Tuesday 12 December 2017

Rachel Wyse: Cheltenham magic never fails to leave the public swooning

Rachel Wyse

To fully quantify what makes Cheltenham racecourse so special would be to attempt the impossible. For every visitor that has ever passed though the gates of Prestbury Park, it conjures different images, different emotions. We all have a story to tell about the place.

The magic of this arena lends itself to moments people carry with them forever. And each year fans are left wanting more. We are drawn to the Cotswolds like moths to a flame. It's a ritual that for many begins this weekend, with the venue staging its three-day Open meeting.

The March Festival is obviously the pinnacle of every national hunt season, but this meeting has a special uniqueness and in many eyes the three days herald the real beginning of the new jumps season.

Since I joined Sky Sports News in 2010, I have had experiences beyond my dreams. Having an opportunity to ride in the 2011 Festival's charity race escalated the magic of Cheltenham to a whole new level. It's a day I will never forget.


This year has brought a new association with the racecourse, as, along with Gloucester and English rugby player Billy Twelvetrees, I have been chosen as a Cheltenham ambassador for the forthcoming season.

Having such an affiliation with a place I cherish, a place that gives me and thousands of others so much pleasure, is a massive honour.

Today the role begins in earnest when I will be at the track to enjoy the highlight of the weekend's fare – the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

Memories of Open meetings in years past bring to mind the remarkable feats of Martin Pipe. Along with his principal owner, the late David Johnson, Pipe continually targeted the meeting and I recall numerous well-backed runners duly obliging.

Sadly for punters much has changed; Johnson is no longer with us and Pipe has passed the mantle to his son David.

The Pond House bandwagon continues to roll on under its new stewardship, however, and, while he may not have the strength in numbers his father once enjoyed, David Pipe has shown himself to be a very capable trainer as the operation continues to send out winners.

Pipe has decided to target next week's Betfair Chase at Haydock with the yard's flagbearer Dynaste and will, thus, be represented by Ballynagour in today's showpiece.

In a race that may not be as competitive as a 20-runner field suggests, this horse has a very unexposed profile.

Having raced only twice in the UK, more evidence is needed to form a definitive opinion of his capabilities, but his victory on his British debut at Warwick last February indicated he was a horse of far greater talents than his then handicap mark of 123.

On that occasion he was punted as though he had stones in hand and duly delivered. A subsequent 20lb hike by the handicapper halted his progress when next seen at this year's Cheltenham Festival and, though excuses for that defeat appear to be scarce, it may be a little premature to categorically claim this is a horse firmly in the handicapper's grip.

With the exception of Dynaste, the Pipe yard had no other horse that finished in the first three in any race at the 2013 Festival and while such statistics could well be indicative of a lack of quality, I wonder were the yard's inhabitants in rude health when we last saw Ballynagour on a race course.

Even allowing for the 20lb hike, I would have expected him to finish his race better at the Festival. He travelled to the bottom of the hill, but appeared to be running on empty once he turned for the winning post.

Perhaps Ballynagour is dependant on proper soft ground to be at his optimum and maybe the rise in rating, combined with quicker going in March, was his undoing. With the ground this afternoon expected to ride no worse than good to soft, conditions might well be against him once again, but considering the shrewdness of his connections and his unexposed profile, this is a horse I would have on my side.

One horse the predicted going will not inconvenience is Jonjo O'Neill's runner Johns Spirit. The six-year-old made a successful reappearance at Cheltenham in October, winning a two-and-half-mile handicap chase off a mark of 129.

The handicapper has allocated him another 10lbs for today and his exploits last year at Cheltenham and Aintree, where he competed off 133, indicate a career-best performance will be needed for him to win. Top weight Finians Rainbow will relish the drying ground and the 2012 Champion Chase winner is the proven class act of the field.

With the exception of his final run at Sandown, last season was forgettable for the 10-year-old and the question is whether he can defy a handicap mark of 165.

His run at the back end of last season, when he gave 4lbs and ran second to Sire De Grugy, which recently skated home off 161 at Chepstow, suggests Finians Rainbow can be competitive at today's weights.

The forecast going is essential to his chances and, despite rising 11, there is relatively low mileage on Nicky Henderson's runner.

Champion Court has been well supported in the run-up to today's race and Martin Keighley's runner has been a model of consistency over fences.

He races today off 157 and, with good form over course and distance, recent market support is understandable.

If he is to win off his current mark of 157, Champion Court will have to be a 163-165 chaser and though a summer on grass may well have improved him, I believe the eight-year-old's form book suggests he is weighted to the limit of his ability.

Long Run's connections suffered disappointment in this race back in 2010 when their horse was beaten off a mark of 158 before remarkably going on to win the Gold Cup five months later. This year they appear to have another live chance with the improving Rajdhani Express, which will be ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen.

The son of Presenting could well be still improving and if he wins on his seasonal debut off a mark of 155, Henderson will have another serious young chasing prospect on his hands.

Battle Group is a horse that has turned inside out since coming under the handling of Johnny Farrelly, but I suspect three miles is his optimum trip and I fear today's distance won't be far enough.

Of the JP McManus-owned runners, Nadiya De La Vega is the most prominent in the betting. She was third in last season's renewal off a 5lb higher mark than today, but a little more relief from the handicapper might be in order before she wins a race of this nature.

At the prices, I would take Ballynagour and Finians Rainbow against the field. Whatever the outcome, this promises to be a great occasion – just a typical day at Cheltenham really.

Irish Independent

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