Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Cheltenham and Other Clichés

The word Cliché originated in France, where the sound of the printing press (clique, clique, clique) became synonymous with the insertion of oft repeated phrases. In order to save time, such phrases were kept at the ready, while lesser used words (like bunkum) were compiled one letter at a time before being set into the printing frame. 

Thus: The tapes will go up on the Olympics of horseracing next Tuesday, accompanied by the Cheltenham roar, in a natural amphitheatre nestled in the shadow of Cleeve Hill. Form analysts will speculate as to whether the Irish banker will come down the hill, while questioning whether doubtful stayers will get up the hill. Broadcasters will commiserate with last fence fallers, while punters declare sagely that “jumping is the name of the game”. Everyone will agree that the experience is an emotional rollercoaster. 

And that’s the nub of it. The reason why we’re so passionate about the Cheltenham Festival - the reason why we have so many stock phrases to describe what goes on there - is that it taps into our emotions.

We develop irrational feelings of ownership for horses that we want to succeed, even though we have no intention of ever paying their training fees. We form strong opinions about the relevance of preparatory races and (especially if we’ve spouted forth to our friends) we need our opinions to be proved correct. There are many more than two teams on the field, the dynamics are complex and (in the friendliest of ways) deeply partisan. 

For example, I love Wishfull Thinking. He can be backed for the Ryanair Chase at 25/1 and the miserable statisticians will say that, at the age of twelve, he can not possibly win. However, he is likely to be the highest rated horse in the race, he is a gem and I am on his side. I’ll follow Cartmel winners too: Vosne Romanee claimed the same juvenile hurdle at Cartmel that Countrywide Flame won prior to his Cheltenham heroics. Vosne Romanee is not even listed on the first page of the betting for the Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle, but if he sneaks into the weights, you can be sure I’ll be shouting him on. 

In the Champion Hurdle there’ll be plenty of support for Tony McCoy aboard Jezki – because it’d be uplifting to see McCoy win any of the Championship races again before he retires. But I have a feeling that when we see Faugheen, it may be difficult not to come to the conclusion that he is one of the most beautiful creatures on Earth. Willie Mullins (Faugheen’s trainer) recently complained about the level of prize money on offer at Cheltenham, which at £400,000 for the Champion Hurdle is not inconsiderable. If Mullins had been targeting a £3,000 handicap hurdle, I might have had some sympathy; instead he has flicked a negative switch in my Cheltenham befuddled mind – I’d rather see Nigel Twiston-Davies, who was gracious in defeat last year, reap recompense with The New One

Among the regular pearls of wisdom dispensed to punters ahead of the Festival is “Don’t raise your stakes: a 4/1 winner at Plumpton is worth the same as a 4/1 winner at Cheltenham”. To which I say balderdash, bunkum and piffle. Double your stakes for all races at Cheltenham, especially the Gold Cup, because there is no feeling on Earth like owning the best steeplechaser in the British Isles – even if you don’t have to pay the training fees. 

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