I recently followed a fiercely contested social media argument on the question of- When does the jump season start? One pedant rightly identified April 30th, the day after the 2016/17 season ended, but that really wasn’t entering into the spirit of the debate. Such as there was, the consensus pointed to Cheltenham’s opening two days- The Showcase. That was certainly how it felt when I returned to Prestbury Park on Friday. Gone were the shorts and football shirt uniform of the summer spectators; replaced by tweed in various forms of flamboyance. And I felt slightly more at one with the world again.
The issue of whether the sport is too Cheltenham centric is is too great to do justice in this post, but there is no denying it is both the physical home and spiritual centre of jump racing. Perhaps even more importantly, it does what it does extremely well.
One of the great pleasures of attending the non festival events is that whilst there is never any shortage of numbers – over 12,000 attended on Friday and 18,000 on Saturday- you can explore corners of the course you wouldn’t know existed if you only visited during the Festival Circus and there are more places to watch from than there are races.
The meeting began with a short field novices’ hurdle. Largely on the back of the Skelton brothers’ summer successes, I backed Blairs Cove. The favourite Brillare Moment won. Having recently posted about the lack of entertainment provided by novice chases, the opening day had two competitive races. All eyes were on Sceau Royal in the 2.35. North Hill Harvey won for the Skelton duo. If only I’d stuck to the rationale for my punt in the opening race – I backed Movewiththetimes, heavily influenced by the belief that Barry Geraghty wouldn’t come for a single ride without a good chance of victory.
It is, of course, pretty basic stuff that you don’t attempt to recoup your losses in a tricky handicap with a field of 21. However, I couldn’t resist an each way on bottom weight Trans Express, who I’d seen win at Exeter recently and out of loyalty to Devon trainers. I missed out by a place, but I couldn’t resent trainer, Tim Vaughan, his first Cheltenham victory after 151 previous attempts.
The second novices chase was an intriguing affair and a case could be made for any of the 6 runners. On the basis that Black Corton is a proper stayer, with good recent form and Bryony Frost loves Cheltenham, this is where my investment rested. The favourite, Fagan, began to fade before the second to last (summing up Gordon Elliott’s day, having brought over 5 without success) leaving a straight fight between Sizing Tennessee and Black Corton. In all honesty I suspect the former would have won if he hadn’t fallen, but thank you Bryony Frost, my day had suddenly got a lot better.
Not willing to risk my modest profit on a amateur riders’ handicap chase, I was happy to to passively watch a race run at furious pace and Derek O’Connor to win by a convincing 9 lengths on What Happens Now.
Back to basic principles for the maiden hurdle and each way on the Skelton duo’s Gortroe Joe. The favourite, Slate House, won- I guess if you pay £260,000 for a horse on the back of one point to point win, you’re entitled to a little return on your investment- but I was content to collect on 3rd place.
Now with enough profit to justify a curry and small glass of wine when I returned to Bristol for the night, I stayed clear of the conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle. The race was a story of a loose horse and how it influenced the outcome. Man Of Plenty looked like he would catch Bobble Emerald approaching the finish, when Harry Stock was forced to take evasive action to avoid the riderless horse. The argument goes he could have chosen the inside. Instead he went to the right, squeezing out Sean Houlihan who I thought was overly generous swapping his whip from one hand to the other and accommodating Bobble Emerald’s passage. After what seemed like an unnecessarily long look by the stewards, the standings were unaltered and a 33/1 winner was returned. The relief of the owners in the parade ring was both visible and audible.
I enjoyed Saturday less. Too many impossibly fathomable handicaps and I couldn’t couldn’t back a winner for love nor money. I was even out of the placepot after the second race, when the one banker I’d selected – The Skeltons’ Bedrock – let me down. My two other fancies of the day were Harry Fry’s Whataknight in the Pertemps and Alcala-who I still think would have got the better of Finian’s Oscar, but for freakish slip at Chepstow. Confident in the belief that even if the former didn’t perform for me, I could put everything on the latter in the novices’ chase and go home happy. By 4.30pm I was in the queue for the cashpoint machine. I was still restrained enough not to bet on the novices’ hurdle, but I would swear an oath and say if I had, I would have backed Callett Mad. Obviously he won, completing an impressive treble for Nigel Twiston- Davies, although the only one without his son on board who rode Dashing Perk.
It would have been wrong not have a punt on the final race, although I can’t ever remember winning on a bumper and have no idea how to read them. My £5 each way on the 25/1 Mighty Thunder seemed like a good idea at the time. He came 6th, with victory going to impressive looking Herecomestheboom.
Saturday night in Bristol was slightly more impoverished than Friday. I had to settle for staying in my hotel room with a bargain basement bottle of prosecco from Tesco and a large packet of Tortilla chips.
It would be wrong not to acknowledge Aidan O’Brien’s world record breaking 26th Group 1 flat victory. Even the big screen at Cheltenham yesterday switched to Doncaster to show Saxon Warrior win.