By Ed McNamara
Back in April 1998, I hitched a ride from Newmarket Racecourse to London with British racing columnist Alastair Down. He spoke enthusiastically about the recent Grand National, England’s 4 5/16-mile demolition derby over Aintree’s intimidating fences.
“The jumpers have a tremendous following over here,” Alastair said. “The expression is flat racing for the head, jump racing for the heart.”
The year before, I saw that passion first-hand at Cheltenham’s National Hunt Festival, a four-day Olympics for steeplechasers and hurdlers that is covered like a Super Bowl. This month it runs from Tuesday, the 16th, through Friday March 19, featuring 28 races, including 14 Group 1s. TVG will show them, and USracing.com is among many websites accepting wagers.
Last year’s Festival ended March 13, just as the world began going into lockdown. It drew 251,684 fans, including 68,585 for the finale, Gold Cup Day. Too bad that for the first time, Prestbury Park will be empty. Because of the pandemic, Cheltenham 2021 will be staged behind closed doors, with even horse owners shut out.
My friend Neil Morrice, an English journalist and public handicapper, has covered and bet on racing all over the world. Since childhood in Yorkshire, he’s loved Cheltenham.
“To any enthusiast worth his salt, the Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of our sport,” he messaged me. “For atmosphere, the amphitheater of Prestbury Park is indeed a place where dreams are made and come true.”
It’s profoundly depressing that this year it will feel like a ghost town.
“The roar of the crowd as the tapes go up before the first race of the meeting is uplifting, while the noise that greets two horses engaged in head-to-head combat up the final hill is enough to take the roof off the grandstands.
“For everyone who loves jumping, the 2021 Festival will, sadly, be quite different.”
History of the Festival dates to 1860
The extravaganza began in 1860 and moved permanently to Prestbury Park in 1911. Royal Ascot is the world’s most prestigious flat-race meeting, but the Festival arouses greater interest in the UK and Ireland. Unlike the United States, where jump racing is a fringe pastime of the WASP elite, over there it’s the sport of the people. The journey to Cheltenham, a spa town in southwestern England’s picturesque Cotswolds, has the feel and zeal of a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. Thousands of Irish arrive by boat, and cars, buses and trains bring fans from throughout England, Scotland, and Wales to enjoy the camaraderie, partying, and the battle of wits with the bookies.
The jumpers generate more betting handle across the pond than flat racing does, and Cheltenham’s massive pools are like a four-day stock market. Huge gambles tilt the odds, and they’re reported on-line, and in the racing papers the way Bloomberg News tracks real-time action on the Dow.
Jumping is a religion in Ireland, where all-time greats Arkle, Dawn Run and Istabraq are national heroes. Sadly, the “Irish roar” saluting a Cheltenham winner won’t be heard this year. Instead, the noise will come from pubs and couches.
“So, there will be a deafening silence at Cheltenham for four days,” Morrice said, “a silence that praise God will never come back to haunt us, because in normal times the Festival is as good as it gets.”
Like the Breeders’ Cup, it draws the best horses, trainers, and riders, and for months the focus is on peaking there. “Many of the top trainers are not shy to say that having a winner at the Festival is all that matters to them,” Morrice said.
Willie Mullins has been champion trainer at seven of the last 10 Festivals, so anything he enters deserves respect. His runners often are heavily bet, but occasionally he’ll connect at a nice price. Other trainers to watch are Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, and Henry de Bromhead.
Among the top jockeys are 2020 Cheltenham champ Paul Townend, Brian Hughes, Harry Cobden, Bryony Frost, Harry Skelton, Rachael Blackmore, and Sean Flanagan.
Gordon Elliot won’t be around after suspension
One big name who will be absent is Irish trainer Gordon Elliott, who was suspended for six months after a disturbing photo from 2019 surfaced last month on social media. Minutes after his 7-year-old hurdler Morgan suffered a fatal heart attack while training, Elliott sat on him, giving the “V” sign, and smiling while holding up a cell phone. It’s unknown who took the incriminating picture.
“I was standing over the horse waiting to get help with the removal of the body, in the course of which, to my memory, I received a call,” Elliott told The Racing Post. “And without thinking, I sat down to take it. It was a moment of madness … To the racing community, to anyone who has worked with and loves horses, I cannot apologize enough. I am paying a very heavy price for my error, but I have no complaints.
“I will carry the burden of my transgression for the rest of my career.”
Elliott, a two-time Festival champion, also has three Grand National wins, two with Tiger Roll in 2018 and 2019. Tiger Roll, who will be going for his fifth Cheltenham victory, and the rest of Elliott’s horses were transferred to other trainers.
As for handicapping, sorry, but I can’t help you. On my 1997 trip to Cheltenham, I foolishly tried to find winners on my own and got slaughtered. After the meet, the proprietor of my B&B asked how my betting went. Sheepishly, I said, “‘I lost 300 pounds [about $450].’ Mr. Marsh replied, “Oh, aren’t you clever.”
I awarded myself the “I Am Stupid” trophy and vowed never to repeat such idiocy when playing the Festival. From then on, I stopped trying to figure out Cheltenham form and relied on the sharp touts at The Racing Post and The Sporting Life. Google them and log on. Each offers picks and detailed analysis on all 28 races, and I’ve had many profitable meetings while backing their selections, many of which paid off at more than 10-1.
Another plus: When you lose with somebody else’s picks, at least you don’t have to second-guess yourself.