Cheltenham. Day One.

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Honeysuckle. One last time.

I’m not there. OK. I said it. I have accepted it. Life’s challenges are still challenging us, so Cheltenham has been shelved for the third consecutive year. I was proud of my first streak, 2002-2015 and then another, 2017-2020. Yes, I made it four months after Miles was born, I made it the Covid year and no, I haven’t been back since. Put Cheltenham on the list of barn fire losses and laments.

But let’s pivot, move on, march forward.

Last year, I was able to watch four days of Cheltenham from Rehoboth Beach. We’ll do the same this year, catching three while Miles is on spring break, making the best of it. Dad, Miles, Sheila, Steve and a black dog named Masie replacing George, Candida, Pat, Val, Adrian, Barney, Tallulah, Daniel, Paola, Muffy, Charlie, Adam, Julian, Louisa, Richard, Jimmy, Francis, Marcus, Ruby, Davy and all my racing friends. Replacing…sorry family, we’ll go with sufficing. When someone says it’s better on TV, trust me, it’s not better on TV.

But let’s pivot, move on, march forward.

Here is a preview for Day One.

Arduous ground on tap.

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

Oh my, the first conundrum. Facile Vega, a son of Cheltenham legend Quevega, rolled into the Dublin Racing Festival as the undefeated phenom for the phenom factory of Willie Mullins. He left as the first big question of the Cheltenham Festival, after a 20-length drubbing. Sure, he went too fast too early but 20 lengths…

Now, do you take him on or stand by him? I won’t have a bet here. I don’t like favorites coming off flops (if anyone can erase a disaster, it’s Willie Mullins) and have struggled to find something to hitch a sail to as all have questions.

Il Etait Temps finished 4 lengths behind Facile Vega in December and trounced him by 20 lengths in February. He’s the most logical choice if the big horse can’t rebound. Mullins mans a deep ship, and most punters will stand by the king of all trainers.

Group 1 placed High Definition won his debut over hurdles before a shocking jumping display in the Facile Vega debacle. The 5-year-old horse unshipped J J Slevin that day and needs more polish than a hiker’s boot.

I tried to like some of the British hopes but found Rare Edition, Strong Leader and Tahmuras wandering when they needed to be winging late in their races.

Fennor Cross owns two wins at Cheltenham. Bombs away.

The Picks: Il Etait Temps, Facile Vega, Fennor Cross.

Race 2. 10:10. The Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase. Grade 1. $210,000. 1 mile, 7 furlongs, 199 yards.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

The best of the British novice chasers, Jonbon, against the best of the Irish novice chasers, El Fabiolo in the first Grade 1 stakes of the week.

Jonbon has lost once in his 10-race career to stablemate Constitution Hill in last year’s Supreme. Trainer Nicky Henderson chose the novice chasing route this year and the 7-year-old has gone 3-for-3, albeit, untested. He’s beaten a total of six opponents in those three races and exits a match-race win at Warwick which created as many doubters as it silenced.

El Fabiolo represents Mullins and Rolls in fresh off two facile wins over fences this season. The 6-year-old dominated a beginners’ chase at Leopardstown in December and came back to win the Grade 1 Irish Arkle by 10.

The protagonists have met once before when Jonbon ousted El Fabiolo by a neck in the Grade 1 Betway Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree in April.

The steak is sizzling. The volcano rumbling.

The Picks: Jonbon, El Fabiolo, Saint Roi.

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

The good news is I love Oscar Elite. The bad news is I’ve loved him since I wrote “Freak” on my Horse Tracker notes when he won at Chepstow in 2000. The worse news is we bet him when he finished second in the Albert Barlett at Cheltenham in 2021 and again when he was third in 2022. The even worse news is he was 40-1 the first time and 22-1 the second time. This time, he’s 11-1. You decide if this is the third wedding or the third funeral. Cool horse. Big field. Ground could be against him.

Tricky race. The Racing Post has 11 horses “tipped.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many.

The Picks: Oscar Elite, Corach Rambler, Monbeg Genius.

Race 4. 11:30. The Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade 1. $540,000. 2 miles, 87 yards.

Seventy-seven lengths. That’s the combined winning distance by Constitution Hill in his five starts. The best hurdler in the world sets sail for his fifth Grade 1 triumph in the Unibet Champion Hurdle. Owned by Michael Buckley, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Nico De Boinville, the 6-year-old son of Blue Bresil faces just six rivals in the opening-day feature.

State Man rides a six-race win streak, including four Grade 1 stakes, for Mrs. J. Donnelly, Willie Mullins and Paul Townend. The French-bred is the best in Ireland. He’ll shadow Constitution Hill and hope the favorite opens a door which has never budged.

As all-time Cheltenham leading jockey Ruby Walsh said on one of the previews, “Nico’s not going to complicate it, he’s going to be in the first two…I can’t even see a way or an angle for Paul Townend on State Man to try something, to do something, because Constitution Hill is just so simple, there doesn’t look like there is a weakness that you can go and try to expose.”

Sometimes you just need to sit back and enjoy.

The Picks: Constitution Hill, State Man, Vauban.

Race 5. 12:10. The Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Registered as the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. Grade 1. $153,500. 2 miles, 3 furlongs, 200 yards.

With such depth in the other Grade 1 races, the mares’ hurdle has attracted a stellar field which includes winners of the three previous runnings of the Champion Hurdle. Honeysuckle owns the last two and Epatante achieved the one before that. Both icons swerve away from the high beam of Constitution Hill and aim at a deep renewal of the mares’ hurdle.

Brandy Love, Echoes In Rain represent Willie Mullins. Love Envoi won the mares’ novice hurdle last year and is 2-for-2 this season. Marie’s Rock won this year last year and hasn’t lost since.

I hate watered-down cards, when there is a race for every division at every distance, but this is a gem.

Once more unto the breach for the great Honeysuckle.

The Picks: Honeysuckle, Epatante, Marie’s Rock.

Race 6. 1:30. The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. Registered as the Fred Winter. Handicap. $96,000. 2 miles, 87 yards.

OK, here’s the Horse Tracker Superfecta. Byker, Metamorpheus, Ludus and Mr Freedom. Any combination of those and I’m buying a French fry shack on Rehoboth Avenue and never coming back. Add favorite Tekao.

The Picks: Tekao, Metamorpheus, Ludus.

Race 7. The WellChild National Hunt Challenge Cup. Amateur jockeys’ Novices’ Chase. Grade 2. 3 miles, 5 furlongs, 201 yards. 

Trickle down economics. The depth of a super stable (here and there) is not an issue at the top, it’s how it alters the next level and the next level and the next level.

Gaillard Du Mesnil has notched a win, a second and a third in Grade 1 competition this season. The Willie Mullins-trained 7-year-old drops a notch and towers above nine rivals in the finale.

The Picks: Gaillard Du Mesnil, Minella Crooner, Mister Coffey.

Enjoy the day.