They say never lead a story with the weather. Well, they don’t know Cheltenham. We arrived in the dark last night and, yes, it was raining. Evidently it stopped during the night. It's raining this morning. We’ll be racing on heavy ground at Cheltenham for the first time since 1982. Safer racing, surely, but it changes everything. I think it was J. P. McManus, when asked the three most important things about betting on horses, who said, “The ground. The ground. The ground.”
It will be a test today – same cauldron, different flame.
Ruby Walsh, the most successful jockey in Cheltenham history, returned last week after breaking his leg in November.
“I’m just happy to be here,” Walsh said.
Me too, Ruby. Me too.
Walsh has already turned the weather, the ground, into a positive.
“I love rain, I love soft ground,” Walsh said. “Position becomes more important than pace on soft ground.”
Nobody can position a horse like Walsh.
So here we are, a year later, Cheltenham is here. The great passage of time, the marker, the beacon, the moment to stop and take it in, to appreciate the journey, to revel in a sport that we hold so dear. At dinner last night, we wound up talking about our parents, their ages, their experiences, their friends, some are sadly gone. George Baker smiled and said, “I think I have another 30 Cheltenhams in me.”
Let the games begin.
First Race. 1:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. EDT) The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £125,000. 2 miles, 87 yards.
Paul Murphy reserved the name Kalashnikov and told his trainer/daughter, Amy, to let him know when she had a good one. Oh, did she get it right. Kalashnikov, a 5-year-old rocket ship has won three of four races this season, including a resolute win in the Grade 3 Betfair Hurdle at Newbury in February. Big and strong, he takes on Willie Mullins’ undefeated Getabird, and a host of other contenders.
The ground. The ground. The ground. Kalashnikov won’t mind it. I’m keying him on top of First Flow, Getabird, Paloma Blue, Simply The Betts and Summerville Boy and hoping some of the longshots clunk into the frame.
Watch Davy Russell switch off Paloma Blue, it could be vintage, one we look back to years from now.
The Picks: Kalashnikov, Paloma Blue, Getabird.
Second race. 2:10 p.m. (10:10 a.m. EDT). The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase. Grade 1. £175,000. 1 mile, 7 furlongs, 199 yards.
I like to put the exact distance because careers have been made, lives changed within those yards. The winner needed 199 yards…the loser needed 198 yards or, perhaps, 200, 201…a game of miles and inches.
Just five line up for the Arkle. But, it’s some five. Footpad rides a three-race win streak for Willie Mullins. Petit Mouchoir has chased him for Gordon Elliott. Saint Calvados rides his own three-race win streak for up-and-coming trainer Harry Whittington. I’ll stand back and watch the best novice chasers in the world.
The Picks: Footpad, Saint Calvados, Petit Mouchoir.
Third Race. 2:50 p.m. (10:50 EDT) The Ultima Handicap Chase. Grade 3. £111,000. 3 miles, 1 furlong.
Here come the handicaps. Wade in, be brave. Or back off and grab a pint?
I’ve always liked Vintage Clouds, perhaps the Hemmings colors, perhaps the name, but he’s always looked like a proper chaser, tough and resolute, he’ll need to be both here. I’ve been fooled by O O Seven more times than I can count but what the hell, I’ll take his bait again. Coo Star Sivola could give Lizzie Kelly her first Cheltenham win.
The Picks: Vintage Clouds, O O Seven, Shantou Flyer.
Fourth Race. 3:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m. EDT). Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade 1. £245,275. 2 miles, 87 yards.
It starts and stops with Buveur D’Air. Last year’s winner has won four straight since that win and seems invincible. Of course, he’s owned by J. P. “The ground. The ground. The ground.” McManus. Slick and fast at his hurdles, electric over the ground, the 7-year-old has won 13 of 16 starts. There are no more questions to answer, well, other than the ground.
Faugheen, once the Machine, has been vulnerable this season. He pulled up in December, finished second in February, Mullins pulls out the cheek pieces, Ruby sticks with him. More questions.
Elgin, supplemented for £20,000, is improving for Alan King, he’s got a chance.
The Picks: Buveur D’Air, Faugheen, Wicklow Brave.
Fifth Race. 4:10 p.m. (12:10 p.m. EDT). OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £120,000. 2 miles, 3 furlongs, 200 yards.
Another banker here as Apple’s Jade rolls in on a five-race win streak, including this year last year. The last time the 6-year-old mare lost was on heavy ground, if you’re trying to beat her, hang your hat on that, it’s about all I’ve got.
The Picks: Apple’s Jade, La Bague Au Roi, Benie Des Dieux.
Sixth Race. 4:50 p.m. (12:50 p.m. EDT). The National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase. Grade 2. £125,000. 3 miles, 7 furlongs, 166 yards.
It looks like Gordon Elliott has this one cornered with Jury Duty and Mossback, they could go 1-2. I think I’ll go look at their feet in the paddock, the bigger, the better. I’ll box Elliott’s pair, Barney Dwan, La Rocher and Any Second Now…and the one with the big, platter feet.
The Picks: Jury Duty, Ms Parfois, Mossback.
Seventh Race. 5:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m. EDT). The Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase. Listed chase. £70,000. 2 miles, 4 furlongs, 74 yards.
Another deep and crazy handicap. One thing I’ve learned, though, be careful with the spread in the handicaps, some are very close, certainly this one, as just eight pounds separate top to bottom. Enjoy.
The Picks: De Potting Shed, Any Second Now, Barney Dwan.