Emotions run high in Open season
The Cheltenham Open Meeting started with a high-octane mix of emotions and our correspondent Ben Linfoot was at the track to reflect on the action.
Roger Loughran relished his victory aboard Peregrine Run
It must've been a day like today when some wise soul stood at the foot of Cleeve Hill 200 years ago and thought, 'this looks a fine place to race some horses.'
The low winter sun, often the scourge of clerks of the course up and down the land at this time of year, lit up the green turf and the only effect it had on the racing was a slight rejig in the order of play, made earlier in the week, that saw nine old pals kick off proceedings in the Glenfarclas Veterans' Handicap Chase.
This was a gentle way to start the afternoon and a fine pay-off for losing the same-sponsors Cross Country until January. It had to be an old pal of mine that won, given I must've backed all of these warriors at some stage in their careers, and it was, Astracad, now running in the colours of his trainer after so many battles won and (mainly) lost in Raymond Mould's green and white starred silks, famously worn by 2002 Grand National winner Bindaree.
He looked a new horse in the black, white and yellow colours of Nigel Twiston-Davies, all relative, of course, to the ageing opposition, but he put his head down and battled well to see off Ericht, the roar from the grandstand reflecting his status as both a local hero and a well-backed favourite.
"That's given me a lot of pleasure," said Twiston-Davies.
"It brings back memories of poor old Raymond Mould, who used to own him (Mould died in September 2015). When they began to sell all of his horses, I bought this one back so it's lovely that he's won but it's tinged with sadness.
"I bought him back (for £12,000) because I couldn't really bear to let him go. I'm delighted I did as he's won more now than I paid for him. He's always been very brave and done his best but the handicapper has clobbered him for it. He's given him a bit of a chance here though and he's taken advantage of it. He's a lovely horse and has been all his life. I thought he'd need the run though!"
If that was the feel-good story of the afternoon, one from towards the opposite end of the scale developed when Barters Hill, the day's star attraction, was pulled up on the first circuit of the Steel Plate And Sections Novices' Chase, a race with a rich pedigree having launched the fencing careers of Denman and Imperial Commander among other jumps luminaries.
An ashen-faced Ben Pauling sucked on a cigarette in the parade ring as he awaited news of his stable star, the dreaded screens rushed onto the course as David Bass brought Barters Hill to a halt and dismounted. That the horse trotted into the ambulance looked good news and so it was confirmed, of sorts. A tendon injury is not career threatening, though he is likely to be set for a prolonged period on the sidelines.
Nicky Henderson won the Sections with O O Seven, even though it looked like he might try a daring James Bond-style stunt, that's the horse, not trainer, when he veered towards the shiny new grandstand after jumping the last.
If that was a win for one of the sport's big guns, and it was, then there were a few triumphs for the smaller yards too, with Paul Henderson landing the BetVictor Handicap Chase with Un Beau Roman, before Peter Fahey's Peregrine Run fought off a few horses from those aforementioned powerhouse yards in the Neptune Investment Management Hyde Novices' Hurdle.
Roger Loughran's clenched fist crossing the line told you everything you needed to know about what it meant to him to ride a Cheltenham winner, but he expanded on his visual gesture afterwards, anyway, saying: "It's taken me a while [to ride a winner at Cheltenham], but there's nothing like it.
"Peregrine Run is a proper horse. I am delighted for Peter because he is a gentleman to ride for. He keeps it simple.
"Lord have mercy on Dessie Hughes [for whom Loughran rode the winners of several big races], I know he would be proud of me today – the same for my mother and father. I rode Schindler's Hunt, I rode Central House – I was unbeaten on Grangeclare Lark. They were great days."
The celebration makes even more sense now.
More of This & More Of That
Saturday could be a tale of two World Hurdle winners.
First up, we have Thistlecrack, last season's sumptuous staying hurdles king, who is already favourite for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup on the back of one outing over fences. He makes his second start over the bigger obstacles in the mallardjewellers.com Novices' Chase.
Cheltenham chasing experience could be the key here, as it's doubtful we'll learn much else given the considerable class edge he holds over his three rivals. Still, it's always a pleasure to stand and gaze and watch a horse like Thistlecrack glide around an arena like this.
At least the Colin Tizzard stable is in good form.
As Jonjo O'Neill, More Of That's trainer, is struggling for winners.
A seven per cent win strike-rate in October was poor and he's 0 from 28 so far in November. Even if More Of That is a future Gold Cup horse, as his trainer thinks, that stable form is a concern and he could be a much bigger price than the current 9/2 come the off time on Saturday.
Plenty of rain wouldn't be a bother to either Thistlecrack or More Of That, but the amount of precipitation set to fall is up in the air – in more ways than one.
"The forecast remains pretty wet from the early hours tomorrow morning through until about lunchtime, and we could see anything from 8-12 millimetres of rain" said Cheltenham's clerk of the course, Simon Claisse.
"That would change the going to good to soft; if we got more than that – some of the forecasts are showing up to 20 millimetres – it could well go soft.
"The boys will be out on the track now treading until it's dark. We'll run a light ring-roller over both courses just to help get it level before the treaders return tomorrow, when they will go round with buckets and fill in every little footprint.
"Jockeys, trainers and owners have been very complimentary about today's going so we are pleased about that."
So Saturday's scene at Cheltenham could be a great deal greyer than blue-sky Friday. But if the low winter sun won't be lighting up this glorious natural amphitheatre, hopefully the likes of Thistlecrack and More Of That will.
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