Cheltenham: Buveur Three

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That’s the description. The one word description when asked about the weather. Who needs the Weather Channel, it’s accurate. You can hear it. You can see it. The trees are taking sucker punches, bending in half. Relatively dry, though. At least for now. We’ll take that.

When I asked for a tip from one of my insider friends, I received, “Bring a raincoat.”

It’s Cheltenham. Proper chasing weather. Anybody can be a racing fan when it’s sunny and 60. Today. Proper chasing weather. Proper chasing fans. We’ll be having our Guinness under cover, perhaps a quick lunch inside, then on the lawn for the roar, the rest of the day in and out.

I ticked Plumpton off the list of racecourses still to visit yesterday, quaint country track with charm. Especially when you have a winner. Steel Bob upset the handicap hurdle for Team Baker. We decided to walk to the last hurdle, away from the finish line, away from the winner’s enclosure, away from everybody. After two rounds of the 3-mile contest, we began to walk the other way, back up the hill toward the storm. Yes, that’s how well Steel Bob, a horse purchased for £1,500 at Ascot Sales just a few weeks ago, was traveling. Always traveling, he led around the final tight turn and began to climb, we pumped our fists, we roared (is there a Plumpton roar?) and Steel Bob and Marc Goldstein did the rest, our first winner of the week.

Another racing story. One for the book.

Mick Bradford, the father of Baker’s traveling head lad, Dean, went “off piste” and went to the Ascot Sales to buy a horse. Nobody really knew he went. Nobody offered advice. Nobody offered guidance. Pedigree? Conformation? Form? Perhaps, Bradford studied it all or perhaps he just went with his gut or he simply raised his hand when nobody else did.

Steel Bob changed hands for £1,500, walked into his new stable. Oh, boy. A consolation hammer fall for a horse off Harry Fry, a top-class trainer who will have runners, and most likely winners, all week at Cheltenham, a £1,500 punt, project. This can’t work. Candida Baker galloped Steel Bob every day, a change of scenery, a change of routine and, voila, a winner. No, it wasn’t Cheltenham but it was as big for Bradford, his family and friends as any winner this week will be for Gigginstown, McManus, Ricci or any others at Prestbury Park. It won’t go down in the annals of racing, but it will go down in Bradford’s. Every horse has his level. Every owner has his dream.

Cheltenham. Day One.

Race 1. The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. $160,000. 2 miles.

The traditional opener for novice hurdlers. French-bred Al Dancer rolls into Cheltenham on a 4-for-4 streak for father/son Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies. One for the home team. For some reason, Norman Normal shows up on my Racing Post Horse Tracker. Now, that would a kick start to the week, he’s 200-1.

The Picks: Al Dancer, Vision D’Honneur, Fakir D’oudairies.

Race 2. The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase. $234,000. 2 miles.

This is fork in the road for novice chasers, when they stamp themselves as Queen Mother favorites or solid handicap chasers. Over the years, we’ve seen the breakout moments of Altior, Un De Sceaux, Sprinter Sacre, Moscow Flyer…today, who will break out and become tomorrow’s star? Glen Forsa has won all three chase starts since switching codes in November. Kalashnikov nearly won the Supreme last year, he finished 19 lengths adrift of Glen Forsa at Sandown in February. We’ll root for Kalashnikov and bet an exacta with Willie Mullins-trained Duc Des Genievres.

The Picks: Duc Des Genievres, Kalashnikov, Glen Forsa.

Race 3. The Ultima Handicap Chase. $141,000. 3 1/8 miles.

When you look through a Cheltenham handicap and it feels like the old days of driving without a GPS, then, turn the page and go for a walk. Twenty-four strong, this Grade 3 is an impossible task. I’ve always been a fan of O O Seven and Minella Rocco, but they’re high in the handicap without recent form while Coo Star Sivola and Vintage Clouse, first and third in this race a year ago, lurk near the bottom. Tricky race.

The Picks: Vintage Clouds, Magic Of Light, Lake View Lad.

Race 4. The Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade 1. $576,000. 2 miles.

The feature of the day attracts a stellar field and a script of questions. Buveur D’Air has won the last two renewals but comes here off an uninspiring 2-length win over Vision Des Flos at Sandown and a nose loss to stablemate Verdana Blue. Both efforts have left the door squarely open. Or at least that’s what Gigginstown and Gordon Elliott think with Apple’s Jade and Sullivan Bloodstock and Willie Mullins think with Laurina. The two mares take their acid tests today. Combined they’ve won 20 of their 28 starts and come rolling in on long winning streaks. I’ll put a small each-way flutter on Silver Streak.

The Picks: Buveur D’Air, Silver Streak, Apple’s Jade.

Race 5. The OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. $160,500. 2 1/2 miles.

Champion Hurdle contenders Laurina, Apple’s Jade and Vedana Blue would win this. That leaves the door open for the banker of the day, Benie Des Dieux. She won it last year and hasn’t run since winning at Punchestown in April. Ruby Walsh says she’s his best chance. That’s good enough for me. We’ll box Mullins in a triple.

The Picks: Benie Des Dieux, Stormy Ireland, Elimay.

Race 6. The Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase. $89,500. 2 1/2 miles.

Another deep and deceptive handicap, this one for novice chasers rated 0-145. I’ll go for a Guinness.

The Picks: A Plus Tard, Roaring Bull, Good Man Pat.

Race 7. The National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novice Chase. $160,000. 4 miles.

Novices. Amateurs. Chase. 4 miles. Let that one roll around your heart and brain for a bit.

The Picks: OK Corral, Impulsive Star, Ballyward.