Racing: A punter's guide to Cheltenham

The most important three days in the calendar for enthusiasts of National Hunt racing can also be the most expensive. Richard Edmondson suggests some basic survival tactics for those intending to take to the track, while John Cobb steers a path through the 20-race minefield and (right) inspects the strength of the Irish invasion force

A pint, a pee and placing a bet is an impossible permutation

SURVIVAL guides to the Cheltenham Festival always seem to offer an optimum route to the racecourse. This, for some reason, leads to great bunches of people getting in each other's way at that appointed hour.

The only advice worth taking about entry to the track is to get there early. The gates open at 10.30am. If you're travelling from London, undoubtedly the best mode of transport is to catch the train to Cheltenham Spa (Cheltenham owes its growth to the discovery of a mineral spring in 1715). Booking a super advance return with Great Western Trains (0345 000125) before 2pm on the day before you go costs pounds 26 and is imperative as it saves pounds 40 in punting money.

For motorists who choose to join the traffic jam at the bottom of their drive, there are several sources of salvation. Updates can be obtained from Cheltenham Radio (603Khz AM) or on Festival Radio (1584Khz, 189m MW) within a five-mile radius of the course. From 10am to 7pm the latter will feature news, previews, interviews and betting.

Festival TV transmits from 10.30am and leads into coverage by Channel 4, whose preview programme, despite the absurd timing of 12-12.30pm, will still be called The Morning Line. Those with a high information-overload threshold can also click into the Cheltenham Internet site (on http://www.cheltenham.co.uk).

Once you get to the course, you'll find men milling around outside who used to be oiks when they were younger. Their opportunistic voices seem to be asking you if you've got "a spare badger", but by the time you've explained you haven't even got a brock of your own never mind a spare one, he has been uncovered as a ticket tout. These spivs will sell on your ticket for a vast profit or even try to offload a forgery on you. Treat them as you might treat a rabid dog. Getting into Cheltenham is expensive enough at pounds 50 a top shot tomorrow and Wednesday. Thursday and the 75th year of the Gold Cup is already sold out.

Once again there is no chance to walk the course unless you are a cheese, and Edward Gillespie, the managing director, gets even more sniffy about those who try to get into his winners' enclosure. Even now he is probably practising Welsh hymns as he prepares for the turf's equivalent of Rorke's Drift. Those that Gillespie does apprehend will be ejected and not allowed back for the rest of the meeting even if they ask nicely.

On a punting level, this is usually a grand meeting for betting with the Tote, whose racecourse division enjoys 10 per cent of its annual turnover during the Festival. So you will not only be winning your own money back, and dividends on outsiders are likely to outstrip the board prices.

Remember, though, that the normal racegoing circuit of having a pee, a bet, a drink and watching a race is not possible. You can perhaps perm two from those four and get away with it.

A personal favourite to start off the day if you stay down is a round at Cleeve Hill Golf Club (pounds 10 for 18 holes on 01242 672592). It's not sunshine in Augusta, it's blasting wind in March, but the view of the course below is spectacular and when the helicopters come swarming in just over your head it's like a piece of the Mekong Delta has come to the Cotswolds.

Race by race: how to change your financial future

TUESDAY

2.00 SUPREME NOVICES' HURDLE

With optimism undimmed the great roar that goes up as the tape ascends heralds not only the first race of the meeting but the first of the Irish "bankers". This year it is His Song, owned by the tennis impressario David Lloyd, who will carry the hopes and the cash. However, it is only necessary to think back 12 months to the defeat of Aidan O'Brien's similarly well touted Finnegan's Hollow for some caution to kick in. The British defence has been bolstered hugely by the defection to this race of former Champion hopes Wahiba Sands and Zaralaska and the latter might just give Adrian Maguire, who has missed the last three Festivals, the comeback success that he deserves.

Betting (Sean Graham): 7-2 His Song, 8-1 French Ballerina, Zaralaska, 10-1 Archive Footage, Buddy Marvel, 12-1 Better Offer, Foundry Lane, Quinze, Wahiba Sands.

2.35 ARKLE TROPHY CHASE

Inaugurated in 1969 to commemorate "himself", the betting is wide open for this year's renewal. Lake Kariba is undefeated over fences when racing left-handed as here and 12-1 is freely available. His rider, Timmy Murphy, who also partners See More Business in the Gold Cup, is a tempting 50- 1 with Coral to be the meeting's top rider.

Betting (Wm Hill): 6-1 Edelweis Du Moulin, Kadastrof, 7-1 Champleve, Direct Route, Wade Road, 10-1 Hill Society, Space Trucker, 12-1 Lake Kariba, 14-1 Queen Of Spades.

