We’re in the midst of silly season preview nights. This time next week, of course, we will be at Cheltenham and fully immersed in the biggest week of the year, but before then we run the gauntlet of the infamous preview night circuit.
I have been relatively fortunate this year, confining myself to two appearances on panels and just one as a spectator. The principal risk is to the liver, but the wallet is similarly under threat as pundit after pundit identifies a 20/1 dark horse for one of the handicaps.
“It’s over half a stone well in” purrs one; “it’s been working the house down at home” chirps another. “The trainer told me last night he’s never had this mare better. She’s in the form of her life.” And so the waters get muddier rather than clearer.
With 28 races and the best part of a week to wait, your correspondent is trying to detox the body and the betting strategy ahead of a major assault next week.
I’m hoping to bring you all the colour of the Festival next week from the course but allow me to set the record straight for any of you who suspect my Prestbury Park existence will be confined to hospitality boxes, the Guinness Village and a series of after-parties in five-star hotels.
I’ll be on course no later than 07.15 each morning, risking life and limb in the temporary media centre which is scaffolded above the parade ring and which never has enough seats, sockets or heaters.
A series of TV and radio interviews is likely to be punctuated by occasional calls from salesmen who are blissfully unaware that Cheltenham is on and some irritating emails from Head Office asking me for budget updates.
I’m hosting some box previews for our clients with Oliver Sherwood and Noel Fehily. When the racing starts, things tend to calm down for me. Nothing gives me more pleasure than a four-mile handicap when I’m trying to catch my breath.
Press releases, market reaction, media queries about money back offers and expensive falls all combine to leave me at my workstation come 8pm most evenings, still shivering and looking out over a concourse of ripped tickets and broken dreams.
Never has shivering and litter been so utterly intoxicating, though!
I wrote recently about my dismay at the glee surrounding Victoria Pendleton’s travails in the saddle as she prepares for a tilt at the Foxhunters. And now we know: the Olympic cyclist will line up next Friday, and yet the gloom merchants are out in yet more force.
I’m not in any way dismissing the safety issues that are rightfully being aired but Pendleton’s team are first-rate, to my eye, and well aware of the challenges and risks. We ought to unite and wish her well. Only if the Gold Cup – the Blue Riband of the Turf – is overshadowed by celebrity racing will I be irked.
I wish Pendleton well, hope she comes home safely and will be cheering her on and enjoying every bit of coverage she secures outside of our parish for a rattling good cause and illustration of devotion.
However, the Gold Cup has stood a far longer test of time and has brought more of us to the racing party than any celebrity. Let’s get things the right way round, at least.
So where do we begin with a 28-race Festival when it comes to the aforementioned detox on betting?
Well, I am nothing if not an abject failure when it comes to practising what I preach so I’m going to put myself in the poor house right from the get go, by tipping up a horse in the opening race on the first day.
The hot favourite, of course, is Willie Mullins’ hype horse Min. At 5/4 he’s a laughable price and will be bigger on the day so if you want to back him, hang fire and wait for the price wars to begin.
My idea of the winner, however, is the ultra-tough Altior. I can’t see him being out of the frame and what’s left of the Williams Millions are down and the curse has been placed. And if it all goes wrong, I’ve only got to endure another 27 races of losses before I can leave the Cotswolds nursing my wounds.
Image: Cheltenham racecourse by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons, public domain