Day 1 Cheltenham Live Blog with P. T. Fornatale
Well if that didn’t give you chills, I don’t know what will. OH! MY! GOD! Travelling not great turning for home, looking unlikely at the last, Quevaga got it done, becoming the first horse to win six (!!) races at the Cheltenham festival. Just awesome. I only wish I could be in that winner’s enclosure to hear the roar when she comes in.
Up next is race 6 is The National Hunt Chase, an Amateur Novice Chase going 4 miles. We’re going with the two favorites, both ridden by female jockeys. #14 SHUTTHEFRONTDOOR has good Cheltenham experience and has reportedly had a breathing operation and has had a previous back issue solved. He is ridden by Nina Carberry and is expected to improve. #6 FOXROCK is a careful jumper and strong stayer – qualities that will help in a test like this. He’s ridden by Katie Walsh.
Wow, what an amazing renewal of the Champion hurdle! For a minute there, I thought the old champ was going to get it done but alas, it wasn’t his day. And the doubters were more right than me on this day.
Next up is Race 5, The OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. It’s a Grade 2 for fillies and mares going 2 1/2 miles. #9 QUEVAGA is going for her sixth (not a typo) win in a row in this race. I won’t be betting against her. Better a short price than a long face.
Race 4 is The Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy, a Grade 1 for 4-year-olds and up going 2 1/16 miles.
I approached this year’s Champion Hurdle with the idea that the great Hurricane Fly (#3) – a true racing superstar who owns 19 Grade 1 victories – might be one to take on (ie, try to beat). That was assuming he’d be close to even money against a number of excellent and interesting challengers. But it looks to me like everyone and her brother had the same idea because The Fly – a two-time winner of this race – looks a great price to me at around 3-to-1, so I’m going to stick with the champ. I feel the narrative about him not doing his best at Cheltenham isn’t really supported by the data.
Of the others, I like #7 OUR CONOR, who looks to still have plenty of room for improvement. Paddock reports had him short of top fitness for his last start and I like him at the price. For a third runner for the OMNI, #6 MY TENT OR YOURS, another who paddock watchers expect improvement from.
Race 3 is the Baylis & Harding Handicap Chase, a Grade 3 going 3 1/16 miles for 5-year-olds and up.
These handicaps at Cheltenham are super tough. Another thing you should know about jump racing and UK racing in general: weight matters a lot. I’m always wary of those at the top of the market.
I don’t have a strong opinion here, but if you must bet, maybe try #16 TIME FOR RUPERT win and place (what they call each way over there). Or, if you’re feeling froggy, choose a few additional selections and jump into the OMNI keying on Time for Rupert, who has run well at Cheltenham before and is down in the weights.
A thrilling finish there in race 2, and you have to feel bad for Champagne Fever, who ran his heart out and just got beat. Great effort from Valdez who was maybe a hair keen early and paid for it late. He’ll be back. Can’t say I would have had the winner if I bet the race 100 times but that’s racing sometimes.
Race 2 is the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase, a Grade 1 going 2 miles for novice 5-year-olds and up.
This one's personal. . .
I might not even know what Cheltenham is if not for Sean Clancy, who invited me to join him at the festival in 2004. Sean and I are old pals from Saratoga and beyond, and I'm forever grateful for the impact he's had on my life. We've bet on--and even owned--a few horses together over the years.
Four years ago he told me, "Within five years I'll have a runner at the Cheltenham festival." I thought it sounded like a nice goal, in the sense that it's always good to push yourself by setting outsized goals. But damn if Sean--a brilliant horseman with a keen eye for bloodstock--didn't make good on his promise. He's got #8 VALDEZ here.
Remember, this is a novice chase race so many of these were hurdlers first. And a couple of these definitely had significantly better hurdle for than Valdez. But chasing, with its larger obstacles, is a whole new ballgame. And I like the way Valdez jumps. Plus, the ground should be in his favor. Is this is a sentimental pick? Maybe a little, but it's rooted in logic as well.
I will look to dutch with #7 TRIFOLIUM, a well-regarded horse with good connections coming off an impressive last race.
Back in a bit...
OK, here we go!
Our first race today is The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. It's a Grade 1 for novice 4-year-olds and up going 2 1/16 miles. I am going to mainly play around with two horses here.
#17 WICKLOW BRAVE is interesting. He's looked impressive in his hurdle starts and the expected pace and ground should help him. That's actually an important thing to point out for USA fans, the ground (aka course condition) is a major handicapping factor in jumps racing, as is the "horse-for-course" concept. The range of ground and different types of courses make it a bit harder to rely on what we consider the basics over here.
The longshot I'll be looking at is #10 THE LIQUIDATOR. He's shown an affinity for Cheltenham and a good fourth in last year's Champion Bumper (a flat race for inexperienced jumps horses).
Here's one for the STATS-minded players among you: four of the last eleven winners of this race finished in the first five of the previous year's champion bumper. The biggest knock I have on my top choice is that the great Ruby Walsh took off him to ride #15 VATOUR. He's a very logical co-favorite here and one to include if you're playing the OMNI.
I also want to mention #18 WILDE BLUE YONDER. I'll be rooting for him because I know his owners from a famed racing message board that helped introduce me to this wonderful sport. He's coming off a couple of falls and it's not easy to win at Cheltenham coming off negative experience. But he's a nice horse and a much improved effort would not surprise. I'll be back with a post about the Arkle in about 30 minutes.