In these feral times Cheltenham has never been more necessary
Tipping point: Ten stories around the festival that will warm us for the week
Willie Mullins’s string of horses returning to stables after exercising on the gallops at Cheltenham racecourse on Sunday. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Sneezed at a kids’ party on Saturday. Nearly died. Correction, was nearly murdered. If looks could kill, the coronavirus would have fairly fallen down the news schedules that evening. Man Savaged Near Bouncy Castle In Death Stare Bloodbath.
Never mind that your average play centre on a good day makes that cruise ship in San Francisco Bay look like a hermetically sealed lab. Yeah, the coronavirus is tough and all but is it really any worse than a dozen five-year-olds writhing and breathing, sweating and weeping in a giant ball pit?
Okay, so the global newsmageddon would suggest it probably is. But still, you’d have thought parents of that particular age group standing in that particular spot might have a slightly-more relaxed attitude to the vagaries of immunology. But no, one rogue sneeze in the wrong company and you’re treated like you just smashed a vial of sarin gas off the wall.
In a dreary world of infinite badness, nowhere will there be a more concentrated puddle of genuinely life-affirming stories to splash about in
In these feral times Cheltenham has never been more necessary. Cancel it? Listen here, bucko. People are on edge. They’re antsy. They’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.
You heard about the fella who went into a chemist’s shop the other day to buy some cough mixture? He came out with half a dozen boxes of condoms to camouflage it.
You can’t cancel Cheltenham. Things are bad enough. Never has the soul-enriching stuff of the four days in southwest England been more vital.
In a dreary world of infinite badness, nowhere will there be a more concentrated puddle of genuinely life-affirming stories to splash about in.
Things could be about to get very grim indeed over the coming months. Let’s take our succour where we can, eh?
Herewith, then, 10 Cheltenham stories to warm us for the week. None of them, by the by, have anything to do with gambling.
1 Let’s start at the end, with the Gold Cup on Friday. Only two horses in 50 years have won back-to-back Gold Cups, so Paul Townend and Willie Mullins don’t have history on their side with Al Boum Photo. But then they didn’t last year either since neither of them had won going into the race, so history might have to take a number.
So buckle up, folks. Wash your hands, wipe down your remote and don’t touch your face
2 That said, it must be the deepest Gold Cup in years. Of the likely 12 runners, seven are entirely plausible winners. If you want to dig a trench and stand a post for Santini, Delta Work, Lostintranslation, Clan Des Obeaux, Kemboy or Presenting Percy, you need make no apologies for your sympathies.
3 Mullins has never won the Champion Chase, funny enough. Of the festival biggies, it’s the last itch he has yet to scratch. Townend hasn’t won it either, but they have a serious chance this year with Chacun Pour Soi.
4 Up until yesterday the Champion Chase was everyone’s race of the festival. But the news that Altior has come up lame muddles things a little. Everyone fit and firing, Altior v Chacun Pour Soi v Defi De Seuil would get anyone’s blood pumping. Now we must wait to see if the wondrous Altior will make it to the starting line.
5 And speaking of wondrous, what of Faugheen? As of yesterday it’s still not confirmed that the old boy will go. More hopefully, it’s still not confirmed that he won’t. If he runs on Thursday in the Marsh Chase, no horse will carry more goodwill around the two-and-a-half miles. If he wins – becoming the oldest horse ever to win a Grade One at the festival – the ground will shake.
6 Tiger Roll is running too, of course. The best-known horse in the sport has made his name winning back-to-back Grand Nationals. But if he picks up the cross-country this week he’ll make it five Cheltenham Festival wins in his career. A little legend even if he’d never jumped an Aintree fence.
7 This is all big boys’ stuff. The festival has always made room for the lads in the shadows too. Colm Murphy was a big boy once, winning the Champion Chase with Brave Inca and Big Zeb. But he gave it up a few years ago because he couldn’t make it pay and had to go and get a day job. He’s back with Relegate, a mare who could be the pick of the field in the Pertemps on Thursday.
8 Or maybe La Feline is more your tastes. An outsider in the Mare’s Novice Hurdle on Thursday, she is trained by Paul Nolan and owned by a syndicate who are just mad to bring a horse to the festival. “I told them she’d need to improve 30 pounds to come fifth and they looked at me like yer man Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber – ‘so you’re saying there’s a chance?’ Fair play to them, sure that’s what it’s all about.”
9 Nolan’s other three horses all have their chances, though. If Discorama (Ultima, Tuesday), Fitzhenry (Kim Muir, Thursday) or Latest Exhibition (Albert Bartlett, Friday) get up the hill in front, nobody will begrudge him his first festival win since 2011.
10 With Ruby Walsh retired, the leading jockey crown is up for grabs in a way not seen for the guts of a decade and a half. Rachael Blackmore would need a few things to fall her way, but it’s far from impossible that she could be the one this time around. Notebook, Honeysuckle, A Plus Tard, Minella Indo – it wouldn’t take a lot for them all to win for starters. Imagine.
So buckle up, folks. Wash your hands, wipe down your remote and don’t touch your face.
Oh, and make sure to record all the races. If we’re going to be in lockdown for the next few months it’ll be no harm to have them as a reminder of when the good times were still rolling.