I’m looking forward to this weekend at Cheltenham.
The December meeting before Christmas is certainly not the most glamorous of the year but it allows someone like me to kill several birds with one stone: not only is it the last chance to take advantage of some of the excellent deals available in the tented shopping village (rather more than 50% off marked prices if you look hard enough, dear readers!) but it also throws up some horses to follow for the future and avoid doing DIY at home.
Moreover, the old Bula — now run as the International Hurdle — is an intriguing race albeit not one one of the premier Champion Hurdle trials any more.
Its lack of depth is nothing to do with Nicky Henderson, who appears to be priming his Triumph Hurdle winner Peace & Co and a couple of other stablemates to take aim at a decent sized pot. The absence of any meaningful Irish contenders is in sharp contrast to a glance at the Champion Hurdle market, which is dominated with horses from the Emerald Isle.
It is highly unlikely that Willie Mullins will lose a great deal of sleep when he sees Saturday’s running of the race, and the relative paucity of top UK hurdlers this season is a cause for concern. It wasn’t all that long ago that Punjabi, Binocular, Rock On Ruby and Katchit were winning the biggest prize of all but an era of Faugheen and Hurricane Fly soon re-set the dial.
I will look to Peace & Co to bully his way into the Irish mix more in hope than expectation. And if it all falls a bit flat on Saturday I’ll go and buy some gifts in the warmth of that marvellous tented village!
By contrast to my slightly glum assessment of the Champion Hurdling division at this stage of the season, a look at the big staying chasers makes me wonder if we have ever before enjoyed such an outstanding bunch of prospects in our midst.
In most other years, any of the top six or seven in this year’s ante post Gold Cup market would be a clear favourite. The latest star to display his credentials was Djakadam, who took the John Durkan at Punchestown on Sunday. To my (admittedly dodgy) eye, this was as smart a performance as we have seen to date. Yes, Coneygree jumped like the star we know him to be at Sandown and we also know that Don Cossack, Don Poli, Cue Card and of course Vautour have done nothing to harm their reputations, but Djakadam on Sunday was my idea of a superstar in the rough.
It’s easy to forget his sensational run in last year’s Gold Cup and, with another season under his belt, he has the makings of a becoming a true jumping great.
Almost inevitably, the next two or three months will be marked by disappointment as big guns are forced to swerve the March Festival through injury. I confess that I have already invested in Djakadam for Gold Cup glory and will be keeping everything crossed that he comes through his likely appointment at Leopardstown on 28 December and gets to Prestbury Park as big race favourite in early Spring.
My job as your resident racing blogger is to bring you some gossip as well as opinion. And th recent HWPA lunch was brimming with gossip about the latest dispute between racing and betting over the funding of the sport.
The BHA were notable for their absence but HWPA Chairman Steve Cargill wasted little time in firing a volley of bullets in their direction for charging top dollar to bookies for a product that might not be quite worth as much as some in racing might believe.
Meanwhile, the gongs were well received, with BBC and ATR’s John Hunt collecting the Peter O’Sullevan Award for broadcasting to widespread acclaim. Hunt is one of the good guys — relentlessly cheerful and a master commentator and presenter. The much coveted Racing Write of the Year went for a record fourth time to the incomparable Alastair Down from the Racing Post. Down paid tribute to his visit in Spring to see JT McNamara and his family at home in Ireland in what was clearly a harrowing visit to see the stricken jockey. Both Down and Hunt spoke with an eloquence and heartfelt authenticity that echoed through the Royal Lancaster Suite. Both came close to tears when reflecting on their journeys to success in racing journalism and both received rapturous rounds of applause.
Wherever and however we get our fix of racing news, commentary and discussion, we are blessed to have the highest calibre of professionals to aspire to. Long may that continue.
Image: Cheltenham racecourse by Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons, public domain