For a National Hunt fan, the only thing that can compare to Christmas Eve as a child is the buzz you get on the Monday evening before the Cheltenham Festival. Nothing compares. I enjoy the big flat festivals, and the same can be said for the other jumps meetings, but they’re enjoyed in an “oh it’s Ascot today, that’ll be good” kind of sense, rather than with the mounting-anticipation-for-weeks way that the festival is.
All that said, the Altior vs Cyrname clash of last Saturday was certainly something to ponder. I genuinely think that was the most excited I’ve – ever – been to watch a race. Ever. And it got me thinking, again, that it’s not really the Cheltenham factor as much as it’s quality, competitive racing that excites me.
National Hunt racing inspires a passion and enthusiasm in people that is not so easy to muster for the flat. Yet, if we’re being honest, the Festival basically sucks all the life from other courses who are, in essence, mere constituent members. Were it not for the fact that Altior is a bit less pacy and Cyrname is particularly adept on right-handed tracks, the clash we saw last Saturday would never have happened and, if it did, it would have been confined to March.
‘Faintly ridiculous’ Festival focus
It’s hard to blame Cheltenham themselves of course, beyond the fact they have a desire for the Festival to increase ever further, perhaps to include a Saturday. It’s a move some see as inevitability, others as a further dilution of their product. Scheduling is part of it – more on that later – but we have to look inwards as well.
Bookmakers screaming festival prizes two seconds after a horse has won a prestigious race like the Grade 1 Betfair Chase is derivative. Industry hacks holding festival preview nights in October is lunacy. Even watching the brilliant Lydia Hislop’s new Road to Cheltenham show last night – which was excellent because, in spite of the name, it was really an analysis programme – I was reminded of how faintly ridiculous it is that every ship has to sail under the good ship Cheltenham.
You can’t put shit back in the donkey, however, and I’m not sure a minority shouting about this really has much of an impact. Part of the responsibility falls on the BHA and other racecourses in how they’ve structured their seasons. November is great. Betfair Chase, Fighting Fifth, Ladbrokes Chase (the old Hennessy) amongst others. December is saved by Christmas at Kempton and Leopardstown but there’s a nasty dead period between the Tingle Creek and then.
How about a Christmas focus?
I definitely think there’s room for a Christmas festival, at least in branding terms, with perhaps an extra day at Kempton or incorporating the Welsh National at Chepstow. Upgrade a couple of races, and package it nicely, and it’ll quickly become the main target for a horse not suited by the undulations or left-handed nature of Cheltenham.
January and February are an absolute disgrace from a British perspective. The Irish Racing Festival has filled that gap, to some degree, in Ireland but it’s very much a home game and British participants can usually be counted on a hand or two. It really is no wonder that there’s so much Cheltenham talk when I can barely name a race that takes place during those months. Actually, full disclosure, I could name three off-hand. The Betfair Hurdle, the Clarence House and the Ascot Chase. Three races over a two month period.
Fixture management key
Obviously the solution to every problem isn’t a newly branded festival but, if Cheltenham is the problem I’m claiming, the solution has to be to make other parts of the season more appealing and that basically comes to the BHA, other courses and how they manage their fixtures.
Fortunately, tomorrow isn’t one such unappealing weekend. I thought we’d concentrate on the two marquee races.
The Ladbrokes Chase looks a somewhat weaker than standard renewal. The likes of Mister Malarky and On The Blind Side strike me as the type of horses who, in a normal year, would be closer to 20/1 than their current 10s.
Selection: OK Corral
I’ve heard similar comments made about Ok Corral, but he’s the one I want to be with. He was wildly impressive when winning at Warwick, jumping impeccably, putting three good rivals to the sword in a fast time. Immediately after that race, I suggested that Henderson and McManus should consider the Gold Cup, given his age and proficiency over the obstacles. The plan to go for the National Hunt Chase was set in stone, however, and the question became “would he stay?”
That thought was clearly deeply ingrained in O’Connor’s mind. He gave him a very patient ride, but he had a nightmare trip round and was never really at the races. He’d also been notably weak in the market beforehand. Confidence appears much higher here and, if there’s anything in here with 10 pounds in hand of his mark, it’s him. Low mileage for his age, it’s entirely possible that even the Hennessy will be too much of a stamina test. I’d expect him to travel like the winner, and it then becomes a question of whether he gets home.
Selection: Silver Streak
The Fighting Fifth looks an altogether more straightforward race. In fact, it’s basically a match. Cornerstone Lad and Lady Buttons are two admirable sorts, but they each have 20-pounds to find on the market leaders and I can’t see them finding it here.
The only danger to Buveur D’Air, who could easily be shorter still, is Silver Streak. He was excellent on the clock when winning at Kempton (top of page). That was a new PB – and proved that he has plenty of speed to go with the stamina he’d previously shown over the minimum. He only has five pounds to find (on my ratings) with the favourite and, at a general 7/2 to find it, I’d be hopeful he could do so with race-fitness behind him.
2.05 Newcastle. Back SILVER STREAK at 7/2 or bigger
3.00 Newbury. Back OK CORRAL at 5/1 or bigger