A punter's guide to Cheltenham

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AN EXPERT'S VIEW

Anthony Stroud (left), who has developed the careers of two champion hurdlers as Sheikh Mohammed's racing manager, makes his Festival predictions

To most punters, he is the public face of the world's most powerful owner of Flat horses, but jumping too has a place in the heart of Anthony Stroud. The new turf campaign is little more than a week away, and the Dubai season is approaching its climax, but Sheikh Mohammed's racing manager has still made time to attend the Festival at Cheltenham this week.

"It's the best three days racing of the year. It's absolutely wonderful, the atmosphere, the horses and the players, the Irish, the English and the competitive spirit. It's a marvellous festival of racing and a wonderful racecourse, steeped in tradition."

During Stroud's time with the Sheikh, his maroon and white colours have twice been carried to success in the Champion Hurdle, by Kribensis and Royal Gait. Stroud's association with the winter game goes much deeper, though. In his previous position with the Curragh Bloodstock Agency, he made his living buying raw young novices for some of the biggest stables in Britain.

"I used to buy horses for Mercy Rimell, Fred Winter, David Nicholson, and Oliver Sherwood, most of the jumping trainers, actually," he says. "We bought horses like Ekbalco, Aonoch, Very Promising, Waterloo Boy, Another Coral. The nearest I got to a Gold Cup winner was when I thought I'd bought Forgive 'N' Forget after he won his bumper, but sadly Jimmy FitzGerald got there just before me."

Stroud is thus a shrewd judge of horseflesh of all varieties, and impartial too, which means that his thoughts on the possible course of the week's events deserve serious consideration. His first choice is Kimanicky, in the opening event, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. "I saw him win last time and I think he'll like the ground, and Nicky [Henderson] always does extremely well. He'll give a very good account."

Stroud knows what it takes to win the Champion Hurdle, and had marked down Kribensis as a serious contender long before he jumped a flight in public. In this year's renewal, "I'd love Danoli to win, they'd probably have to cancel the rest of the races until the next day, but I would definitely side with Alderbrook. Fast ground would be of concern, but he's very classy."

David Nicholson is Stroud's host during Festival week, and his guest anticipates a serious party at Jackdaw's Castle on Wednesday evening. "I have to go with Viking Flagship in the Champion Chase. Sound Man is a very worthy opponent and Strong Platinum could run a good race on the ground, but Viking Flagship seems to be coming into his own."

Later the same day, Wither Or Which is expected to do better than his travelling companions in another head-to-head between Britain and Ireland, when he faces Andanito in the Festival Bumper. The run of luck should continue on Thursday, first in the Stayers' Hurdle and then in the richest prize of all, the Gold Cup.

"Derrymoyle, Michael Cunningham's runner in the Stayers', won very well at Navan last time. He's an excellent trainer, and he never brings horses to England unless they've got a very good chance.

"You'd like a bit of rain for him, but I would probably go with Imperial Call in the Gold Cup. He seems to be improving, he won his last race very well and I rather question whether One Man stays three and a quarter miles, and whether he will be able to quicken up the hill."

A final choice is a Triumph Hurdle candidate from the Nicholson yard, but not, interestingly, the ante-post favourite, Zabadi. "I'd be going for Hatta Breeze, not just because Sheikh Ahmed owned it at one time, but also because David seems to be quite confident about him."

Even if Stroud enjoys a 100 per cent strike-rate, though, Sheikh Mohammed will not need to find a new racing manager. "I'm not a betting man at all really," he says. "I go for the crack."

AN ARMCHAIR RIDE

Festival coverage from Channel 4 starts with a 30-minute preview presented by Lesley Graham at 8pm tonight. The Morning Line will be on air at 9am on each of the three days and coverage of the first four races lasts from 1.30pm to 4.30 pm. Highlights will be shown at midnight tomorrow and 11.30pm on Wednesday and Thursday.

