So much has changed at the Cheltenham Festival in recent decades as it has grown to become one of the essential fixtures in the British sporting calendar that a racegoer from half a century ago would scarcely recognise it.
There are new grandstands, new races, a fourth day, many acres of hospitality tents and even an entirely new course in the middle of the track. And while some of the names of the trainers would be familiar, the scale of their operations would not. Paddy Mullins, Dawn Run’s trainer, had 15 horses in his entire string in the mid-1960s – about half the number that his son Willie will put on a boat to the Festival this week.
A generation of punters has probably grown up believing that the turf at Cheltenham in March had changed for good too. If you had a (legal) bet at the last Festival staged on heavy going, you must now be in your late 30s at least. Whatever else may have emerged to thwart the backers’ retirement Yankees, it was always a fair assumption that the ground on the opening afternoon would be marginally onthe soft side.
But not this year. Even Cheltenham’s famously efficient drainage system has struggled to cope with the snow and rain, and the official going on Monday morning was predominantly heavy. Older racegoers will thus be able to bore their younger brethren with stories of slow-motion finishes on hock-deep ground, and jockeys whose colours were so thoroughly caked in mud it was difficult to tell one horse from another.
They may also pass on the useful advice that when the going is tough for the horses at Cheltenham, it can be punishing for the punters as well. Overall, the standard of the horses at the Festival has improved significantly and the winter form has stood up well on the better ground in March. This could be the year when, for both riders and punters, it all gets a little messy.
The danger lies in the dangling carrots throughout the four days, the short-priced favourites that look impregnable and promise to double your money on a regular basis as the meeting goes on. As now seems traditional, there are a series of apparent bankers on Tuesday’s opening card, which add up to a potential 14-1 four-timer for those – and there will be plenty – who want to charge in head down.
Samcro, the rising star of Irish jumping, is odds-on for the opening race on Wednesday, and while Altior is now a doubt for Wednesday’s Champion Chase after Nicky Henderson found pus in a hoof on Monday morning, there are also several returning heroes for backers to support. They are the most dangerous sort – the ones with something to prove – and for many, the chance to back horses like Faugheen, in the Champion Hurdle, and Douvan, in the Champion Chase, at prices that would have been unthinkable 12 months ago will be impossible to resist.
Before news broke of Altior’s problems, Henderson had the favourites for all three of the meeting’s most prestigious races and was around 12-1 to record an unprecedented treble. Altior looks 50-50 to run but will still start favourite if he does, and it would feel somehow appropriate if Henderson could add the Gold Cup to the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase at what promises to feel like an old-fashioned Festival.
He has, after all, been winning races at the meeting since the mid-1980s but he was also an assistant trainer at Fred Winter’s stable in the 70s when the yard had the favourites for the same three races and left empty-handed.
If similar disappointment awaits Henderson this time around, the most likely beneficiary is Mullins, who is only four winners adrift in the all-time list at the Festival even though he started training a decade later. Mullins could conceivably draw alongside Henderson if everything fell into place this week but time is on his side and he would surely settle for a fifth trainers’ title in six years, having succumbed to Gordon Elliott on countback last season.
Mullins and Elliott had half a dozen winners apiece at that meeting, while Ireland recorded an astonishing 19 victories in all. Henderson is the only British trainer in a position to offer significant resistance to the visitors this year. Paul Nicholls, the dominant force in British jumping for much of the last 15 years, had just one winner 12 months ago in the Foxhunter and apparently feels that Wonderful Charm, in the same race, is his best hope this time around. But he will also saddle Black Corton, a 7-1 chance, in Wednesday’s RSA Chase, and give Bryony Frost an opportunity to round off her breakthrough season with a Grade One Festival success.
The mud will make for an unusual Festival. Jockeys will be under even greater pressure to time their runs and save something for the finish, while more horses than normal may slow to a walk on the final climb to the line. But these will still be the four days that crown jumping’s champions and create memories of triumphs, plunges and disasters that racegoers and punters will carry to their graves.
And if it does get messy, then for three days at least, there is always tomorrow.