Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Cheltenham Festival - It's A Team Game

Horse racing isn’t a team sport. Is it?  Well, not if you don’t count the annual Shergar Cup Event, where teams from Britain and Europe compete with the “Rest of the World” – I suggest that if you haven’t heard of it, we don’t count it and agree that racing isn’t a team sport. Except… 

Team tactics are set to play a major role on racing’s most important stage at the Cheltenham Festival in March. From race to race and hurdle to hurdle, the trainers with the largest teams of equine players will be plotting their way to the winning post. 

Some will be planning to take out the opposition, literally. Willie Mullins, for example, is seemingly intent on diverting Annie Power away from the Mare’s race. That apostrophe is deliberately placed by the way - because since 2009 the race has belonged to one mare only: Quevega, with whom Mullins is aiming to win the race for an incredible sixth successive time next month. I don’t blame him. There’ll be many other top owners and trainers trying to keep their best horses apart. It just seems a shame that Quevega won’t be asked to face the most potent opposition available, primarily because they’re part of the same team. 

If Annie Power goes to Cheltenham at all, she may well be set on a collision course with another great champion, the Paul Nicholls trained Big Bucks. Like Quevega, Big Buck’s started his Festival winning sequence in 2009, although he’s clocked up only four victories in the Stayers’ Hurdle following an enforced break through injury last year. Unlike Mullins, Nicholls looks as though he could saturate the stayers’ event with runners and team tactics will play a large part in the race. 

Big Bucks can be a tricky ride as he tends to idle once he hits the front; when he sees another horse, he picks up the bit and races again. You can therefore be fairly certain that Nicholls will ensure that there is a decent pace in the race and, if all goes to plan, Big Bucks will be given a lead over the last obstacle. Personally I don’t think it will make any difference to the result – I am sure that Tony McCoy will have analysed every possible eventuality and he will deliver At Fishers Cross fast and late (and as wide of Big Bucks as he can) to trump both Nicholls and Mullins on the run-in. 

You can back At Fishers Cross for the Stayers’ Hurdle at 6/1 right now. However this week’s selection is Saphir du Rheu, one of the Nicholls team, who is likely to take up his entry for the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell Park on Sunday, in preference to a shot at the stayers’ crown at Cheltenham. 

For more news, views and gossip about the Cheltenham Festival, tickets are now available for the Festival Preview Night at the Cartmel Grandstand on Thursday evening 6th March. The expert panellists will include Festival-winning Irish trainer Arthur Moore, Festival-winning Cartmel trainer, Jimmy Moffatt and top form analyst Marten Julian - so you won't have to listen to more half-baked theories from me! 

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