The theatre of dreams
Cheltenham national hunt festival, the greatest show on earth, where equine stars of england, wales and scotland converge on the cotswolds town in glorious but often vain attempt to repel the charge of the irish brigade, the all-conquering steeds from the emerald isle, an enchanting annual battle of such intensity and beauty that sees 70,000-plus jumping fanatics from all over the british isles pack into prestbury park for each of the four-day extravaganza, all dreaming of success for their favourite four-legged beast, all determined to have a good time, sink a few pints, win a few quid and wipe the smug smile from the bookie’s face, but above all universally united in celebrating the love of that noblest of animals, man’s best friend, the horse.
The curtain rises on the eagerly anticipated spectacle on Tuesday 10th March when at 1.30pm (GMT) the runners for the first race come under starter’s orders, a year-long expectation is about to be consummated, fevered anticipation fulfilled, the white flag is raised, the jockeys jostle for best position, an excited murmur from the crowd that gradually rises to a thunderous crescendo reverberating off Cleeve Hill as the flag of battle is lowered, the tape released and, in a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour, they’re off, the dream is reality – the start of four days and 28 races of the highest quality equestrian endeavour – heaven on earth to this gnarled old horseracing addict, indeed when the Grim Reaper gives me the curly finger and optimistically assuming that I will ascend skywards to my final destination, rather than descend to hotter climes down below – by no means a sure bet – I intend to parlay with the Almighty that my eternal reward must include a non-negotiable annual four-day entry from on high to this most revered of all racing festivals.
The four championship races of the meeting are the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Chase, the Arkle and the Gold Cup and some Insight readers may be aware that this correspondent has had a modicum of success over the past couple of years in forecasting winners of some of these Grade 1 events – yes, I know, I’ve heard it before, even a blind squirrel occasionally stumbles upon a nut – but, emboldened by this triumph I crave your indulgence while attempting to repeat the feat once more.
The Champion Hurdle is the glittering highlight of the opening day, a race that conjures up images of wonderful winners from the past – Istabraq, Night Nurse, Monksfield, Sea Pigeon to name just a few of the greats, legends now strutting their stuff in celestial pastures up there with Pegasus in Equine Heaven. This year’s race contains nothing of that calibre but I will be entrusting PENTLAND HILLS with my fiver each-way at the current odds of 7/1, while in the same day’s Arkle Challenge Trophy I have burdened BREWIN’UPASTORM with another ‘deep sea diver’ each-way at 10/1
On to Wednesday and the Queen Mother Champion Chase where ALTIOR is my confident choice to retain his crown, his current odds of 2/1 look generous for this four-time festival winner – he’s my banker bet of the meeting – get on! And then, all too soon, it’s final day Friday and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the ultimate prize, the blue riband of steeplechasing whose roll of honour is a who’s who of immortals – Arkle, the greatest of them all, Kauto Star, Denman, Desert Orchid, Best Mate, Dawn Run. Wonderful warm memories of heroes past and who knows, perhaps Al Boum Photo, last year’s winner may yet be destined to join the ranks of the great. Trained in Ireland by legendary handler Willie Mullins, AL BOUM PHOTO at current odds of 4/1, is a somewhat tentative choice in a very open-looking race to repeat last year’s success.
Domestic commitments contrived to thwart my plans of attending the festival this year, instead I’ll be wending my way to the atmospheric multi-screened Sports Arena in Ocean Heights to have a bet and watch the action. Lets hope that for once Lady Luck smiles rather than scowls and I get to raise a glass or two in celebration as my selections romp home. Drinking with bookie’s money – now that’s an intoxicating thought! Hope to see you there.