The day before the storm

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First, coronavirus threatened to cancel Cheltenham. Now Altior threatens to miss it.

The favorite for the Queen Mother is lame. That was reported yesterday and bandied about at the Highclere Syndicate lunch at the Noah’s Ark Pub in Lurgashall. “It’s a splint.” “It’s just a splint.” “What’s a splint?” At least it broke up conversation about Trump. That’s life here, good horse causes a scare and the bar crowd goes wild. Delicate, tense days for anybody involved in a Cheltenham hope.

As for me, it’s far from delicate, far from tense. Landed easily and smoothly at Heathrow, the coronavirus more of a background player than a lead actor for sure. Actually, there was no sign of it, no actions, no warning, no infrared thermometers, no isolation chambers. A few surgical masks, hand sanitizer dispensers busy, that’s about all.

Watched Joker, yowza. Haunting movie. Hate to admit, I was concerned about how often Joker touched his face and breathed on others as he murdered three on the subway, suffocated his mother and shot a television host. Fell asleep to Judy, that’s the good part of international travel, I’ll catch the second half on the way home. So much still to play in between. Four days of the greatest racing (I don’t have to say jump racing) to set us alight.

What’s different? What’s new this year? No Ruby Walsh, the king has left the cauldron, I’ve never been to a Cheltenham when he wasn’t in the, oh, hell when he wasn’t the eye of the storm. Fascinating, mesmerizing jockey without equal, the hands, the touch, the steely nerves, the canny moves that opened and closed puzzles that seemed to have no answers. Wonder what it’ll be like for him Tuesday morning, without the buzz, without the pressure, without the nerves. Part relief, part dismay.

As ever in racing, in life, the show goes on without you. Paul Townend taking over for Walsh. It’s a natural handoff as Townend had been second call at Willie Mullins’ all-encompassing yard, winning big races and riding fancied horses like most first-call jockeys. This is his first Cheltenham without Walsh leading the charge and taking the heat. Townend will handle it, just like he did last year when winning the Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo.

The ground will be soft for Tuesday, drying as the days pass. The Champion Hurdle highlights the first day. Epatante will try to beat the boys in a race being knocked for lacking star power. If you had a horse in the race, you wouldn’t be knocking it. The dichotomy of observing and participating.

So, it comes down to this. Right or wrong, the National Hunt season hinges on what happens at Cheltenham. All roads lead here. All hopes. All dreams.