Cheltenham: Monday’s View

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Jet lag dismissed as I went hard at it off the plane Saturday, enjoying the Imperial Cup at Sandown, two pints at the Pheasant Inn and family dinner with the Bakers at Manton. Slept until 11 Sunday morning, galloped three Monday morning and am starting to seize up already. Old bones.

I used to bring my running gear on this trip. Packed it, left it in the suitcase, and lugged it home. This year, I left the shoes and shorts at home, replacing them with hunting gear for Saturday after Cheltenham. Ambitious, agreed.

Market Rasen and Warwick on the television Sunday. Stratford, Plumpton and Taunton Monday. Whew, what a difference watching British jump racing on a flat-screen LG compared to mini-window on my laptop. Decent cards, owners and trainers try to earn some money while jockeys try to survive, days before Cheltenham. Last year, Jason Maguire hit the ground at Stratford, missed Cheltenham and months of action. A few years ago, Dougie Costello broke his leg, on the eve of a solid book of rides. Like riding the last at Mountaineer, the night before the Derby. Nothing guaranteed in this game.

The calm before the storm. A well-used term, but well used for a reason. Cheltenham looms Tuesday. It’s outlandish (and pointless) to try to compare one Festival to the next as each one stands on its own, but there are guaranteed stories this year.

Ruby Walsh forced to make a choice in the Champion Hurdle. Hardly a choice, I guess. The changing of the guard? Walsh chooses potential over proven, opting to ride the undefeated Faugheen while abandoning two-time Champion Hurdle winner Hurricane Fly. Awesome renewal as Hurricane Fly seeks his fourth win in a row, The New One aims at his sixth in a row and Irish raider Kitten Rock rides a four-race win streak.

Annie Power returns for her first start since May when she improved her career record to 11-for-12. A cog in the all-encompassing Willie Mullins brigade (he runs 50 horses over the four days), she tries to take over where Mullins’ Quevega left off in the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle. The stout chestnut mare has lost once, finishing second to More Of That in last year’s World Hurdle. She returns in a two and a half mile hurdle off a 311-day layoff.

The last two winners of the Queen Mother return for this year’s edition of the 2-mile chase. Sprinter Sacre won it two years ago, he was flawless, the world at his mercy. Then he was at its mercy, suffering from an irregular heartbeat and pulling up at Kempton in 2013. He’s run once since, finishing second without convincing he’s his old self but not distinguishing that he wouldn’t be the next time. The next time is Wednesday. As Sprinter Sacre hit the skids, Sire De Grugy hit the top, winning last year’s Queen Mother within a skein of five wins. He hurt his hip early this season, returned in February but lost jockey Jamie Moore after a rusty round of jumping. Trainer Gary Moore decided he had better fix it in the afternoon, sending out the 9-year-old to a facile win at Chepstow February 21. A grafter from a grafting stable, he makes his third start in 32 days. Epic matchup in the hot skillet of the Queen Mother.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup, as always, holds its own stories. The rock stars of the old days – Best Mate, Kauto Star, Denman – are gone. Stand out? Not even close. Silviniaco Conti has been stellar this season but he still has to prove it at Cheltenham, something he’s yet to do in three tries. Lord Windermere won a puzzler last year but was far from convincing. Bobs Worth won it two years ago but he’s just 1-for-4 since, finishing a non-threatening fifth last year. Many Clouds has gradually come to hand for Oliver Sherwood, winning the Hennessy and the BetBright Cup at Cheltenham in January. I bet him at 14-1 in last year’s RSA Chase, he was hampered when Black Thunder fell and then was brought down when Don Cossack fell. I’ll probably bet him, I’ll definitely root for him.

Beyond the horses, the races, the gambles, the moments, there is one story that will define this Festival. AP McCoy says goodbye. The soon-to-be 20-time champion jockey retires at the end of the season (if you hadn’t heard…). This is his final Cheltenham, his final time to bleed for his brethren. Like watching Babe Ruth walk to the plate, tipping his cap and saying goodbye. Over the years, I remember his wins – Brave Inca, Binocular, Synchronised, Wichita Lineman – but it’s the defeats, the wrong decisions, the falls that are etched in stone for me. Goodbye, champ.