For some reason, I had it in my head that I was going to give you a detailed breakdown of the whole Cheltenham betting week. It’s because one or two of the Dear Readers and the kind Facebook friends had asked for tips, and of course I generally do exactly what the readers ask. (Except when it is a request to stop with the horse stuff.)
I have been thinking about Cheltenham since October. Every time a good horse runs in a good race I get out my notebook, to file the information away for exactly this week. My William Hill account is packed with unbelievably canny ante-post gambles. I was quite overcome by my own cleverness.
But now of course the glorious moment is about to dawn, and I have no certainties left. All the horses are coming out at the declaration stage: some won’t go on the ground, some have scoped badly, some just aren’t quite at that crest and peak that Cheltenham demands. This means that some of the races are changing shape, and becoming a little clearer perhaps, although most of the big handicaps are still as murky as ever, as the enormous fields still wait to be culled, and the final weights decided.
Everything and anything could happen. Things which felt certain yesterday seem in flux now.
So, after all that, I’m not going to give you any tips. Cheltenham is the most difficult betting feat of the year, harder than Ascot even, and if I walk away with the clothes on my back I’ll be happy. Also, this year, I have a lot of loves running about. There is Overturn, of course, but there is also Midnight Chase, whom I adore, and Hunt Ball, who makes my heart beat in my chest. I’ll almost certainly have entirely sentimental bets on them. There is Dynaste, of whom I am so fond I backed him three months ago to win any race at the festival, and who actually is now looking like a really good thing.
My two Irish beloveds, Quevega and Hurricane Fly, although hot favourites, could both easily get turned over. They are statistically all wrong in the races they are contesting, and Quevega has not even been on a racecourse this season. But they both have that something special that really good horses have, that little sprinkle of magic, and they are in a magician’s hands, too. Willie Mullins can defy dry stats like no man on earth.
The funny thing is that Hurricane Fly, who is one of the highest rated horses in training, is starting to feel almost like an underdog, as the statisticians stack up the odds against him. He’s the wrong age, and they hardly ever regain such a Cheltenham crown. And then, say the knockers, what’s he really beaten this season, apart from the same bunch of horses, over and over.
I can’t stand the knockers. I’ll always back a horse against them. I’m betting that the mighty Hurricane will blow again, even though he’s all wrong on paper. I think the Fly will fly, but mostly because I really want him to. So it will be a small bet but a huge shout. It will be a holler of pure love.
What do I think of the week as a whole? I think it’s very important to remember that favourites have a lower record than usual at Cheltenham, for obvious reasons. (Someone has worked out the strike-rate is around 26% on average.) I think that sure things are less sure in that boiling cauldron than in any other place. I think if you want real fun, find a lively outsider that you admire and have a couple of quid on that. I shall be doing this with Midnight Chase, even though the stats are against him, too.
I think the ground will make a big difference, and may scupper my lovely Overturn, so don’t back anything which has not run well on soft. It also means stamina will really play its part this year. And, in my own nutty mind, I’ll be looking at the tough horses, because it’s going to be bitter cold, with a strong wind. The real, doughty, genuine horses are going to be needed for that, not the temperamental, delicate types. (I slightly put Une Artiste in this category, although she may prove me wrong.)
I think the hot favourites who are most likely to oblige are Quevega, Sprinter Sacre, Pont Alexandre and My Tent or Yours, and that might not be a bad little fourfold, even if it is shockingly obvious, and you will not be able to brag about it, since a child of six could work it out.
Everyone wants a bet of the meeting, and a banker of the meeting. The banker is obviously Sprinter Sacre but he is too short for any but the most crocodile-skinned, flint-eyed punters, so I would split my certainties between Pont Alexandre for Ireland and Dynaste for England. My bet of the meeting may easily be Salsify, on whom I grow sweeter and sweeter. He’s around 11-4, which is a perfectly respectable sort of price. He ran really well last time out, is a strong, genuine sort of horse, and has won at the festival before. I’m also quite keen on Reve de Sivola in the World Hurdle, despite my love for Oscar Whisky, and I’ve got a little feeling for African Gold for the Albert Bartlett.
As for the Gold Cup itself, I can make perfectly plausible cases for and against Bobs Worth, Long Run, Silviniaco Conti and Sir Des Champs. I’ve put myself on and off all of them in turn, starting with the honest, talented, unfussy Bobs Worth, right through the list. My pin is currently hovering over Silviniaco, for his sheer wonderful efficiency. I’m not sure I ever saw a horse who was so clinical at his fences, and I love him for it.
But what I’ve suddenly realised is that I don’t know what is going to happen, and none of it really matters. I’ll have a few idiotic accumulators, in the spirit of my old dad, and I’ll take a sensible deep breath and sit some of the more complicated handicaps out, and I’ll probably put the house on one or two of the obvious trebles. For a happy, amateurish punter like me, it really is not a competition. The winning is watching all those glorious creatures, doing what they were bred to do. Honestly, at this stage, I’m such a hippy I’d say that being alive is enough.
Love and trees, my darlings, and good, brave horses who fly through the air.
And now I really am going to stop and have some Guinness before I die a slow Death by Timeform.
No time or energy for pictures today. Just this girl, who is the real beat of my heart: