a third win in the festival opener to supplement the victories of Back In Front and the brilliant, but ill-fated, Golden Cygnet.
Also keep an eye out for the stable’s JP McManus-owned Sportsmaster if he lines up in the Fred Winter on the Wednesday and Catch Me if he takes his chance in the Pertemps Final the following day.
Mouse Morris’ base at Everardsgrange, Fethard, enjoyed its greatest Cheltenham moment when War Of Attrition, owned by Michael O’Leary/Gigginstown House Stud, won the Gold Cup in 2006. The same connections struck again in last year’s Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle when First Lieutenant, under Davy Russell, devoured that aforementioned hill to collar Rock On Ruby in a thriller. This time twelve months ago I stated that I could “already envisage discussing his chances in the RSA Chase next year”. And here we are.
Of course you didn’t need to be Alex Bird or Phil Bull to predict such a scenario, as the trainer himself suggested “he will be ten times better over fences”. However, such bold predictions seemed grossly misplaced earlier this season. A debut chasing victory at Tipperary was followed by an abject display in Cork where he was turned over at odds-on. Back at Mallow three weeks later he hardly impressed when beating the mare Stephanie Kate, albeit over a trip short of his best on bad ground. But the worst was yet to come. In the Grade 1 Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse in December he made a dreadful blunder at the eighth and was eventually pulled up. The dream had turned to nightmare.
However it was around this time that First Lieutenant was diagnosed with a back problem. Connections had been blaming his malaise on running on unsuitable ground when in fact the horse was hurting every time he raced. The subsequent treatment seemed to have the desired effect as his next run in Leopardstown was easily his best over fences – a staying-on second to Last Instalment over three miles.
Improvement on that form can be expected next week and it will certainly be necessary. Wednesday’s RSA Chase looks a good renewal, with Grands Crus currently heading the betting around the 2/1 mark. David Pipe’s charge may still take up an engagement in the Gold Cup and, if so, the 6/1 about First Lieutenant available now would represent value. Bobs Worth is the other notable contender and he is sure to relish the test that Cheltenham offers. Of more importance to him is the fact he will run left-handed again. Expect him to be much nearer to the favourite than he was at Kempton on St. Stephen’s Day. All told, the picture is blurred at the moment but rest assured that if Mouse gets him there First Lieutenant will be ready to run for his life. There are few, if any, trainers his equal when it comes to getting one right for the day that counts.
After expanding to a fourth day in 2005 with the introduction of some new races (and thus diluting the quality according to some), the Festival was embellished with the first running of the Charity Race in 2010. Embellished is the correct term here because the twelve amateur riders taking part in the St. Patrick’s Derby raise money for Cancer Research UK. One of this year’s participants is Coolmore employee Wendy Normile, originally from Marlfield, Clonmel and now living in Fethard. Her brother, Alan, who along with his wife Lucy trained racehorses in Scotland lost his battle with liver cancer in December 2010, aged just 36. In preparation for the one mile, five furlong flat race on Thursday, March 15th Wendy has been riding work at Mouse Morris’ stable, where the trainer and his staff have offered invaluable encouragement and assistance. Indeed, according to Wendy her adventure would not have been possible without them. Should you wish to help her cause simply visit www.justgiving.com/Wendy-Normile where you can donate up to a month after the race.
A book will be opened on the St. Patrick’s Derby but unless John Magnier and Aidan O’Brien suggest Wendy rides Camelot as part of his 2000 Guineas preparation I wouldn’t be inclined to get involved. There are, thankfully, twenty-seven other races to choose from and while not all of them appeal from a betting perspective there remains plenty of opportunities over the course of the week.
The following points appear in this preview every year but they are well worth repeating. The naysayers continue to cry “lies, damn lies and statistics” and while trends and stats are far from the be-all and end-all when trying to unearth the winners during the week they are certainly a viable weapon to have in your betting armoury. So, take note of the following before investing - 50 of the last 63 handicap chase winners (ignoring the cross country race) carried no more than 11st;
Don’t avoid the obvious in the big four Championship races (Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup, World Hurdle and Champion Chase). 37 of the last 48 winners were found in the first 3 in the betting;
Since 1994 half of the handicap hurdles have been won by horses that won last time out. Impressive in itself, but even more so considering they accounted for only one fifth of the runners.
In the last six Festivals 83% of all winners finished in the first four on their most recent start.
Armed with that knowledge, what’s going to cover the week’s expenses? Anyone could tip up Quevega, Hurricane Fly or Big Buck’s but the risk-reward ratio in backing any of those hardly seems worth it. Instead I’ll be looking for a bit of value. If using a bookmaker as opposed to Betfair, make sure they offer the Non Runner, No Bet concession before having a bet. I wish I had held fire until this offer was in place because two of my original strongest bets for the week, Peddlers Cross in the Arkle and Empire Levant in the County Hurdle, are unlikely to line up – the joys of ante-post punting.
First up is Monksland in Wednesday’s Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle. Certain to improve for the better ground he will encounter at Cheltenham his form already compares favourably to that of anything else in the race. Not only that but with Boston Bob possibly going for the Albert Bartlett on Friday and Nicky Henderson running Simonsig in the wrong race (he should have gone for the Supreme) the 7/1 about Noel Meade’s five year old is tasty. As a rule I don’t like backing Meade horses at the festival as he tends to target early season races and they arrive here over the top but the price negates that. Monksland has been campaigned sparingly and I won’t be looking any further for the winner.
Noble Prince, trained by Paul Nolan, has been running over an inadequate 2 miles all season but come Wednesday the horse will have ideal conditions for the first time this campaign – 2m 5f on good ground in the Ryanair Chase. A winner over a similar trip at last year’s meeting, he may not have the assistance of Tony McCoy this time around as the champion jockey will surely stick with the hat-trick seeking Alberta’s Run. Of the opposition, Riverside Theatre is far from the strongest of favourites, Rubi Light would appreciate more cut in the ground although he ran a huge race last year and has improved since, and the rest have a bit to prove. 6/1 appeals.
Finally, in the Grand Annual, the race that brings the week to a close, Nicky Henderson will be well represented in the event named in honour of his father who saved the racecourse from being turned into a housing development many years ago. If he runs French Opera under top weight here it means stablemate Tanks For That will carry 10st 13lbs. A previous course and distance winner, this horse needs to be fresh and he’s had a break of 69 days to prepare for this. He has returned to the track four times in his career off a similar break, won three of them and finished second in the other. At 14/1 he’s a bet, especially if Barry Geraghty chooses to ride. It will be all over for another year after this race and we’ll be feeling a little sorry for ourselves so hopefully he can lift the spirits slightly.