Cheltenham: Here comes the Hurricane

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And suddenly, unbelievably, a year has gone. It is Cheltenham again. As my grandmother, Nora Clancy, used to say, “When I was young, the days were short and the years were long. As I got older, the days are long and the years are short.” Indeed, the years seem so short. Imagine, a year has passed since we were last at Prestbury Park, rooting home Rock On Ruby, Finian’s Rainbow, Big Buck’s and Synchronized.

Really, a year? When the flag drops for the first, sure, I think about the first but I also think of the passage of time. Yes, a year has gone.

Rock On Ruby defends his crown, Finian’s Rainbow has been demoted, Big Buck’s is on the bench and, sadly, Synchronized is gone.

It’s bitterly cold. The ground is soft. The games are about to begin.

Day One.

Race 1. The William Hill Supreme Novices Hurdle. Grade I. Novice hurdle. 2 miles, 110 yards. Winner earns £68,340.

My Tent Or Yours stands at the top of the market, fresh off a dominant win in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. The high-cruising, hard-pulling 6-year-old drops down to take on novices. Champ A.P. McCoy takes the call for trainer Nicky Henderson. He’s very good. I think he’ll do too much early in a competitive renewal of the traditional opener and be found out late (hey, you’ve got to be contrary in this game). I’m going for an Irish exacta in the opener, looking at Jezki for Jessica Harrington and Un Atout for Willie Mullins. Hey, the Irish travel far to get here, let them pay for the trip early.

The Picks: Jezki, Un Atout, My Tent Or Yours.

Race 2. Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase. Grade I. 2 miles. Winner earns £85,425.

Short field for the novice chase. Henderson’s Simonsig, 7-for-8 in his career, makes just his third career start over fences. He’s made the first two count, winning with consummate ease six days apart in December. Amazingly, he hasn’t run since and puts the age-old question of talent vs. inexperience in the oven. Good horse. Big test, as he chases high-class hurdler-turned-chaser Overturn who will put them on the run from the beginning. American-bred, yes, American-bred (and raced) Tap Night gets an acid test for new owner J.P. McManus while Arvika Ligeonniere tries to overcome a fall in his most recent start. The race comes down to a simple premise, “If he jumps, he wins.”

The Picks: Simonsig, Overturn, His Excellency.

Race 3. JLT Specialty Handicap Chase. Grade III. 3 miles, 110 yards. £90,000 guaranteed.

I just told George Baker, “Remind me to not bet any of these 24-horse handicaps.” So, here goes.

The Picks: Merry King, Loch Ba, Poole Master.

Race 4. Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade I. 2 miles, 110 yards. Winner earns £227,800.

I used to disregard the 110 yards after the 2 miles for many of these races until I saw my life-changing fortunes blow up in those final, hill-climbing, bucket-cleansing 110 yards. The feature of the first day pits three former winners, Hurricane Fly, Binocular and Rock On Ruby against a host of challengers led by Zarkandar. Hurricane Fly, 16-for-19 over hurdles (read that again), tries to become the first Champion Hurdle winner to regain his crown since Comedy Of Errors in the 70s. The great Lanzarote vanquished him in between. Funnily enough, Binocular aims for the same feat but nobody seems to talk about him.

Rookie trainer (at least on paper) Harry Fry puts blinkers on last year’s winner Rock On Ruby, a bold move for a young trainer and a proven horse but in this game, you need definitiveness to be successful. That’s definitive. They say they’re not sending him, I think they’re sending him, trying to pull off the Hardy Eustace coup from 2004.

Trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh, Hurricane Fly, won’t knock the trilby off your head in the parade ring. He’s unimposing, just a horse, but I’ll be anxious to see him in the paddock this year. Last year, he looked forlorn, even for him. This year, we’ll see.

I like Binocular, each-way, as he needed his return, a third behind Hurricane Fly in Ireland, his first start since last year.

The Picks: Hurricane Fly, Binocular, Zarkandar.

Race 5. Glenfarclas Handicap Chase. Cross Country Race. 3 miles, 7 furlongs. £50,000 guaranteed.

Cheltenham’s “funny” race. Never a race where I wade deeply, well, except for the old days when bettors abandoned old friends Spot Thedifference in 2005 and Garde Champetre in 2008, but an interesting race to watch, at the least. Purists don’t think it belongs at the Festival, perhaps, but I’m here once a year, I’ll take it and enjoy it.

Enda Bolger has won four of nine runnings and returns with Arabella Boy and Freneys Well. I’ll fish outside his pool and select Outlaw Pete, third in his most recent start.

The Picks: Outlaw Pete, Arabella Boy, Big Shu.

Race 6. OLBG Mare’s Hurdle (registered as the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle). Grade II. 2 miles, 4 furlongs. Winner earns £47,830.

Hello old friend. Quevega aims for her fifth consecutive victory in her race. Yes, her race. Trained by Mullins and ridden by Walsh, the 9-year-old mare makes her annual return to Cheltenham, also her annual debut. She ran twice in 2010, twice in 2011 and twice in 2012. Three times at Cheltenham. Three times at Punchestown. All wins. She hasn’t run since winning at Punchestown in April, 2012. They call her quirky and opinionated, also undefeated at Cheltenham. Last year, when she won, programs went high in the air. This year, there will be hats.

The Picks: Quevega (come on), Swing Bowler, Alasi.

Race 7. The Rewards4racing Novices’ Handicap Chase. Listed Race. 2 miles, 4 furlongs, 110 yards. Winner earns £34,170.

Another one to wade in tepidly. I’m a paddock guy, so most of my picks come late. On paper, whew, nothing easy. I love my old friend Carlito Brigante, who’s paid for a few rounds over the years, but he’s carrying 11-9, tough task. I’ll bet exactas and trifectas, combining four or five horses and hope for some bombs.

The Picks: Carlito Brigante, The Druids Nephew, Ohio Gold.

Enjoy. I’ve got to go to bed. Two lots in the morning, seven races in the afternoon and Quiz Night in the local racing pub, The Outside Chance, in the evening. Good thing it only comes once a year.