Cheltenham – Let the Games Begin

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Update. I survived two lots at George Baker’s this morning. They asked if I wanted to school Sinbad The Sailor, I gave it a long thought and passed. In the words of my old college roommate, Paul Wasserman, it is something I would have liked to have done. Ah well, discretion is the better part of valor or something like that.

I wrote the following hours earlier, also on front page of website. Enjoy.

It is here. Opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. The first of the four best days of racing. Champion Hurdle Day. Arkle Day. It’s 3:30 in the morning and I can’t sleep. I slept soundly for a couple of hours, then bolted up, awake, wired, revving. Bring it on.

Valdez on my mind, of course. Also, galloping three sets for George Baker (haven’t galloped a horse since here one year ago). And passes, badges, lunches, drinks…does everybody have passes and badges, bookings for lunches and drinks? Also, I hate to admit, writing this column/feature/blog is weighing on my mind a bit. I find it daunting, trying to offer a proper feature on Cheltenham…too big, too vast, too broad and also alarming under the time constraints of three sets and a mad dash over Cleeve Hill and into Guinness Village. At the moment, I’m typing while sitting on the floor of a dark bedroom at the Manton Estate, trying to keep the keys from rattling my wife out of her sleep. Oh, the places you write.

Funny place, Cheltenham. For me, it’s encapsulated my life since retiring from riding races. I came here, single. I came here, dating. Now, I come here married and a father of one. I came here as a friend of Gus Brown, when we somehow ferreted him a Festival ride in 2003, he gave him every chance. I came here as a punter. I came here as a journalist. I came here as a fan. Today, I come here as an owner, finally making good on a decree I made in 2002, “I’ll have a runner here one day.”

My Cheltenham tour is very easy to track, my first foray came the year after foot-and-mouth caused the cancellation of the Festival, I’ve been here every year since. The first year, galloping Pelagos for Bruce Miller, watching Istabraq pull up and listening to the crowd salute him, bunking with three mates in the groom’s hostel at the end of the stretch, thinking, ‘This would be brilliant if I was 22 but not quite as charming at 32,’ and ‘How am I ever going to find the perfect woman living like this?’ Of course, I thought I’d find that perfect woman in the 21 Club on Regent Street in Cheltenham. Oh yes, those were the days.

The next few years, I commuted to the Festival with international jump scion Richard Hutchinson, we drove from Bradford on Avon, talking about what was in store all the way there and then rehashing it all the way home, then sitting at home over Stellas and Chinese takeout and watching the day’s racing we taped on a VCR. Watching and regaling our scores (I still can’t believe Timmy Murphy galvanized Tikram to win the Mildmay). I could not have come to Cheltenham without Richard’s house, car and hospitality.

During the Richard years, I brought my bag to Cheltenham one day and went home with George and Candida Baker. They weren’t trainers then, they had a rental somewhere, they had a dinner party, it was madness and mayhem. I’ve been staying with them ever since, before they were trainers, hopping from Far Westfields to Whitsbury Manor to Manton (and some friend’s houses and strange places along the way). We have had many laughs.

Before the Bakers, I would sit in the Centaur and drink a pint of Carling, by myself, reading the Racing Post. I didn’t know where Guinness Village was, didn’t know the Turf Club served salmon sandwiches and didn’t know you could stay at Cheltenham until well past dark.

As for the racing, it took until 2005 for me to see any horse win the Gold Cup other than Best Mate. Class personified, when you looked into his eye, you saw his soul. Kicking King, War Of Attrition, then the great battles of Kauto Star and Denman – hyped and delivered. Then the one-and-dones of Imperial Commander, Long Run and the over-achieving and ill-fated Synchronized. Last year, Bobs Worth. This year, Bobs Worth.

The Champion Hurdle delivered each year. Hors La Loi winning when Istabraq bailed out and poor old Valiramix broke his shoulder on the flat. That one etched it in stone for me. The worker Rooster Booster, the determined Hardy Eustace went back-to-back, Brave Inca gutted one out, Sublimity shocked me, Katchit made me always take a second look at small horses, Punjabi, Binocular, then the Fly, Hurricane Fly sandwiched Rock On Ruby and tries to make it three today. The public changing of the guard has always struck me at Cheltenham, there will come a day when the reigning kings become the dethroned kings, the day Kauto Star fell, the day Hardy Eustace faded…the day Hurricane Fly can’t match horses with four years less mileage. It will happen, when is the question.

