Nothing like waking up and reading the headline, “Travel restricted from Europe for 30 days.” In the fine print, it explained that the ban doesn’t include the UK. Hopefully, I can still slide under the tag. Daunting, fragile, uncertain times in which we live.
As for our escape, it’s halftime at Cheltenham.
Standing next to one of the few benches on the lawn in front of the Wednesday throng, a woman turns and says, “That was absolutely astonishing.” We would have hugged, cough, cough, but instead we smiled, nodded, spun around and then stood in awe of a horse, a performance. Barry Geraghty and Champ found something late, so far down you didn’t see them until splitting Allaho and Minella Indo to pull the RSA Chase out of the fire. Just one of the performances, awed and shared, on the second day of the Festival.
Champ accounted for one of four wins on the card for J.P. McManus.
“I knew I still had a chance on Champ turning in. But after jumping the second-last, I wasn't making up any ground and was still struggling. I knew when I committed to pop the last fence, that the two in front of me had not jumped brilliantly at that fence. On landing on the back of it, I was smelling money again,” Geraghty said. “As soon as he picked up, I was about three lengths down by then and I knew it was over. He was on the back foot all the way. It's very tacky ground and hard work - JP rang me at eight o'clock this morning and said it might be a little bit better out a bit wider. So I went that way and he was right. It was all about finding a rhythm and helping him travel, so I didn't have to ask too many questions.”
Politologue proved the adage that you have to be in it to win it yet again, wiring a diminished field of five in the Queen Mother. Altior scratched first. Chacun Pour Soi second. The last of the big three standing was Defi Du Seuil. He stood but that’s about all, failing to threaten while finishing fourth as the 2-5 favorite. Trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Harry Skelton formed an improbable combination to make their week.
“I am pleased because it shows we were right about coming here fresh. I just can't wait for Clan des Obeaux on Friday now. It shows that, when they are very fit and very fresh, they are brilliant,” Nicholls said. “The race fell apart a little bit with a few coming out but it was his race today and he was very good. I knew we were in the right place and I knew that he wouldn't stop. Harry was doing the right job and he was jumping brilliant from the front. I am thrilled with him. I looked in the paddock beforehand and thought he was a stand-out. I got him here fresh and fit and it's just worked out brilliantly."
Envoi Allen dominated the opener. Davy Russell stood up at the wire, hesitated, raised his right whip hand to the crowd and held it there, “Did you see that? Did you just see that?” Then he pumped it twice, two quick jabs, jackhammer spikes about a horse who is on the cusp of greatness. Envoi Allen is big, long, tall and walks like he’s going to the bank to make a weekly deposit. Some horse. A Gold Cup horse.
"It was very dead ground, probably the worst he has encountered and it tested him. We went a good gallop and The Big Getaway and Easywork put me to the test,” Russell said. “He is a hard one to call because, when he settles, he switches off the engines and runs in neutral for a lot of the race. You don't know when to pick him then because, if you set him alight too early, he can do too much. Today was just perfect. He is very professional now and when I bent my knees, he had plenty left. He just really enjoyed chasing the other horses.”
He won’t chase them for long.
Tiger Roll tried hard but finished second in the Glenfarclas Cross Country, pulling up and being untacked at the top of the hill. Jockey Keith Donoghue making the long walk back on his own. The two-time Grand National winner and four-time Festival winner walked off the course, in the far corner of Prestbury Park, as we clapped for the overachieving little horse, perhaps for the last time.
My biggest bet of the week, each-way on Honest Vic, just missed hitting the frame at 33-1. Only at Cheltenham can you beat 20 horses and still not get paid. Painful.
On to today. It’s halftime. And there is hail in the forecast. And, actually, it’s snowing now that I look outside.
Race 1. Marsh Novices’ Chase. Grade 1. £150,000. 2 miles, 3 furlongs, 68 yards.
The races is named after the great Golden Miller. He would have liked Faugheen. The 12-year-old tries to defy it all by winning a Grade 1 novice chase at the Festival. The 2015 Champion Hurdle winner went down an untraveled path this year, switching to fences at an age where most are looking simply to keep on the roads, rather than switching codes. He’s won all three starts, including two Grade 1 stakes in Ireland. This? This will be “absolutely astonishing” if he pulls it off.
The Picks: Faugheen, Itchy Feet, Mister Fisher.
Race 2. 2:10. Pertemps Network Final. Handicap Hurdle. Grade 3. £100,000. 2 miles, 7 furlongs, 213 yards.
A 24-horse puzzler.
The Picks: Third Wind, Welsh Saint, Rapper.
Race 3. 2:50. Ryanair Chase. Grade 1. £350,000. 2 miles, 4 furlongs, 127 yards.
My favorite horse from last year, A Plus Tard, continues to climb the ladder here. He faces the tough and genuine Frodon and the talented Min. Just seven, but a thriller.
The Picks: A Plus Tard, Min, Frodon.
Race 4. 3:30. The Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £325,000. 2 miles, 7 furlongs, 213 yards.
The feature looks like a layup, er, penalty kick for last year’s winner Paisley Park. He’s 4/6 to defend his crown and run his win streak to eight. His last loss came in the Albert Bartlett, 54 lengths behind Kilbricken Storm. Funny how horses go in different directions. Andrew Gemmell, who owns Paisley Park, was born blind. He loves his sport, listens to the crowd, the announcer to see the race. Great horse. Great story.
The Picks: Paisley Park, Penhill, Emitom.
Race 5. 4:10. Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase. Grade 3. £110,000. 2 miles, 4 furlongs, 27 yards.
I’ve always loved Snow Falcon, the veteran should appreciate the 7-pound claimer, Eoin Walsh. Siruh Du Lac won this last year but has risen in the weights and has only made one start since.
The Picks: Snow Falcon, Deyrann De Carjac, Death Duty.
Race 6. 4:50. The Daylesford Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 2. £90,000. 2 miles, 179 yards.
Dart meet board. Good luck.
The Picks: Minella Melody, Colreevy, Dolcita.
Race 7. 5:30. The Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup. Amateur riders. £70,000. 3 miles, 2 furlongs.
Another impossible mission.
The Picks: Ardlethen, Champagne Platinum, Plan Of Attack.
And, now, as I finish typing and editing, the sun is out. Onward, my friends, onward and upward.