It's Festival time so get ready for pleasure, profit and pain
Love and money, those timeless twin motivators, will be in equal evidence at jump racing's greatest extravaganza. Starting on Tuesday, the first of four days, the Cheltenham Festival will have £5.75 million in prize money on offer for 26 races and more than £500m wagered across the nation on their outcome.
The meeting is the classic combo of business and pleasure. For the professionals – the trainers, the jockeys, the stable staff – it's four days at the office, the £145.45 a ride plus the 10 per cent, albeit of more than usual, to the successful. For those behind the scenes – the breeder, say, with a young horse to sell who might just be a half-brother to a Cheltenham winner – there is the prospect of lucrative future trading.
For the owner and racegoer it's the pinnacle of the season's fun; for many just being there is enough, never mind any success. But for anyone who does welcome a winner into that hallowed enclosure – from someone like Ryan-air's boss, Michael O'Leary, who writes off more than £1m a year to keep his string on the road, to the once-a-year punter who's invested £2 on the Tote – there's only one way of counting the value. Priceless.
Even those who earn their living from the industry will concede that. But the extra cash, courtesy of assorted bookmakers, starts flowing from day one. If the £75,000 bonus offered to yesterday's Paddy Power Imperial Cup winner, Qaspal, should he score again this week seems generous, it's as nothing alongside the WBX £1m that Go Native will earn if he adds Tuesday's Champion Hurdle to his Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdles.
Go Native is trained in Co Meath by Noel Meade, the seven-times Irish champion who has held a licence for 38 of his 59 years and has been, done, and seen more than most in his sport. But his score at the Festival stands at only three, and none of those in one of the week's flagship contests, a record he would dearly like to rectify. His 15 per cent of the bonus pot would not be life-changing but would be infinitely satisfying professionally.
The six-year-old, due to be ridden by Paul Carberry, is favourite to take the glittering prize in a highly competitive field that includes his compatriot Solwhit, given the all-clear to travel to Cheltenham yesterday after a health scare. The home defence is led by last year's winner, Punjabi, and his two stablemates Binocular and Zaynar, plus Medermit and Khyber Kim, the last-named himself due £200,000 extra if he follows his Boylesports Hurdle with the crown.
Perhaps the Champion Hurdle owes Meade, whose talented but enigmatic charge Harchibald was repelled by Hardy Eustace five years ago. Like Go Native, Harchibald went to Cheltenham via victories in Britain's other two Grade One two-mile hurdle contests, but that was before the bonus for the clean sweep – last completed 20 years ago by Kribensis – was introduced.
And perhaps, too, it owes the man to whom the jackpot would arguably mean most. Most of it would go to Go Native's owners, a fairly well-heeled Irish syndicate, but a tenth of it is earmarked for the gelding's lad, Alan McElroy, whose previous best horse in his time working for Meade was none other than Harchibald.
The opening day's feature is the most competitive of the four top Grade One titles. Last year's winners of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the World Hurdle and the Gold Cup – Master Minded, Big Buck's and Kauto Star – are all odds-on for repeat victories. Their stable, that of Paul Nicholls, warmed up with a Ruby Walsh-ridden treble at Sandown yesterday.
And, although glory is all very well, there are some in that camp who may not allow it to impinge on a hard-headed view of making a living. The much-hyped showdown between Kauto Star, who carries Clive Smith's colours, and his yardmate Denman on Friday has been somewhat emasculated by the assertion by the latter's part-owner, the professional punter Harry Findlay, he would likely be backing the defending champion.
The Philip Hobbs-trained Qaspal, who landed a considerable gamble at 11-4 yesterday with Tony McCoy paring down to his lightest weight, is now favourite for both his Cheltenham engagements, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle and the County Hurdle, though he may not make the cut for either.
His job may already have been done, though. The six-year-old carries the colours of the most fearless winning high-roller of them all, JP McManus, who can now, presumably, start the week betting with bookmakers' money. Business and pleasure, absolutely.
A value bet a day
Tuesday Champion Hurdle (3.20): Given a strong pace, last year's runner-up CELESTIAL HALO, freshened by a break and perked up by blinkers, can once again get himself right in the mix. Current best price: 12-1.
Wednesday NH Challenge Cup (1.30): Point-to-point and hurdles winner FABALU has shown steady improvement over fences and shapes as though stamina for marathon distances will be his forte. Current best price: 16-1.
Thursday Pertemps Final (2.05): Having given a glimpse of his class at Aintree last year, AINAMA showed his liking for a step up to three miles at Newbury in November and remains on a manageable mark. Current best price: 10-1.
Friday Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (2.40): FIONNEGAS is progressing rapidly with time and distance and although beaten the last two times out, the form of both defeats (most recently behind Dunguib) is rock-solid. Current best price: 16-1.
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