Cheltenham Day 1

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The crowds return for the roar of Cheltenham Tuesday. Sean Clancy Photo.

Well, hello old friend. It’s been far too long. Four years. Four long years.

My first was 2002. Two years after I retired and one year after foot and mouth. I stayed in the Hunter’s Lodge, shared a two bunk-bred room with three others, the bathroom down the hall, galloped Pelagos each morning, heard about the craic, learned about the craic, shut down 21 and fell in love.  

Like-A-Butterfly…Moscow Flyer…Hors La Loi…Flagship Uberalles…Husard Collonges…Blowing Wind…Baracouda…Best Mate…Royal Auclair…Rooster Booster…

But it was a loss that tattooed the soul.

The moment when Istabraq pulled up safe and sound in the Champion Hurdle. That’s the one. The favorite going for his fourth, out after two, money gone, champion gone. The roar at the start, the gasp when Charlie Swan pulled him up, the silence when we were unsure and then the roar when he came to a stop at the highest point in the track. John Bonham couldn’t have jolted it more. You knew it was goodbye. The last time we would see him on the track. That was it for him. And me. I came back every year, missed 2016 with a bad neck and came back for four more before Covid splintered the skein and rocked the world.

But, alas, we are back. And it’ll all come back on the drive over Cleeve Hill, dropping into sleepy little Winchcombe, past the helicopters, the scalpers, the footbridges. Into the trainer’s car park, bustling walk through the gate, a crisp and clean racecard in your hand, the first smooth swig of Guinness, the first horse in the paddock, the big, brave bay who looks at you like he’s seen you before. Yeah, let the games begin.

Race 1. 9:30 a.m. ET. The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. 2 miles, 87 yards. $162,000.

The opener. The Willie Mullins 107-1 five-leg accumulator begins here. Tullyhill sports four wins and two seconds in six starts, including dominant wins in his two most recent hurdle starts. Stable jockey Paul Townend chose the French-bred 6-year-old over all the others. His only flaw is a tendency to drift left and jump ponderously. An engine is an engine.

Stablemate Mystical Power brings an undefeated record into his sternest test. He’s by the great Galileo out of the great Annie Power and is improving. But might not be there yet.

Jeriko Du Reponet is also undefeated for Nicky Henderson, but the stable is other-side-of-the-pillow cold. The French-bred 5-year-old could ease fears or elicit tears at Seven Barrows.

I’ll go for Slade Steel for an upset to start the day.  

The Picks: Slade Steel, Tullyhill, Mistergif.

Race 2. 10:10. The My Pension Expert Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase. Grade 1. 2 miles, 7 furlongs, 199 yards. $210,000.

Mullins goes three deep in the Arkle. Can you be confident in Gaelic Warrior? The six-time winner couldn’t finish a two-horse race at the Dublin Racing Festival in early February. Hunters Yarn and Il Etait Temps won their previous starts.

The Picks: Il Etait Temps, Found A Fifty, Quilixios.

Race 3. 10:50. The Ultima Handicap Chase. 3 miles, 1 furlong. Winner: $150,000.

The first handicap of the week provides the first puzzle of the week. Twenty-three line up, including Monbeg Genius and The Goffer, 3-4 in last year’s renewal. It only took Corach Rambler and Fastorslow to beat them a year ago.

Kim Bailey offers Trelawne and Chianti Classico. Both have chances.

The Picks: Stumptown, The Goffer, Weveallbeencaught.

Race 4. 11:30. The Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade 1. 2 miles, 87 yards. $559,000.

The story is who isn’t here. Constitution Hill was ruled out after a poor work and a bad scope. Unfortunately, his defection promoted another odds-on favorite squarely to the top. State Man chased Constitution Hill last year and hasn’t lost since. Another banker for Mullins and Townend and this one looks invincible.

The absence of Constitution Hill enticed Irish Point and Iberico Lord here. Both talented, they pose the closest threats to State Man. If there is such a thing.

The Picks: State Man, Irish Point, Colonel Mustard.

Race 5. 12:10 p.m. The Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Registered as the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. Grade 1. 2 miles, 3 furlongs, 200 yards. $144,000.

The next banker. Lossiemouth, who would be a threat in the Champion Hurdle has her layup here in the filly and mare novice hurdle. The Mullins dominance trickles down. The 5-year-old mare has lost once in seven starts. She stretches to 2 ½ miles for the first time. It might not be ideal for her but being much the best lessens any distance questions.

The Picks: Lossiemouth, Ashroe Diamond, Telmesomethinggirl.

Race 6. 12:50. The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. Registered as the Fred Winter. 2 miles, 87 yards. $96,000.  

Twenty-two juveniles. In a handicap. Some are exposed. Some have been kept unexposed. Good luck.

The Picks: Lark In The Mornin, Milan Tino, Liari.

Race 7. 1:30. The Maureen Mullins National Hunt Challenge Cup. Amateur Jockeys’ Novices’ Chase. Grade 2. 3 miles, 5 furlongs, 201 yards. $150,000.

Named after a legend.

Just seven in the finale and there are chances throughout. Corbetts Cross and Embassy Gardens lead the group. Salvador Ziggy was last seen finishing seventh in the Grand National at Far Hills.

Nothing would make the day like Mr Vango winning. The 8-year-old was the last runner – and winner – for Gold Cup-winning trainer Mark Bradstock.

The Picks: Embassy Gardens, Corbetts Cross, Henry’s Friend.