The earliest arrivals into Cheltenham this morning were lucky enough to escape the rain that had been forecast any time from 6am. By the time my train pulled into the station at around 8.45 it was starting to come down more heavily, however, and my crafty plan to beat the crowds and bike it to the course – thank you, the good people of The Bicycle Hub – suddenly seemed rather less cunning.
Still, it was a bracing way to start the day and even on a dull day, Cheltenham looks magnificent, as ever, for the opening day of the Festival. Heavier rain is still forecast from about 10am, and it is impossible to say at this stage whether it will be enough to affect the going on day one. But the ground was officially good-to-soft, soft in places overnight and a general description of soft all over could seem very tempting for all concerned as the first race at 1.30 draws ever closer. The bigger worry, meanwhile, is the high winds forecast for tonight, given that similarly strong winds were enough to blow away a day at the Festival 11 years ago.
The general themes ahead of this year’s meeting are broadly similar to those of recent years, with one obvious question being whether Willie Mullins will enjoy another week to remember. He has not, of course, finished the meeting as the leading trainer since 2016 and has a slightly smaller team this time around, but Mullins has been shortening steadily in the “Top Trainer” betting having been a 7-2 chance on Saturday and is now a clear second favourite, splitting Gordon Elliott (2.5) and Nicky Henderson (7-2) at around 11-4.
Personally, I’m a big fan of week-long bets like these as a way to get an interest in pretty much every race and even at his latest price, Mullins still looks fair value ahead of a day when he has a good team for the opening Supreme Novice Hurdle – where I still don’t understand how Aramon can be 14-1 to beat stablemate and 5-1 joint-favourite Klassical Dream when they were a neck apart last time – and several more live chances through the card including an apparent banker in Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle.
And talking of bankers and Benie Des Dieux, there will be plenty of interest in the reception for her owner Rich Ricci, formerly of Barclays’ investment arm, if she does the business later on. The recently defunct bookie BetBright, of which Ricci was formerly chairman, left hundreds of punters in the lurch last week when it cancelled all outstanding ante-post bets without even offering a chance to cash out. While 888.com, which bought BetBright’s tech but not the customer book, has agreed to stand Cheltenham bets, the anger still festers and we could be in for the first hostile reception for a Cheltenham winner since Top Cees.
Elliott, Henderson and Mullins go head-to-head-to-head in the Champion Hurdle with Apple’s Jade, Buveur D’Air and Laurina and it is a race that could, even at this stage, prove to be pivotal in deciding the ultimate winner this week. These three trainers have saddled a majority of the winners at the last two Festivals and this year’s is unlikely to be any different.
Updates on the latest rainfall situation – using technical terms like damp and wet but hopefully not biblical – will be here all morning, and the runners in the Supreme are due to be sent on their way with the traditional roar – ideally at the first time of asking – at 1.30. My colleague Chris Cook’s tips for the first day are here and the very best of luck to all!