Put life briefly to one side and bathe in the joy of the Cheltenham Festival
Rarely has racing appeared to be in such a bad mood. Rarely has a Cheltenham Festival been needed more.
There have of late been all too many times when all too many people have found themselves wholly exasperated by events. Equine flu, boycotts, a bookmaker suddenly voiding bets and confusion over two lollipops at Sandown have left racing punters and professionals with a powerful urge to shout and scream. Now, thank heavens, we get the chance to roar.
When the starting tape rises for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle let us breathe a collective sigh of relief and immerse ourselves in the moment.
On the day the House of Commons stages its latest vote on Brexit, something else that fixates the people of Britain and Ireland will provide a happy distraction to the tribulations of the real world. The Cheltenham Festival is the backstop that has kept many of us going.
It cannot be denied this celebration of equine endeavour presents its own potential problems. The lives of six horses were lost last year, the meeting coming to the grimmest of conclusions with three deaths in the final race. New safety measures are in place but the sport still needs luck on its side. The dearest wish is that this is a festival dominated only by good stories. Fortunately, there could be some great ones to tell.
In Wednesday's Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase Altior seeks to stretch his winning run to 18 races, the record figure currently held by Big Buck's.
On Thursday victory in the Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle for either Paisley Park or Faugheen would be cheered to the rafters, while on Friday the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup is poised to serve up another epic. The seldom sighted but hugely talented Presenting Percy, last season's warrior winner Native River and the swaggering Clan Des Obeaux are just three of the players in a climactic event that looks sure to live up to its billing.
The wait for it all to begin is almost over. Rain and wind is expected to pummel Prestbury Park in the final hours before that eagerly awaited first race. Assuming we all survive there is then before us as tantalising a Unibet Champion Hurdle as has been staged for many a March.
Should Buveur D'Air triumph he will join the immortals as one of only six horses to claim the prize three times. When posting his inaugural success two years ago he looked like a horse who could win it again and again. He duly defended his crown in 2018, but JP McManus's star only scrambled home. The shaken aura of invincibility was then smashed when at odds of 1-4 he succumbed on the line to his Nicky Henderson-trained stablemate Verdana Blue at Kempton.
That showed he is beatable, but on this, his date with destiny, will he be beaten? If he is to be dethroned, the conqueror will most likely be a lady, for in Apple's Jade and Laurina he meets two mares who make the event inordinately better.
Apple's Jade has won her four races this season by a combined total of 73 lengths. She is magnificent. And such was the outrageously impressive manner of Laurina's debut festival success, and so strong are the vibes that surround her, she just possibly might be even more magnificent.
What a race, what a day and what a week we have in store. Before the Champion we have wide-open runnings of the Supreme and Racing Post Arkle, followed by the first ultra-competitive handicap of the festival.
Back in a sporting amphitheatre that has no equal, our dreams come true once more. We have made it to another Cheltenham Festival. For that reason alone, every one of us is a winner.
Salute the mares taking Champion test
Four mares have won the Champion Hurdle, and there could now be a fifth thanks to the bold ambition of owners and trainers.
The OLBG Mares' Hurdle, staged in honour of David Nicholson, was introduced in 2008 in tandem with vital attempts to encourage owners to buy jumping mares, without which any vet will confirm it is difficult to breed jumping boys.
The race has produced some wonderful stories – not least Quevega becoming the only horse ever to win a festival race six times – but it has also led to some smart performers being diverted from the Champion Hurdle, not discounting the fact Annie Power took the ultimate hurdling crown in 2016.
Apple's Jade and Laurina could both have run in this year's Mares' Hurdle, as could Verdana Blue. It is to the great credit of their connections they have instead aimed big. The Mares' Hurdle has a bumper field, the Champion Hurdle has the best hurdling mares and, in an added boost, the Gold Cup also has a possible female heroine in the shape of Shattered Love.
Hot on the heels of last Friday's International Women's Day, some exceptional women could well trump their male rivals at this year's festival.
It could be a big day for Dai
While JP McManus and Michael O'Leary are well used to fielding multiple fancied challengers in Cheltenham features, for Dai Walters it is more a novel experience and one that he is relishing.
The man who founded Ffos Las will be cheering on two of the horses vying for favouritism in the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, having given his consent for the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Betfair Hurdle winner Al Dancer and the Nicky Henderson-trained Angels Breath – who Walters co-owns with Ronnie Bartlett – to lock horns.
"I'm very excited and very nervous at the same time," said Walters. "I've owned horses all of my life but never thought I would go to Cheltenham with two favourites. I'm very lucky to own two very special horses."
A Lalor success would be loved by many
If there is a people's horse running on the festival's opening day, one being driven forward by collective wishes of goodwill, it is surely Lalor in the Racing Post Arkle.
By now everyone knows the story of trainer Kayley Woollacott, for whom a ray of sunshine during desperately difficult times has been provided by David Staddon's exciting chaser, whose social media video appearances with Woollacott's young daughter Bella have made him and her real public favourites.
Lalor now takes part in an Arkle that is different to so many of recent years. Six of the last seven winners of the race have been sent off at odds-on, but that will not be the case this time. There is no Sprinter Sacre, Altior or Footpad but there is the possibility of an outcome that would be every bit as pleasing.
"He's an absolute legend," said Woollacott in a Racing Post interview. Her legend will carry the hopes of many.
Punters are posed pint-sized question among festival special bets
At the start of the 2016 festival Willie Mullins was 1-14 to be leading trainer and he duly obliged with seven winners. The odds are rather different this year.
Mullins has a powerful squad as he seeks to win the top trainer award for the fifth occasion, but while he can be backed at 3-1, arch rival Gordon Elliott is 11-8 favourite to lift the prize for the third year running.
Elliott is 7-2 with Coral to send out at least one winner on all four days, a feat the same firm has quoted Nicky Henderson at just 2-1 to achieve.
In the riders' race Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty share top billing with William Hill and Sky Bet at 7-2, while in the Prestbury Cup battle Ireland are a best-priced 5-6 to thwart the 13-8 home team.
Among the more unusual novelty bets is the 4-6 offered by Ladbrokes that more than 265,000 pints of Guinness will be knocked back over the four days.
Given the relatively simple task of determining a result by the right winning post went pear-shaped on Saturday, the job of counting up the number of downed pints is not to be envied.
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