3.15 CHAMPION HURDLE

Istabraq hardly has history on his side with no Sun Alliance Hurdle winner ever having gone on to victory in the Champion. He will start at short odds and looks vulnerable, so an each-way tickle on either Red Blazer at 40-1 (Hills, Tote) or Lady Daisy at 100-1 (generally available) is tempting.

Betting (Wm Hill): 11-4 Istabraq, 11-2 Dato Star, 6-1 I'm Supposin, 7- 1 Shadow Leader, 16-1 Grimes, Kerawi, Pridwell, Relkeel.

3.55 WILLIAM HILL H'CAP CHASE

Terry Casey took this with his subsequent Grand National winner, Rough Quest, and he has the ideal candidate here in Even Flow (Timmy Murphy again). Martin Pipe left six horses in at the five-day acceptance stage and if his chosen representative were either Dom Samourai or Indian Arrow they would represent a threat.

Betting (Wm Hill): 6-1 Even Flow, 10-1 Dom Samourai, Gimme Five, Luv U Frank, Papillon, Strath Royal, Time For a Run, 12-1 Ciel De Brion, Destin Destruval, Occold, Tell The Nipper, Unguided Missile, Young Hustler.

4.30 F WALWYN/KIM MUIR CHASE

Amateur hour, but do not be too dismissive of a race which introduced Mr A Maguire to an audience outside Irish pony races. Other lumianries to have won this in their unpaid days include Michael Dickinson and two who swapped reins for microphone, Ted Walsh and John Oaksey. Walsh also saddles Papillon here but David Nicholson, who has won three of the last six runnings, could strike again with Baronet.

Betting (Liam Cashman): 9-2 Papillon, Time For A Run, 8-1 Djeddah, 12- 1 With Impunity, 14-1 Baronet.

5.05 GOLD CARD H'CAP HURDLE

A race in which it it is necessary only to be declared for one of the qualifiers in order to get a place in the final - so some do not bother to turn up for the heats. The controversy over that issue should not obscure the fact that three of the last six final winners won a qualifier on the way. Metastasio and Splendid Thyne are in that category here.

Betting (Coral): 100-30 Unsinkable Boxer, 7-1 Tompetoo, 8-1 Ardronan, Jack Button, Splendid Thyne, Sprung Rhythm, 10-1 Great Easeby, Metastasio, 12-1 Gysart

WEDNESDAY

he trainer Charlie Brooks threatened to bare all in the parade ring if French Holly won the Champion Hurdle. The horse's defection to this race spares his blushes, but his opinion that French Holly "has a jumping technique like Eddie the Eagle's" has some truth. As he races at the same speed as Hermann Maier skies downhill that shortcoming should not matter.

Betting (Sean Graham): 9-4 French Holly, 7-1 Foxchapel King, 8-1 Cloone Bridge, Nocksky, 9-1 Erintante, Torboy, 10-1 Samuel Wilderspin.

2.35 CHAMPION CHASE

This could be the final chance to see the brave winner in 1994 and 1995, Viking Flagship, while wondering whether One Man will gallop up the final hill or sway groggily home provides another point of interest. Ask Tom, trained by Michael Dickinson's brother-in-law, Tom Tate, may have the most important answer though.

Betting (Coral): 5-2 Ask Tom, 7-2 Klairon Davis, 4-1 One Man, 9-2 Viking Flagship, 7-1 Or Royal.

3.15 CORAL CUP H'CAP HURDLE

The final Coral Cup unless the Monopolies & Mergers Commission halt Ladbrokes gobbling up of the betting industry. They might want to speak to Martin Pipe too. His eight entries include the favourite, Unsinkable Boxer, whom he has transformed this season.

Betting (Coral): 8-1 Unsinkable Boxer, 10-1 Campaign, 12-1 Nocksky, Blowing Wind, Splendid Thyne, 14-1 Sprung Rhythm, Top Cees.

3.55 ROYAL SUNALLIANCE CHASE

Although Florida Pearl is constantly described as the meeting's banker he should not be confused with a gilt-edged investment. Think overdraft instead, or BCCI. Escartefigue, Ottowa or particularly Fiddling The Facts could topple him.

Betting (Coral): 5-4 Florida Pearl, 4-1 Escartefigue, Fiddling the Facts, 8-1 Fulip, 14-1 Ottowa.

4.30 NATIONAL HUNT CHASE

If you have not managed to get to the bar all day this is the chance to get served without missing anything crucial. At four miles, the meeting's longest race takes over eight minutes to run, although some of the more hopeless contestants will be still struggling home as you finish your pint. Martin Pipe's French import Farfadet V, who has yet to run over fences, may be the answer.

