On the First of January, many are asking themselves who am?, how did I get here?, why did I do that?
My first thought as the dawn of the New Year is when is Cheltenham week?
It is a horse racing festival without rival and an event I have been to without fail for the last decade.
Much like an excited dog waiting for a walk, I am obsessed with National Hunt’s finest show. This year’s renewal is no different; the most keenly contested Gold Cup in years, a wide open Champion Hurdle sadly deprived of its one genuine superstar, a clash of the generations in the Queen Mother chase, and Colin Tizzard’s marvellous Thistlecrack in the stayers’ hurdle.
The whole week is a stupendous event; for those not lucky enough to be there Channel 4’s excellent television coverage does suffice. I am lucky and I will be gracing the Cotswolds with my presence on the Wednesday, the day of the breathtaking two mile steeplechase – the Queen Mother.
However, that is a story for Wednesday.
Today is the Champion Hurdle, two miles over the smaller obstacles – requiring speed, precision, and tactics of the highest calibre. Sadly last year’s imperious winner Faugheen is absent through injury but, rather like Lewis Hamilton being removed from a Formula One grid, It creates a more exciting but diluted race.
Day one (Tuesday) invariably has a card that favourite-backers enjoy; there is an impressive 40% strike-rate for their selections.
This augers well for the Irish trainer Willie Mullins, who brings 60 horses to the festival; four of them are sure to start as favourite in today’s seven races. Of these Min, Douvan, and Vroum Vroum Mag looked to be nailed on winners.
And he will also saddle the favourite, the mare Annie Power, in the Champion Hurdle. The race is though far from a foregone conclusion. Heretofore, only three mares have won this race – one, Dawn Run being trained by by Mullin’s father. One should not be a slave to history, but nor should one ignore it.
Further negatives are the fact that she is being dropped back from her favoured three mile trip; there is a risk that the faster run two miles may be a tad quick for the old girl. Nor should one forget that she had cataclysmic fall at the last fence when she raced at last year’s festival.
My instinct is to bypass the new pretenders and go deeper into the peloton. Peace and Co, trained by the great Nicky Henderson at 20-1, is my tip. He has had an iffy season, to put it politely, but has course and distance victories in his back pocket, coupled with a side order of class.
The most splendid horse of the day is Douvan, in the the Arkle. Douvan who will win but is perhaps not worth a flutter unless one puts half their mortgage on him.
Elsewhere, I think John Jo O’Neill’s Hollywell has an outstanding opportunity in the 2.50, likewise the interestingly handicapped Local Show in the 4.50. Tuesday with its plethora of Willie Mullins hot pots and offers one a opportunity to lump on short priced favourites and build a nest egg for the remaining days.
Remember chaps…it’s a marathon not a sprint.
2.10 Douvan (NAP)
3.30 Peace and co.
4.10 Vroum Vroum Mag (nb)
4.50 Local Show