It may be damp and demoralising, and race meetings might be sinking like Atlantis, but yesterday was the date to heat the core of every National Hunt followers' heart.
Cheltenham provided the central heating for adults by announcing the names that will entertain us at the Festival in just nine weeks' time. In the Gold Cup the roll call includes Suny Bay, The Grey Monk, Dorans Pride and Imperial Call. Sparkling among the entries for the Queen Mother Champion Chase are One Man, Ask Tom and Viking Flagship. If a conflict between these names does not send a tremble through some part of your body then change sports.
So many do in fact get excited by Cheltenham that there will be a limit on spectator numbers this year. More than 58,000 attended Gold Cup day last March, when you could either get a drink, have a bet or visit the latrines before each race, but you could not perm any two from those three. Following "market research and correspondence", i.e. complaints, the limit has been reduced to 50,000. As the Tuesday and Wednesday of the Festival were well below that figure last season it is still possible that the next occasion's overall attendance figure will be higher than last.
The prize-money is guaranteed to be at record levels. A total of pounds 1.3m is available, the biggest chunk of it the pounds 225,000 brought on a cushion to the winner of the Gold Cup, which celebrates its 75th anniversary. Back in 1924 the Blue Riband was worth pounds 700, but those were the days when that figure could have bought you a couple of continents.
A field of 38 is still in at this stage and where the treasure chest will end is anyone's guess. The sponsors, the Tote, go 6-1 the field. Ireland are well represented with Dorans Pride and Imperial Call, who attempts to go where no horse has gone before and reclaim the crown, but the result the Gloucestershire seismologists most fear is a win for Danoli. Having been denied the presidency of his homeland by what must have been the narrowest of margins, Ireland's favourite quadruped is now on course for a racecourse return.
The 10-year-old has had a lie-down since falling in last year's Gold Cup, but the old bones, and particularly his damaged fetlock, have now recovered. "I am very happy with him," Tom Foley, the gelding's trainer, said yesterday. "I hope to run him in the Hennessy [Gold Cup at Leopardstown] next month, although the ground would need to dry up a little bit. The ground has been bad here but he has just done a good little piece of work.
"The main aim this year is the English Gold Cup and I wouldn't be that worried if he went straight to Cheltenham after the Hennessy as he's the sort of horse that puts a good bit into his work."
While Martin Pipe may saddle the almost certain runner-up in Challenger Du Luc, a more uncertain horse to evaluate is Strong Promise. Geoff Hubbard's representative was fifth in the Queen Mother Champion Chase 10 months ago but does not even rate an entry in the two-miler this time around. One Man, on the other hand, a former Gold Cup favourite, is not in the Blue Riband but remains a consideration for the Queen Mum.
There were 19 declared yesterday, including Martha's Son, who appeared to be a fresh enrolment for the old folks' home when he crippled himself at Huntingdon in November. The Champion's champion is now due to go back into training next week and it may even be that he will cast aside the crutches to defend his crown. "Martha's Son is making very good progress," Michael Ward-Thomas, his owner, said yesterday. "If I was a betting man I would bet with a run or not at all.
"Last year we had to get him fit from a long absence and lack of a race didn't stop him. These are different circumstances because he was fit enough to run in November, has been box-rested since, and won't require so much long-term fitness getting. But nobody should back him other than with a run."Reuse content