There are always many challenges facing punters in backing a winner at the Festival and this year’s preparation was even more tricky with the seasonally unusual heavy ground. Hours of study based on the assumption races would be run on good to soft, proved to be time wasted and the interminable round of Cheltenham Preview nights could provide no clues. Horses primed for a particular Festival race all season were either withdrawn or saw their chances greatly reduced, whilst the mudlarks were supplemented at the last minute.
If you look at the winners of the main race on each day, the task was even more difficult, because there was so little form on which to rely. Save for Champion Hurdle victor, Buveur D’Air – who arguably hadn’t had a test since winning the race last year- none of the other three had run more than once in the current season. Whilst at least Champion Chase winner, Altior, and Gold Cup winner, Native River, had been raced in the calendar year, Penhill who brought victory for Willie Mullins in the Stayers’ Hurdle hadn’t competed for 323 days.
This is in contrast to the winners of the corresponding fixtures at the 2017 Festival, when Buveur D’Air, with three runs in the season, was the most lightly raced. The others – Special Tiara in the Champion Chase, Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle and Sizing John in the Gold Cup- had all been raced recently and each clocked up four runs during the season.
Doubtless too much can be read into this: statistics tend to be interpreted as we wish to view them and I’m sure the pattern isn’t repeated with all Festival races. However, I do wonder if it is a sign of a trend particularly with the main players to prepare their horses at home, rather than get them match fit through competitive races – Remember how we were all encouraged to back Melon in last year’s Supreme Novices’ on the basis of one race and the stories of how he was galloping around Willie Mullins’ back garden. The big trainers have vast state of the art facilities, where perhaps it is felt preparation for championship races is best undertaken, rather than doing battle at the race track.
Should the major events increasingly be dominated by such rarely seen horses, the problem for the punter is, it is impossible to study form, where there is none to study.