Cheltenham Day 1: The (muted) Roar

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Well, it’s here. Cheltenham returns. A very different Cheltenham. A very different world. 

A year of disruption and dismay comes full circle today. I don’t dare write, ends today. A year ago, the pandemic closed in and Cheltenham provided the last gasp of normalcy, of celebration. Although, it was a stifled gasp, a somewhat muted celebration, all of us on edge, realizing that the world was going to look very different very soon. 

I came home scared, wondering if I was bringing this unseen, unknown virus home to my family. I dropped my stuff on the porch, walked around the side door and quarantined for two weeks. Strange, surreal. I’ve typed surreal more in the last year than ever before. That feeling has dissipated, but that’s about all. 

But, alas, I regress, let’s look at today, enjoy today, appreciate today. As the pandemic has taught us, or tried to teach us, do more with less. Cheltenham from the couch is certainly less, but it’s time to celebrate the horses, the jockeys, the spectacle, the sport – the more. 

Following tradition, here’s a quick look at today’s card, followed by some at-a-glance picks which should be taken lightly at best. 

Enjoy. 

Race 1. The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. $128,500. 2 miles, 87 yards.

As you know, I always type the exact distance, those 87 yards could change your life. 

The traditional opener for novice hurdlers. A sign of things to come. Youngsters on the big stage. 

A light field for the opener. No social runners this year. Willie Mullins brings his usual arsenal to Cheltenham. Appreciate It leads it off, riding a three-race win streak into the opener, this looks like four. I’ve been impressed by Metier, he gets his acid teste against Appreciate it here. 

The Picks: Metier, Appreciate It, Blue Lord. 

 

Race 2. The Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase. Grade 1. $180,000. 1 mile, 7 furlongs, 199 yards. 

Just five line up the marquee novice chase of the season. The race lost main Irish hope, Energumene, which leaves it looking like a penalty kick for the undefeated Shishkin. Harry Skelton won’t make it easy, running and gunning from the front aboard Allmankind. There will be a moment when you wonder if the ever-aggressive Skelton has ever-patient Nico de Boinville on the tip of his sword. He won’t. 

Captain Guinness hit my Horse Tracker early but tries to rebound from a fall. I vowed once to never bet a horse coming off a fall at Cheltenham. We’ll see if I stick to that vow. 

Bruton Street is represented by Franco De Port, who overcame an early blunder to finish second in his most recent start. Cool horse. Tough spot. 

The Picks: Shishkin, Captain Guinness, Franco De Port.

 

Race 3. The Ultima Handicap Chase. Grade 3. $113,000. 3 miles, 1 furlong.

Last year, we went to a preview night to listen to Kim Bailey talk about his team. Happygolucky represented well with a fourth at 25-1. He’s no 25-1 this year. The trainer comes here with the favorite. I’ve always liked One For The Team but unexpected rain earlier this week hurt his chances. 

The Picks: Happygolucky, One For The Team, Vintage Clouds. 

 

Race 4. The Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade 1. $462,500. 2 miles, 87 yards. 

The undefeated Honeysuckle. The defending champion Epatante. The mercurial Goshen. 

Stand back – OK, sit down – and watch.

The Picks: Honeysuckle, Goshen, Sharjah.

 

Race 5. The Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Grade 1. $123,500. 2 miles, 3 furlongs, 200 yards. 

Let’s call it the David Nicholson. 

Mullins wins this with Concertista. Sorry, it’s that simple.

The Picks: Concertista, My Sister Sarah, Roksana. 

 

Race 6. The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. Grade 3. $82,000. 2 miles, 87 yards. 

Let’s call this the Fred Winter. 

Eighteen pounds separate high weights Nassalam and Youmdor and low weight Curious Bride. Tricky race. 

The Picks: Busselton, Saint Sam, Youmdor. 

 

Race 7. The Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase. Grade 2. $128,500. 3 miles, 5 furlongs, 201 yards. 

The first Festival without Lord Vestey. Take a moment. 

Sadly, no amateurs competing this year. 

Next Destination missed over two years of his career but he’s back with a second and two wins and swerved to this spot. He towers over these. As the Racing Post says, “…the right combination of stamina, jumping proficiency and experience.” The three keys. 

The Picks: Next Destination, Lord Royal, Galvin.