There are certain acres of ground which are held sacred by followers of sport in this country. For those involved with the GAA it is a few acres of land off Jones Road in Dublin 3. For those who support soccer and rugby, it is a patch of land adjacent to Lansdowne Road in the south of the city. On these fields heroes are made. Men and women gain reputations that last a lifetime and beyond for their endeavours on these pitches.
Horse racing, and particularly National Hunt Racing, also has its sacred piece of ground where man and beast combine in pursuit of their holy grail. The irony for Irish National Hunt fans is that these few acres are in a town in the Cotswolds that simply couldn't be more English. All that changes next week, when an estimated 15,000 Irish people descend on the town. For this is Festival week at Cheltenham, and in a matter of minutes at various times throughout the week, heroes will emerge to claim their place on a roll of honour that stretches back many generations.
Though the purists will lament the absence of a horse such as Sprinter Sacre, the connections of the victorious horses will doubtless celebrate in the usual manner. For many a weary traveller who will board the planes in Birmingham and Bristol at the week's end, the only absence that will be noted will be the absence of euros and sterling that accompanied them on the outward trip!
Though the Irish had a record-breaking fourteen winners last year, one of the golden rules is 'back with your head, not with your heart'; with that advice in mind, here goes! We'll start with the Championship races and then look at a few of the handicaps.
For the opening race of the meeting, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle, the market suggests a match between Irving for England and Vautour for Ireland. I'm not so sure; while the winner is likely to come from one these two, a few euro each way on Wicklow Brave, Josses Hill or Valseur Lido may prove a more profitable investment. My bet of the meeting runs in the Arkle Chase where I expect Trifolium to land the spoils for Charles Byrnes. Trading at 6/1, he represents excellent each way value.
Only three horses can win the Champion Hurdle, Hurricane Fly, The New One and Our Conor. At 3/1, The New One is the one to be on.
In the next race, The OLBG Mares hurdle, Quevega should record an incredible sixth win in a row at The Festival, but at odds of 4/6 will not have much appeal for the ordinary punter.
The Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle opens the second day, and Red Sherlock is strongly fancied. Again, trading at around the 6/1 mark, it is very hard to see him being out of the first three. The RSA Chase is a wide open affair with Ballycasey, Smad Place and Morning Assembly the selected from a competitive field, but this is one race I'll be sitting out. Never an easy race to predict, this year's renewal poses too many questions.
In the absence of Sprinter Sacre, Sire de Grugy will be sent off favourite for The Champion Chase. I expect his odds to lengthen between now and Wednesday, so if you are tempted to have a bet on him, the advice is to hold off until closer to the race. He has failed in his two previous attempts at the track and this raises a question mark for many, but he is still the percentage call. If his Cheltenham hoodoo strikes again, the race is wide open, and an upset may be on the cards.
Willie Mullins is looking for win number nine in the bumper, and has a very strong hand. I like the look of Black Hercules, but again this is a wide open race where no bet should be placed until the riding arrangements are finalised.
It is still very unclear what the lineup for the Ryanair Chase will be, but Dynaste is one horse who seems certain to take his chance here, and if he does, he is the one to beat. The 4/1 available today may look like very good value next Thursday afternoon.
One of the races of the meeting is The Ladbroke World Hurdle. On paper it looks a match between four-time winner Big Bucks and wonder mare, Annie Power. However, there are question marks over these two. Big Bucks was beaten on his recent return from a long term layoff, and Annie Power has yet to race over this distance. Of the two, Annie looks the more likely, but don't rule out an upset in this race, and the 7/1 available about At Fishers Cross could represent good each way value. More of That and Celestial Halo are others who could sneak into a place at long odds.
Friday begins with The Triumph Hurdle, and it looks a typically open affair. Guitar Peter and Tiger Roll are the Irish flag bearers, with Calipto and Le Rocher leading the home defence. A win for any of these four would come as no surprise, but I'll be looking out for one that has slipped under the radar, Pearl Castle. He represents very good value at the 16/1 mark. If the week is not going well at this stage, it may be time to look for a few longshots.
Similar to the Champion Hurdle, only three horses can win the Gold Cup, Silviniaco Conti, Bobs Worth or Last Instalment. If the ground stays on the soft side, Last Instalment could prove a controversial winner. On good to soft or better going, I expect the English duo of Silviniaco Conti and Bobs Worth to fight it out, with slight preference for Bobs Worth to become a dual Gold Cup winner.
It is too early to say for certain what will run in many of the handicaps, and whether or not the weights will rise will have a bearing on the outcome of a number of them. A few names to watch out for are Foxrock on Tuesday, Sure Reef and Dawalan on Wednesday, Oscar Whiskey, Fingal Bay, Colour Squadron and Indian Castle or Holywell on Thursday and Cheltenian and Ted Veale on Friday.
If you have €100 to bet for the week, do a €50 e.w. double on Trifoliun and The New One on Tuesday. You'll have a decent profit for the remainder of the week, and play up some of the winnings on Pearl Castle later in the week.