Sorry to start Cheltenham week on a negative note but it’s hardly a vintage Festival, is it?
Maybe it’s that the lead-up has been so low-key this year. I don’t mean the build-up to the event itself. That’s been as frenetic as usual, loads of daft offers from the big firms, preview nights all over the place. It’s more about the scarcity of leading names in the last few months, especially in some of the big Saturday races. In years past they took each other on at various points of the season. You got to know those horses. These days, just like on the Flat, they’re wrapped in cotton wool. Cheltenham in March is all that matters.
Julian Muscat made a stark point in his Racing Post column last Tuesday. Of the 14 Grade championship races this week, Irish horses top the betting lists in nine of them. The other five are all trained by Nicky Henderson. Those five horses have made a total of 11 starts between them this season. Henderson runs his Festival horses sparingly and that policy has brought him great success over the years. It works for him but is it good for the sport?
Not a vintage Champion Hurdle or Gold Cup
Unless Faugheen is back to his best, Buveur D’Air should win a second Champion Hurdle. Where’s the strength in depth? My Tent Or Yours, now 11 years old, is the third choice in the betting. There’s a shortage of good British hurdlers. One reason is that a lot of Flat horses who, in times past, would have gone hurdling are now being sold for big sums to race in Australia.
The last six Gold Cup winners have been far from vintage and this year’s race looks below standard. There’s a dearth of top-class staying chasers. The Kauto Star v Denman era was a vintage one and it spoiled us. There’s been nothing to compare with that since.
Yes, Cheltenham will still bring us some great moments this week. However, to my eyes at least, many of the main races lack that ‘wow’ factor.