Time to cast votes of a different kind as Cheltenham serves up welcome relief
Politics inevitably divides us but many will have agreed that to the left, right and in between, the United Kingdom's electorate on Thursday faced a field of most uninspiring options. Thank heavens, then, that on the first afternoon of the new era we can unite around a vastly more attractive candidate and vote Cheltenham.
The campaign is finally over, and while there remains little chance of relief for the likes of Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston or Larry the Cat, plenty of us can begin the process of recovery by enjoying seven races – four of them televised on ITV4 – from the field of joy that this year topped the Racing Post list of the world's greatest racecourses.
Like politics, racing is almost always a hotbed of disagreement and dispute, but there can surely be no denying that it is an awfully long way from the Champion Hurdle to the Cheese Wedges.
The chasm between being Champion Hurdle favourite and tackling those not yet iconic Cheese Wedges is even wider, yet it is the improbable bridge Yanworth will cross when he tackles the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase that, for many, is the highlight of this Cheltenham card.
Yanworth's relationship with Prestbury Park has had as many ups and downs as the racecourse itself. At the festival alone he has contested the Stayers' Hurdle, Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, Champion Bumper and Champion Hurdle, in which he was sent off 2-1 favourite two years ago only to finish seventh prior to later being disqualified after testing positive for a banned substance.
His personal roll of honour includes two Cheltenham wins, a Christmas Hurdle claimed at Kempton and, most recently, a popular success around Punchestown's banks course. That marked a victorious new chapter in the life of a nine-year-old formerly trained by Alan King but now with the sport's cross-country king Enda Bolger, who also saddles Josies Orders – a four-time winner over this course and distance – and Blue Templar.
Neither Josies Orders nor Blue Templar has ever contested the Champion Hurdle. The latter has not even jumped the Cheese Wedges in public.
Now, however, the stable companions form part of a triple challenge for the green and gold silks of JP McManus, whose candidates are part of a seven-strong Irish team in a 16-runner handicap that also boasts four French raiders.
One of those Gallic aspirants, Easysland, is seeking to post a fifth consecutive victory, having last time out captured the Grand Steeple Chase-Cross-Country de Compiegne. That showpiece may not mean much to most punters but winning it has helped propel Easysland to a market position that leaves him challenging Yanworth for favouritism.
That being the case, as we begin the countdown to Cheltenham's Friday feature there could still be countless floating voters.
A field of familiar faces
It's not just racegoers who keep coming back to Cheltenham. So do the horses. The evidence of that is the BetVictor Handicap Chase.
Worth £60,000, the 3m2f contest is the most valuable prize on Cheltenham's programme and, not surprisingly, has attracted plenty of familiar faces, two of which fought out the finish 12 months ago.
On that occasion only a head separated Cogry and Singlefarmpayment. Not for the first time, it was the head of Singlefarmpayment that was narrowly behind.
Fast forward to this season and Cogry reappears having raced at Cheltenham on 14 occasions, winning three of those races, while Singlefarmpayment, although undeniably frustrating, has left connections celebrating two of his 11 visits to jumping's principal home.
Yet top of the regulars class is West Approach, who has run in no less than 16 races at Cheltenham. Until the 16th he had won none of them, although he did come close when second in October.
Then, joy of joys, he landed a gamble – there is always a gamble on West Approach – when cajoled home in front by Robbie Power in November. Two weeks later the Colin Tizzard-trained stayer took his revenge on Power by unseating him at the seventh fence of the Ladbrokes Trophy, for which he had unsurprisingly been backed into favouritism.
West Approach might well start favourite again here, and he very possibly might win, but win, lose or unseat, to rack up 17 Cheltenham appearances is no mean feat.
CF Roberts Electrical & Mechanical Services Mares' Handicap Chase 2m41/2f
The afternoon's opening ITV4 race has more words in the race title than runners and with none of its sextet rated higher than 122, it is low-grade stuff for Cheltenham. Headlines could still be made, though, as the fancied Chequered View carries the colours of the Princess Royal.
Racebets Handicap Hurdle 2m7f
Bangor gets only one live race on mainstream television each year and this is the one, so it's a shame for the lovely track that only five horses have been declared. Justatenner attempts to follow up last month's Ayr win.
BetVictor Handicap Chase 3m2f
Plenty of well-known faces on show, including Richard Johnson's mount Rock The Kasbah, who notched an important Cheltenham success in November 2018 and returns – moving from the Old to New course – off just a pound higher mark.
Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 3m6f
A maximum field of 16 is set to line up in an absorbing international heat in which Ireland has seven runners, Britain has five and France has four. One of them, the David Cottin-trained Amazing Comedy, is partnered by former French champion jockey James Reveley, who makes a rare working trip to his homeland.
Citipost Handicap Hurdle 3m
Champers On Ice is on a hat-trick mission following wins at Ffos Las and Newbury but the most interesting runner is Kilbricken Storm. He returns to the scene of his 2018 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle win and races off a potentially interesting mark having disappointed last term.
Conditions soften at Cheltenham
Late rain has eased underfoot conditions at Cheltenham, with further wet weather still a possibility.
Clerk of the course Simon Claisse said: "We've had 6mm of rain today and we're now good to soft on the chase and hurdle tracks, good to soft, soft in places on the cross country.
"The rain may continue until the early hours of the morning and we could get another 6 to 7mm, but beyond that it is supposed to be mostly dry with the possibility of another shower or two."
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