Betting (Liam Cashman): 11-2 Torduff Express, 7-1 Committed Schedule, Majors Legacy, Wandering Light.

5.05 MILDMAY OF FLETE CHASE

Recent winners at 66-1, 33-1 and last year's 20-1 shot Terao, and no winning favourite since 1986 spell caution but this should be solvable. The novice Jack Doyle is unbeaten this season and looks the one to be on.

Betting (Liam Cashman): 5-1 Monnaie Forte, 6-1 Super Coin, 10-1 Golden Spinner, 12-1 Cumbrian Challenge, Potters Bay.

5.40 FESTIVAL BUMPER

Only Dato Star's 1995 success has prevented a clean sweep for the Irish in this and Willie Mullins, who has saddled the last two winners, may extend the trend with Alexander Banquet.

Betting (Cashman): 7-2 Joe Mac, 5-1 Alexander Banquet, 6-1 Boca Boca, 7-1 To Your Honour, 9-1 Dragon Lord, 10-1 Frantic Tan.

THURSDAY2.00 TRIUMPH HURDLE

The lat time I backed the winner of this race it was run at Hurst Park, which closed in 1965. It is not impossible to find the winner - Mysilv was a successful favourite in 1994 for the Nicholson/Maguire team responsible for this year's hot pot, Zafarabad. Upgrade is an appropriately named alternative.

Betting (Coral): 7-2 Zafarabad, 10-1 Darapour, 14-1 City Hall, Rainwatch, Iron County Xmas, Rainbow Frontier, 16-1 Upgrade, 20-1 The French Furze, Nomadic, Snow Dragon.

2.35 STAYERS' HURDLE

This could be a big day for Maguire (5-1 with Ladbrokes to be the meeting's top rider) and Nicholson. Their Buckhouse Boy has been revitalised by a return to hurdling and a change of stables from Nigel Twiston-Davies, who supplies a respected rival here in Ocean Hawk.

Betting (Wm Hill): 9-4 Paddy's Return, 6-1 Ocean Hawk, 8-1 Mighty Moss, 10-1 Buckhouse Boy, Marello, 12-1 Pridwell, Splendid Thyne, 14-1 Karshi, 16-1 Gysart.

3.15 CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP

The key evidence is the whacking blunder made by See More Business over this course in January. Did it show that his jumping is hopelessly unreliable or does the fact that he still won the race with a phenomenal burst of speed sway the issue?

Betting (Wm Hill): 7-2 See More Business, 4-1 Dorans Pride, 8-1 The Grey Monk, 10-1 Cyborgo, Suny Bay, 16-1 Rough Quest.

3.55 FOXHUNTERS' CHASE

No need for a name change yet after Parliamnet let the small mammals down. A previous winner, Elegant Lord, may again have his name inscribed on the roll of honour.

Betting (Sean Graham): 11-8 Elegant Lord, 5-1 Earthmover, Fantus, 8-1 Stay In Touch, 10-1 Jigtime, 12-1 Flashing Steel.

4.30 GRAND ANNUAL CHASE

Katabatic, a future two-mile champion, won this eight years ago, and it remains a contest for unexposed runners, with novices having won twice in the 1990s. Edredon Bleu fits the bill.

Betting (Liam Cashman): 6-1 Edredon Bleu, Tidebrook, Flying Instructor.

5.05 CATHCART CHASE

A refuge for those that have fallen or failed on the first two days. They will be up against a horse that will not have been distracted by earlier targets, Martin Pipe's Cyfor Malta.

5.40 COUNTY HANDICAP HURDLE

After Saturday's phenomenal success it is impossible to oppose Blowing Wind. The odds may not be attractive but there is little alternative.

Betting (Coral): 3-1 Blowing Wind, 10-1 Grimes, 12-1 Barna Boy, Fishin Joella, Impulsive Dream, Legal Right, Polydamas, 14-1 Graphic Equaliser, Nahrawali. Tidjani.

Betting on London Clubs Trophy (meeting's top jockey) Coral: 7-4 Richard Dunwoody, 100-30 Tony McCoy (from 4-1), 9-2 Charlie Swan & Adrian Maguire, 12-1 Paul Carberry (from 9-1), 16-1 Norman Williamson, 20-1 Andrew Thornton, 25-1 Mick Fitzgerald, Carl Llewellyn, 33-1 Tony Dobbin, 40-1 Thierry Doumen, 50-1 Conor O'Dwyer & Timmy Murphy.

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