Friday

As stocks crash and a virus rises, the horses stabilize. Samcro and Melon and Faugheen. Min and Saint Calvados. Lisnagar Oscar, well, he scored at 50-1, it wasn’t exactly a mooring in the storm, but it was brilliance. Three days down, one to go. The Festival. The glorious, mercurial, thrilling Cheltenham Festival.

Sport is escape. Surely, this week the sport has provided a necessary diversion, an excursion, a moment when you’re someplace else.

Samcro, Melon and Faugheen. Three who have covered the spectrum of unfathomable potential, shocking disappointment and legendary results over their storied careers. Yesterday, they ran down the hill and charged up the hill with all of that bombarding between them. Samcro nudged his nose on the line, nabbing Melon in the final stride, Faugheen churned just a few lengths back in third. Faugheen, head low, sides heaving, walked into the winner’s enclosure and received an ovation worthy of a former Champion Hurdle winner coming back at 12 to feel the flame, perhaps for the final time. That’s Cheltenham.

The cauldron of Cheltenham takes its toll. Horses lay it out there once, maybe twice, some of the greats, perhaps, three times and then in a wisp, a flash, they’re gone. Over the years, we’ve seen it again and again. This year, Tiger Roll lost the cross country chase. Yesterday, Paisley Park lost the Stayers’ Hurdle, so good last year, so hidden this year. That’s the game, horses go up, horsemen go up, horses go down, horsemen go down. You never know when or why exactly, it just happens in the cold, hard light of day.

While Paisley Park failed to fire his best, Lisnagar Oscar pulled Rebecca Curtis back to the Cheltenham fore. Adam Wedge, a rising star, had his day.

“He ran a blinder on his last run and I am not sure whatever happened to him at the beginning of the season. We did find a few ulcers and things, so we treated him for that and he was so well at home. I thought 50/1 was a massive price. Adam is what I call such a solid, solid jockey. I am delighted for him to get his first Festival winner. He has given the horse a brilliant ride,” Curtis said. “I'm absolutely delighted. I thought he had a big chance today; I didn't think he would beat Paisley Park, but I thought he'd get placed. To see him improve that much, I'm just delighted. I was thinking, 'don't get caught, don't get caught.’ It's a time when I need it, I'm trying to rebuild the yard. I've had four winners here before, but it's been five years, so it's just great to win another one.”

Race 1. 1:30. JCB Triumph Hurdle. Grade 1. 4-year-olds. £130,630. 2 miles, 179 yards.

Tomorrow’s stars.

The Picks: Sir Psycho, Never Do Nothing, Solo.

Race 2. 2:10. Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle. Grade 3. £100,000. 2 miles, 179 yards.

Oh, the County Hurdle, right up there with the Coral Cup in puzzling, muddled confusion. Willie Mullins sends out five. All season, it’s about a handicap mark in March. Today, those marks are in the past, you’ll see their best, primed for the day. On paper, madness.

The Picks: Ciel De Neige, Saint Roi, Adjali.

Race 3. 2:50. Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £130,630. 2 miles, 7 furlongs, 213 yards.

Root for the champ, Richard Johnson, on Thyme Hill. Blanked so far, on the ground twice, the struggle will be worth it with a win to finish the Festival.

Race 4. 3:30. Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase. Grade 1. £625,000. 3 miles, 2 furlongs, 70 yards.

The big one. Last year, we were wondering and waffling over who would win the Gold Cup. Al Boum Photo didn’t come up that often in conversation, one of Willie Mullins’ brigade, one of the gang. Then he won, now he’s the first one you hear. Can he win again? Only 8, form is strong, tactical jockey, deadly trainer. He’s gotten here the same way, one race this season, a win in the Savills New Year’s Day Chase at Tramore. Purposely done, he arrives fresh and strong.

Chris’s Dream, better known as Scorpiancer’s brother at home, rides a two-race win streak. Paul Nicholls has raved about Clan Des Obeaux’s preparation and a change in tactics from finishing fifth in the Gold Cup last year. Delta Work for Gordon and Gigginstown. Kemboy unseated in this race last year, he two Grade 1 stakes after it and then chased Delta Work twice this season. Presenting Percy has certainly gotten to this on a better rhythm than last year. Santini has most people uttering the confounding, “He just doesn’t feel like a Gold Cup winner.” We’ll find out.

The Picks: Al Boum Photo, Delta Work, Kemboy.

Race 5. 4:10. St. James’s Place Foxhunter Challenge Cup. Hunter’s Chase. £45,000. 3 miles, 2 furlongs, 70 yards.

Fascinating to see the stars go up and then come down, some of the veterans line up here, on their way back down the slide, a few point-to-point runs, now in hunter chases with amateurs/passengers. There’s Don Poli, Caid Du Berlais, Minella Rocco…and of course Hazel Hill, not of that mold, but a defending champion.  

The Picks: Hazel Hill, Staker Wallace, Shantou Flyer.

Race 6. 4:50. Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup. Grade 3. £110,000. 2 miles, 62 yards.

Another minefield.

The Picks: Paloma Blue, Greaneteen, Chosen Mate.

Race 7. 5:30. Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. £70,000. 2 miles, 4 furlongs, 56 yards.

The finale. Get out and get home. George Baker says Front View will win, of course he’s 10/3 but should get us enough money to buy a Saturday Racing Post and a Cadbury chocolate bars for the trip home.

The Picks: Ecco, My Sister Sarah, Front View.