Beyond the stars of the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother – ah, the mercurial Moscow Flyer – and the stayers lurk the likes of Go Ballistic, who ran here nine times, Inglis Drever, who paid for my trip by winning his first stayers (I still like to call it that), Junior, who made me realize I needed to learn to pull the trigger and so many other iconic horses and indelible moments. Theatre on a racecouse.

As for today…did I tell you Valdez is running?

The First. The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Grade I. Purse, $199,000. For novice 4-year-olds and up. 2 1/16-miles.

Ruby Walsh made a tough call here, opting for three-time hurdle winner Vatour over two-time hurdle winner Wicklow Brave. Both are trained by Willie Mullins, Ireland’s Todd Pletcher. Sparkling race, 18 runners strong. Irving has dominated in four races since joining Paul Nicholls. Wilde Blue Yonder is a nice horse for Alan King but he’s fallen in his last two starts. Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty team up with Vaniteux. I loved Un Ace when he hacked up in his debut at Doncaster in February, but there is nothing more daunting than an inexperienced horse facing Cheltenham. Gilgamboa could set the table for J.P. McManus and A.P. McCoy.

The Picks: Vatour, Irving, Un Ace. (Editor’s Note: I do my best work when looking at the horses in the paddock, so be careful with my paper picks here).

The Second. The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase. Grade I. Purse, $249,000. For novice 5-year-olds and up. 2 miles.

Well, I’ll admit journalistic partiality here. Obviously, I’m a Valdez fan, three wins from three starts since switching to chasing, ground has dried which is in his favor, he stayed 2 ½ miles at Cheltenham in April. Still, it is the acid test. On hurdle form, he’s well below Champagne Fever and Rock On Ruby, who have done it at Cheltenham. Champagne Fever won the Champion Bumper and the Supreme Novices and Rock On Ruby owns a Champion Hurdle victory. Beyond them, Dodging Bullets and Trifolium are hard to fault. Daunting.

The Picks: Valdez, Champagne Fever, Trifolium. (What did you expect?)

The Third. The Baylis & Harding Handicap Chase. Grade 3. Purse, $149,500. For 5-year-olds and up. 3 1/16-miles.

Tread lightly in handicaps has been my learned mantra over some pocket-scouring debacles. 24 runners. High-weight Cantlow carries 166 while low-weight Solix totes 144. Like scuba diving, always look at the bottom.

The Picks: Time For Rupert, Wrong Turn, King Massini.

Fourth Race. The Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade I. Purse, $694,000. 4-year-olds and up. 2 1/16-miles.

The feature of the card. Hurricane Fly aims for his 24th career victory and 10th in a row. Trained by Willie Mullins, the 10-year-old son of Montjeu has not lost since finishing third to Rock On Ruby in the 2012 Champion Hurdle, a defeat jockey Ruby Walsh blames on himself. Awesome horse. The youngsters, Our Conor, My Tent Or Yours, the aptly named The New One will try to rattle the mantle. Hope the changing of the guard isn’t this year.

The Picks: Hurricane Fly, Our Conor, My Tent Or Yours.

Fifth Race. The OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. Grade 2. Purse, $141,000. For fillies and mares. 2 ½ miles.

History. French-bred, Irish-trained Quevega goes for her sixth consecutive win in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. She runs twice a year, that’s all. Here and Punchestown. She makes her first start since April, 2013. By design. She looked beaten last year. While you’re watching, don’t throw away your ticket, she’ll come running.

The Picks: Quevega, Down Ace, Cockney Sparrow.

Sixth Race. The National Hunt Chase. Class 1. Listed Amateur Novice Chase. Purse, $141,000. 4 miles. Take your pick. Irish-based Foxrock rates a long look for father/daughter team of Ted and Katie Walsh.

The Picks: Midnight Prayer, Foxrock, Shutthefrontdoor.

Seventh Race. The Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase. Listed Novice Chase. Purse, $99,500. The nightcap, a puzzle. Last year, I stood in the paddock before the Coral Cup and looked at Pendra thinking, ‘Wow, this is a chaser.’ Now, he’s a chaser.

The Picks: Pendra, Buthelezi, Buywise.

Enjoy the day. I just heard a rooster crow (no kidding), time to gallop some horses.