Cheltenham 2010 Preview and Tips by Quel Esprit part-owner

15 03 2010

About this time every year, a strange malady attacks a large part of the population. It causes the sufferers to come down with a dose of tics and shrugs, and even more nods and winks. Those under the influence express their symptoms with phrases like “hows the going” or “whats Willie’s best in the bumper?” or “if Dunguib loses I’m completely bollixed”.

It is of course Cheltenham fever, and it is caused by the annual National Hunt racing festival in Cheltenham in March each year. When I first went to Cheltenham over 20 years ago, I thought I was going to a small picturesque village in the southwest of England with a racecourse attached. It is in fact a substantial thriving town about the size of Galway. It is a handsome town, with some very fine architecture, and it is set in one of the most beautiful parts of England, among the flowing hills and dales of the Cotswolds. The surrounding countryside is gorgeous, very Irishlike, and is dotted with very pretty traditional English villages, with a village green, lovely old houses often thatched, and pubs called The Duck and Garter, or The Pig and Whistle.

But in the month of March every year, its all about the horses. There are 4 days of racing, Tuesday to Friday,26 races in total, of which 10 are Championship races. It is the Olympics of Jump Racing and it happens every year! There is also a massive friendly rivalry between the Irish and English horses each year. It is considered a good year if we come home with 6 or 7 winners, especially if we carry off some of the big prizes like The Gold Cup or The Champion Hurdle.

The excitement starts on Tuesday at 1.30, and the first race is the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the start of which is greeted by a roar which wouldn’t be out of place after a Grand Slam winning try in Croke Park. The Irish Banker runs here, a horse called Dunguib, who has won all his races so far with ridiculous ease. He is an odds on chance, but his hurdling has been sketchy, and has yet to be proven at the highest level. If he loses, there will be a new recession in Ireland, and the Bookies will all be off to Barbados in April. I’d prefer to have a little tickle each way on Blackstairmountain, from Willie Mullins. The big race on the first day is The Champion Hurdle. The leading Irish contender here is Go Native, trained by Noel Meade. This horse is on a million pound bonus if he wins, having won the first two legs of a triple crown of hurdles. Everyone in Meade’s yard is walking on eggshells, but he has a decent chance. He won the Supreme Novices here last year, beating another talking horse, Cousin Vinny.

I like last year’s Champion, Punjabi, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Barry Geraghty. All three are in excellent form, and I think Punjabi is very good value each way at around 10/1. In the Arkle Chase, there are two very good Irish prospects. Captain Cee Bee is a very fast horse, but his jumping is a bit dodgy, and Sizing Europe is a very sound jumper but lacks the zing in pace. Take your pick ! Both are about 3/1 to 4/1.

On Wednesday, the big race is the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Master Minded, trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by the great Ruby, has won it for the past 2 years, and will be odds on favourite again. For a bit of value, I’m going to have a few bob each way on Forpadydeplasterer at about 10/1. He won the Arkle here last year, and I watched him on the gallops at Leopardstown last Sunday week, and he looked in very good form. And what a name ! The last race on Wednesday, the Bumper, is always a cracker, and Willie Mullins has dominated it over the past 10 years. This year I don’t his crew is as strong, and my one for this race is Shot from the Hip. He won his last race at Leopardstown in great style, and he is a real flier. The only disadvantage is that he is being ridden by an amateur, Mr J P Magnier. If Ruby was riding, I think he’d be favourite. I think he is great each way value at about 10/1.

Thursday has the least interesting racecard. A trip to the public house is recommended. You will have plenty of bookie’s money to buy your buds a bud, and if not, you can spend the time studying the form for Friday, and rely on the generosity of others. Have a little sentimental each way bet on the great War of Attrition, the former Gold Cup winner, in his final race before his retirement. I think he has a nice each way chance at a nice price.

The Big One is on Friday – The Gold Cup. It conjures up wonderful memories of Arkle and Dawn Run and Best Mate. The present champion, Kauto Star, is one of the all time greats and is in great form this year again and going for his hat trick. His stable companion Denman, ridden this year by AP McCoy, may have something to say about that.

It is a fascinating plot: the two best Chasers of their generation ridden by the two greatest jump jockeys of their generation. What a prospect ! I’m just going to get as near to the course as I can and watch it; I don’t want my enjoyment of the occasion spoiled by having to cheer on my bet. Irish interest here is in the shape of Willie Mullins’ Cooldine, who could sneak in if anything happened to the big two. There are two Irish horses with decent chances on Friday: Carlito Brigante in the Triumph Hurdle at 1.30 and Enterprise Park in the 3 mile novice hurdle at 2.40.

I’m sustained by adrenaline as I wait for the Roar at 1.30 on Tuesday. My nap of the week is Quel Esprit, trained by Willie Mullins, ridden by Ruby Walsh, and owned by a grand bunch of fellas, whose best days are behind them, and who are sustained by the promise of a good horse.