HOW TO GET THERE

Start out now, wherever you live, so as not to miss one of the best moments of the Festival when the tapes rise for the first race and the crowd, optimism still undented, lets out a great roar. To avoid jams on the day, tune in to Festival Radio (1584 khz or 189m MW) which broadcasts from 10.30am to 7.30pm, for the latest traffic news, betting updates and race coverage. Even gamblers should avoid chancing the A435 from Cirencester to Cheltenham, where a landslip has narrowed the road to one lane, and the A40 at the Golden Valley junction with the M5 unless they want to be resurfaced.

The impatient arrive by helicopter (telephone: 01453 821307), but there are trains from all directions, including specials from London, Paddington. The course is three miles from the station and there is a constant convoy of buses and taxis between the two.

On arrival at the course you will be approached by women offering heather and men selling entrance badges. The heather's properties could bring luck but the badges will bring instant misfortune if they turn out to be forgeries as these will be detected at the gate. At the entrance, admission is pounds 50 for the Club Enclosure, pounds 20 for Tattersalls and pounds 10 for the Foster's Enclosure. The course opens at 11am and those with a Club badge can walk the track or prevent the bookies from getting hold of their betting wedge by spending it first at one of the 50 trade stands.

HOW TO BET THERE

Ducking and diving to get the best odds is not easy in the Festival crowd and the biggest certainty is that it will result in missing the race. Away from the maelstrom around the bookies there are numerous Tote kiosks (horses at 8-1 or more usually pay better on the Tote) and five betting shops. For those worried about walking about with large amounts of newly won cash, deposits can be made at two banks, Allied Irish and Bank of Ireland. They also do withdrawals.

RACE-BY-RACE GUIDE

TUESDAY

2.15 Supreme Novices' Hurdle

The "Welcome To Cheltenham" Stakes for the Irish, who collected every year between 1977 and 1983, and who may be starting to dominate again. Call Equiname and the unbeaten Castle Sweep will try to fend them off, but Dance Beat, the Ladbroke winner, and Beakstown, another who has done well in tough handicaps, look formidable.

2.50 Arkle Trophy Chase

Honours the greatest of them all, who won his third Gold Cup on St Patrick's Day, 30 years ago. If Draborgie, the favourite, runs she should be opposed with a vengeance - her jumping is too flat and she will be taken on for the lead by Cable Beach. As last year, the visitors may fight out the finish. Take your pick from King Wah Glory, Manhattan Castle and Ventana Canyon.

3.30 Champion Hurdle

No defending champion has finished better than sixth in the last five years, while See You Then (1985-87) was the last multiple winner, but it will be the surprise of the Festival if Alderbrook cannot buck both trends. Potentially, he is one of the finest champions in the race's 69- year history. Guinness's share price will soar if Danoli reverses last year's form when third, but even his most fervent supporters travel in hope rather than expectation. Fast ground might leave Alderbrook vulnerable, when Hotel Minella would enter calculations.

4.05 Ritz Club Handicap Chase

Normally a significant Grand National trial, but not this year due to the proximity of Cheltenham and Aintree. Unguided Missile will be fancied to calm the nerves of Gordon Richards, who saddles One Man in the Gold Cup.

4.40 Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Chase

The first outing for the amateurs, and the Irish variety is often superior to our own. Adrian Maguire, no less, won on Omerta in 1991 before turning professional. The skill-range will run from accomplished (Marcus Armytage for instance) through to utterly arhythmic, straight-backed bouncing. Back the jockey, not the horse.

5.15 Hamlet Cigars H'cap Hurdle

Was this sponsorship consciously ironic, since Hamlet will always be associated with smokers who have just suffered crushing misfortune? Punch- drunk punters will approach the first day's getting-out race in a similar state of mind, but smoking is, on the whole, rather safer than getting involved in such a competitive handicap. A short-head has decided the outcome for the last two years. Pragada, the 1988 winner, finished second at 33-1 in 1992 and 1995 and runs again.

