Reasons to be cheerful at Cheltenham? Here are 28
There is simply no week in sport that offers richer soil in which to dig for gripping yarns
Are you race ready for Cheltenham? Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Cheltenham. The week where we take such reckless leave of our senses that we actually listen to actual bookmakers as they tip horses. A pox on them, we say. May every favourite bolt up, all day and every day.
Anyway, Cheltenham, with its 28 races in four days, is far too multilayered an event with far too many interesting angles to make it all about gambling. There’s no week in sport that offers richer soil in which to dig for yarns. In that spirit, behold the Cheltenham festival in 28 stories, none of them anything to do with having a bet.
- Start at the end, with the Gold Cup on Friday. The most open one in years. Close your eyes and stick a pin, you’ll have a live runner wherever you land.
- Presenting Percy would be the quirkiest Gold Cup winner in a long, long time. Trainer Pat Kelly doesn’t speak in public. Owner Philip Reynolds is the son of Albert. If he wins, it will be the first time in 90 years a horse has won a Gold Cup without having jumped a fence all season.
- Willie Mullins has never won the Gold Cup but has been second in it six times. He sends four this time and it wouldn’t be a shock if any of them won. Neither would another second, obviously.
- Thistlecrack is the one Gold Cup horse guaranteed to bring the house down if he climbs the hill in front. Looked the most exciting prospect in the game a couple of years ago but dogged by injuries since early 2017. This is his first and likely last shot at it.
- The Champion Hurdle is maybe the hottest race of the week. Buveur D’Air is looking to become the sixth horse ever to win three in a row and the first since Istabraq. With pleasing symmetry, both horses are owned, 20 years apart, by JP McManus.
- He has to beat Apple’s Jade though. The mare has been the horse of the season so far, winning four races by a combined 73 lengths. She gets a mare’s allowance of 7lbs. Buveur D’Air might not be three lengths better than her, never mind seven.
- He has to beat Laurina too, for that matter. Another mare, unbeaten in her life. Mind you, she hasn’t run against geldings yet. Nobody knows anything.
- Gavin Cromwell is a sort of an accidental trainer. A Meath farrier by trade, he combined shoeing horses for Gordon Elliott and others with training the odd one up until a couple of years ago. Now he has Espoir D’Allen, a lively Champion Hurdle outsider. Imagine.
- Keith Donoghue retired from riding the week before Cheltenham 2017, beaten by the effort it took to make weight. His horse, Labaik, duly won the Supreme without him. He came back and rode Tiger Roll to win the Cross Country last year and he’s on the Grand National winner again on Wednesday.
- They’re expecting 80km/h winds on Wednesday and a heap of rain. Wouldn’t be ideal for front runners. Watch for jockeys coming from off the pace. Watch for Ruby.
- It’s 20 years since Ruby Walsh’s first Cheltenham win. He has 58 festival winners to his name, 22 more than Barry Geraghty, the closest jockey to him still riding. He turns 40 in a couple of months so there won’t be many more chances to watch him do his thing.
- Walsh says his best chance of the week is Benie Des Dieux in the Mare’s Hurdle on Tuesday. Hmmm. Says they know Min can’t beat Altior on Wednesday. Hmmm. Let’s see.
- In the Arkle on Tuesday, joint favourite Lalor is trained by 33-year-old Kayley Woollacott. Lalor was originally trained by her husband but in January 2018, Richard Woollacott took his own life.
- Initially, the newspapers reported the death in the usual way – “died tragically”, “not suspicious” – but Kayley insisted on making it clear that he died by suicide and has been a mental health advocate ever since. Wish for one winner all week, this is the one.
- Bryan Cooper’s career has stalled since losing the Gigginstown gig. Probably the best horse he’s ridden all season is Discorama, a game young chaser with a huge chance in the four-miler on Tuesday. The four-miler is a race for amateur jockeys only. Oof!
- Not that you’d wish anything but good things for Discorama and especially his trainer Paul Nolan. It’s been a long way back for him too.
- Cooper has possibilities in the race immediately before it on another Nolan horse called Quanimo. And he has another reasonable swing on Wednesday on Sam’s Profile in the Ballymore for Mouse Morris. So maybe all is not lost.
- Quanimo is up against Tom Taaffe’s Riders Onthe Storm. Taaffe has spent a fair whack of time out of the spotlight as well – it’s 14 years since he won the Gold Cup with Kicking King.
- Come to that, Mouse hasn’t had a big pile to shout about either since Gigginstown moved their track horses from his yard. So you won’t find anyone begrudging him if Sam’s Profile gets it done.
- That would be some couple of days. Riders Onthe Storm followed by Discorama followed by Sam’s Profile. Cooper, Nolan, Taaffe and Morris all redeemed by the festival. Four stories, one story.
- The banker on Thursday is Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle. His owner Andrew Gemmell has been blind from birth and got into sport listening to Test Match Special on the radio. He waves his white stick gleefully in the air when his horse wins.
- The horse, by the by, is a tribute to Prince. Gemmell bought him just after the singer died in 2016 and named him after his recording studio.
- On top of all that, it’s a half miracle that Paisley Park is here at all. The horse nearly died young due to illness. To be heading to Cheltenham as favourite? Mad stuff.
- Rachael Blackmore has been the story of the season, chasing Paul Townend every stride for the jockey’s championship. Her first Cheltenham win isn’t guaranteed this week. But then nothing about her career has been and she’s done it anyway.
- A record four women won races at last year’s festival. Katie Walsh has retired but Lizzie Kelly, Harriet Tucker and Bridget Andrews are back, along with Blackmore, Bryony Frost, Lisa O’Neill and more. Four can be seen and raised.
- Tucker, by the by, won on Pacha Du Polder last year despite dislocating her shoulder on the way round. The Injured Jockeys Fund would only pay for surgery afterwards if she signed a letter saying she wouldn’t ride again. She refused.
- Pacha Du Polder’s owner stepped in to pay the bill. And now she’s back looking for three in a row in the Foxhunters. These people are nails.
- Seriously, who needs to hear from a bookmaker when all that is going on?