Cheltenham: The Sprint is On

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Hurricane Fly balked. Hesitated. Waited. Ruby Walsh grabbed his ear, which had been flat back for most of the Champion Hurdle, and gave it a good-natured shake. The horse walked forward. The crowd erupted. It was the only hesitation from the champion, who regained his crown in a gallant performance at Cheltenham Tuesday.

The Irish-bred, with the ballerina walk, struggled to keep pace behind Rock On Ruby (told you they were going to the lead) until finally, it was like he looked up at Ruby and said, ‘OK. OK. I’ll do it.’ And he did it, swinging past a gallant Rock On Ruby and Zarkandar to win his second Champion Hurdle. Now, there are two who have regained the Champion Hurdle crown.

Ruby smirked on the way to the winner’s enclosure, another one pulled from the fire. A race later, he pulled another one from the embers when Quevega…actually, she pulled this one from the fire. The Cheltenham legend won her fifth consecutive David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, rallying from deep down in the deep field to win easily in the end. There was a moment where she looked beaten, even a moment when the lawn jockeys uttered contempt for Ruby’s decision to let her lag well off the pace. In the end, indeed, newspapers, racecards, even a few hats went in the air. Next year will be six.

As for Wednesday, well, a precautionary inspection has been called for at 8 o’clock. Another sleepless night for clerk of the course Simon Claisse, who had ordered frost covers on Monday night and again last night. As for the George Baker team – we finished second in Quiz Night at the local pub – we have two lots and then a mad dash through the tub – yes, tub – and back into the cauldron.

Race 1. John Oaksey National Hunt Chase. 4 miles. Amateur riders. $138,500 purse.

Our old friend, Steven Clements rides Hawkes Point for Paul Nicholls while Sprinter Sacre’s exercise rider Nico de Boinville rides Godsmejudge for Alan King. Willie Mullins goes for his fourth winner of the meet (already) with high-rated Back In Focus. Some test, 4 miles in ground they’ve described as gluey.

The Picks: Back In Focus, Rival D’ Estruval, Emperor’s Choice.

Race 2. Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle. Grade I. 2 5/8-miles. $195,500 purse.

Yesterday, the 2-mile novices squared off in the Supreme. Here is the longer version. Rule The world handled yesterday’s winner Champagne Fever in January. Taquin Du Seuil goes for his third consecutive win for Jonjo O’Neill and A.P. McCoy. Willie Mullins and Ruby team up again with undefeated German-bed Pont Alexandre. Two Rockers tries to remain undefeated for Alan King and Wayne Hutchinson.

The Picks: Pont Alexandre, Rule The World, Chatterbox.

Race 3. The RSA Chase. Novice Chase. $244,500. 3 1/6-miles.

Here’s where Ruby Walsh’s brilliance shines. He juggles Willie Mullins’ star-studded Irish team and Paul Nicholls’ star-studded British team. And they let him. Ruby picks Unioniste for Nicholls over Boston Bob for Mullins here. Tough call.

The Picks: Unioniste, Boston Bob, Terminal.

Race 4. Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase. Grade I. $570,500. 2 Miles.

The feature race of the day and the most electric race of the Festival year after year. The eggs are in the fryer.

No horse in the land dominated like Sprinter Sacre who won the Arkle with disdain last year and has continued to jolt the 2-mile chaser division since. Stand back and watch the burgeoning legend. He’s 1-5 on the morning line for Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty. Women, hold your hats. Men, hold your ties down.

The Picks: Sprinter Sacre, Sizing Europe, Wishfull Thinking.

Race 5. The Coral Cup. Grade 3 Handicap Hurdle. $130,500.

The handicaps at Cheltenham run deep and confusing. Any Given Day carries high weight at 166 pounds. Look down the field and try to find something unexposed. I’ll go to the paddock and try to mine something from the minefield. Pendra, a novice with just three hurdle starts will try to dance through the minefield.

The Picks: Abbey Lane, Owega Star, Master Of The Sea.

Race 6. Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. Grade 3 Juvenile Hurdle. $122,500.

Another deep and contentious race, with 24 4-year-olds clashing. John Ferguson, yes, that John Ferguson, runs there while Nicholls and Mullins continue to fire.

The Picks: Totalize, Hilali, Ruacana.

Race 7. Weatherbys Champion Bumper. $98,000. 2 1/16-mile. Flat.

Another puzzle with Mullins usually holding the upper hand. Flat jockeys Richard Hughes, Joey O’Brien and Graham Lee take part. The Bakers run I’m Fraam Govan. One to judge from the paddock.

The Picks: Sgt Reckless, Briar Hill, Shield.

Good luck. Enjoy. My apologies for the scattershot approach. Two lots await.