CHELTENHAM National Hunt Festival 2021 commences on Tuesday, 16th March and ends 28 races and four days later on the Friday, when the blue riband of steeplechasing, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, takes centre stage. Unfortunately, at the time of writing it appears odds on that pandemic restrictions mean the festival will proceed behind closed doors, no full-throated roar from the packed stands as the horses jostle for position pre-race, no hats and racecards tossed triumphantly in the air as horse and jockey strain every sinew on the tortuous uphill finish to be first to the winning post…sad to relate …yes, but at least the iconic event is going ahead, albeit under heavy restraint.
The festival, the jewel in the crown of the National Hunt season, is once again set to enchant the racing public as, midway through March, it opens up its treasure chest of exciting equine stars to the global sporting spotlight that every spring illuminates the Cotswolds town’s glorious centuries-old salute to the Sport of Kings.
But this year, my beloved festival is under a cloud, accusatory fingers are pointing, the charge being levelled is that last year’s event, attended by crowds totalling north of a quarter of a million over the four days, racing fans from all corners of the British Isles and beyond, had converged cheek to jowl, to make the annual pilgrimage to celebrate the crème de la crème of steeplechasing and, indulged, sated and by then allegedly stricken with the deadly virus, had returned home as Covid-19 super-carriers, unleashing death and desolation on family, friends and neighbours.
That’s the damning verdict tapped out by social media keyboard warriors and an army of self-appointed, ill-qualified rent-a-quote experts – last year’s Cheltenham Festival, one of the most exciting and enjoyable ever, has been condemned as a major contributor to the spread of the deadly disease. Whatever the truth of that charge, it has to be remembered that the global reaction, both medical and political at the time, was one of profound ignorance and utter confusion – Commander-in-Chief Donald trumpeted that the virus was ‘a hoax’ and, in the Ginger Don’s opinion, could be cured just by swigging a couple of glasses of bleach! Thank you for that diagnosis Dr Trump, now please disappear quietly into the sunset.
Alas, it’s not just the pandemic that threatens the festival – Brexit looms large as another dark cloud hovering over the meeting, throwing up miles and kilometres of new bureaucratic red tape, including extra veterinary checks, travel restrictions and prohibitive VAT increases, that calls into question the very participation of the Irish contingent. Cheltenham without the Irish, equine and human, would be akin to a Shakespearean tragedy – a modern day Romeo Without Juliet and must not be allowed to happen. The unintended consequences of divorce from the EU become more apparent daily, an indisputable fact surely, even to the most blinkered Brexiteer, harsh reality replacing fevered fantasy, as Morrison’s empty supermarket shelves and rising prices bear testimony.
Enough of the darkness and doom, come with me as we launch Operation Cotswolds, another shot-in-the-arm attempt in our quest to lift the gloom and hopefully in the process, lighten bookmakers’ satchels. Ever the optimist despite repeated reversals, my cunning roadmap to riches revolves round a modest wager on each of the following five races – my favourite festival five, enough for a Super Yankee. For the uninitiated that’s the name of a combination bet and most definitely not a compliment to the unlamented and lately departed Trump. The alternate name for the bet is a Canadian!
(Tuesday 16th, 3.10pm CET)
THIS is the race that launches talented juveniles on the trail to greatness, and whilst it would be tilting at windmills to suggest that today’s cast contains a candidate that could be remotely compared to the immortal steed the race commemorates, it has produced stellar winners in the recent past who have gone on to hit the heights, like Altior, Sprinter Sacre and Moscow Flyer. Top of this year’s class come the exciting pair, SHISHKJN, trained in England by Nicky Henderson and Irish raider Energumene, trained by Willie Mullins. Henderson and Mullins have each won the race four times and I’m siding with SHISHKIN to give Hendo outright bragging rights to this event. Current odds are a bit skinny at Evens, but it does look home and hosed.
(Tuesday 16th, 4,30pm CET)
MY DREAM since boyhood is that one day I would own the winner of my favourite race, the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, unlikely to be realised of course, barring Lady Luck changing her habit of a lifetime and for once, smiling rather than scowling on me. The runner in this year’s race I would most like to call my own is defending champion EPATANTE, owned by legendary Irish gambler JP McManus, whose billionaire financial status is a tad dissimilar to mine. No private plane to the racecourse for Liam, just flights of fantasy and a stroll on Shanks’s pony to the pub and Arena in Casemates or to watch the drama unfold on the Big Screen at Ocean Village. The dream this time is that EPATANTE retains her title and repays my ten pounds vote of confidence. Current odds are 3/1.
Queen Mother Champion Chase (Wednesday 17th, 4.30 CET)
THE Queen Mother, the two-mile speed chase involving the fastest jumpers in the world, where fences need to be negotiated at up to 40mph and a mistake could catapult the jockey clean out of the Cotswolds, is the highlight of the second day of the festival. This year’s renewal sees the short-priced favourite Chacun Pour Soi, another graduate from the Mullins academy, travel from County Carlow seemingly with victory already assured. However, I will be looking to dual winner of the race ALTIOR, trained by Henderson, to rediscover his imperious form of a season ago and regain the crown. Current odds are 8/1.
Stayers’ Long Distance Hurdle (Thursday 18th, 4.30 CET)
THE STAYERS’ is one of the most popular races of the festival, mainly because of the numerous times it has been won by the same horse – Big Buck’s won it four times, Inglis Drever was a triple victor, Baracouda and many others were multiple winners. A simple and profitable betting strategy proved to be backing a previous winner to repeat the feat, and it’s one I’ll be following this time around when lumping 2019 winner PAISLEY PARK with my tenner. Current odds are 3/1.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
(Friday 19th, 4.30 CET)
CHAMPION festival trainer Willie Mullins had never won the great race until Al Boum Photo triumphed in 2019, and having retained the Cup last year the classy Al Boum is the pick of many form experts to make it three in a row, replicating a feat that the incomparable Arkle accomplished 55 years ago. However, I’m looking elsewhere for the winner and my tenner each way will be entrusted on last year’s unlucky runner-up SANTINI to avenge that narrow defeat and keep the prize at home. Current odds are 14/1, a must-have each way price, provided trainer Nicky Henderson can get him to the post fit and well and the talented beast cuts out the jumping errors. 14/1 …. what a Friday finale that would be.
See you at The Arena (pandemic permitting) – the cider’s on the bookies. Cheers!