WEDNESDAY

2.15 Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle

There is Irish confidence behind Urubande, who represents Aidan O'Brien, that country's training wunderkind. O'Brien has yet to win a Festival race, but then neither had Kim Bailey before last year's Champion Hurdle/Gold Cup double. The British strength is merely in numbers.

2.50 Queen Mother Champion Chase

Viking Flagship bids to emulate Badsworth Boy (1983-85) and win the Champion Chase for a third consecutive year. After a smoother preparation than 12 months' ago, he will be favourite to do so, but this field represents his strongest opposition to date. Strong Platinum, Klairon Davis and Sound Man form a raiding party which, at combined odds, is around evens to give Ireland its first win in the race since Buck House in 1986.

3.30 Coral Cup (Handicap Hurdle)

It is astonishing what the Gloucestershire air can do for some horses. After four months spent running down the field in mediocre races, their previous form is suddenly forgotten when the tapes go up for one of the Festival's cash-laden handicaps. Keep stakes small and think Irish - they filled the first three places 12 months ago.

4.05 Sun Alliance Chase

With no strong Irish fancy, the visitors may turn to Mr Mulligan, the favourite, who is trained in Lambourn by Irishman Noel Chance. Mr Mulligan's dashing, front-running style could be one of the highlights of the week and his trainer is already thinking in terms of next year's Gold Cup.

4.40 National Hunt Chase

The conditions - a four-mile chase for horses which, at the start of the season, had not won a race over obstacles - all but guarantee that this will be an event for very slow horses. Still, the amateur riders enjoy it.

5.15 Mildmay Of Flete H'cap Chase

No favourite has won this race since 1985 and three winners have started at 33-1 or longer since, but Big Matt will be well backed to collect now that he is back at his best trip.

5.50 Festival Bumper

A classic British/Irish confrontation, between Andanito, one of the best bumper horses on this side of the sea for seasons, and Wither Or Which, who can claim similar status in Ireland.

THURSDAY

2.15 Triumph Hurdle

Rather like the Grand National, the Triumph's reputation as a mobile National Lottery has not been borne out by the facts in recent years. Mysilv started favourite, while Oh So Risky, Shawiya and Kissair were towards the top of the betting. Zabadi, Hatta Breeze and Our Kris may be Britain's best, Magical Lady (Aidan O'Brien again) will run them close for Ireland.

2.50 Stayers' Hurdle

A generation of stayers is approaching its sell-by date, and this renewal looks weak. Seekin Cash was beaten by a 100-1 chance at Kempton last time, but is the most obvious winner. Derrymoyle, among others, could make it three in a row for the Irish.

3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase

Ten years after Dawn Run, Ireland has its best chance since to land the Gold Cup. Imperial Call, winner of the Hennessy at Leopardstown, is one of few dangers to One Man, the grey who, we are told, will revitalise steeplechasing. Affection for One Man goes much deeper than his colour. He runs and jumps with compulsive enthusiasm, and deserves to be a short- priced favourite. In Dublin Flyer, though, he may have found a horse who can take him on and worry him in front.

4.05 Foxhunter Chase

Thursday afternoon is a good time to run a few errands, if you are a fox. Those wretched folk who make the daily grind so unbearable will be at Cheltenham, pursuing the amateurs' equivalent of the Gold Cup. There will be undignified exits aplenty, and if the hounds were as slow as the horses, they'd never catch anything.

4.40 Grand Annual Handicap Chase

Often won by a horse whose potential is so far unrealised - Katabatic took this race 12 months before his success in the Champion Chase.

5.15 Cathcart Chase

A fall-back for the major yards' second strings if the competition in the other novice chases looks too stiff. The favourite is often worth avoiding.

5.50 Vincent O'Brien County H'dle

Usually the medium of an Irish gamble as the visitors realise they will struggle to afford a round of drinks on the ferry home. Family Way, may just be the horse to make it work.

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