Oh well, there’s always 2017
Whether you believe in making New Year's resolutions or not, keeping it simple is surely never a bad ambition for anyone's punting.
Cole Harden: Could he return to the winner's enclosure at Cheltenham on New Year's Day?
Nicky Henderson had won the very last race over jumps of the year, Newbury's 'introductory' hurdle, eight times in the last nine years. In 2016, he not only took his record to nine from 10 with the effortless victory of favourite William Henry, but also saddled a 1-2-3 as his only two other runners stayed on into second and third at 33/1 and 14/1 respectively. It really was that easy. Maybe we should all just wait for this day next year.
It wasn't all one-way traffic for the punters though – far from it, for William Henry proved the only winning favourite of the day at Newbury, with the Tim Vaughan-trained Theligny denying a monster gamble on Geordie Des Champs in a hot two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle.
Already supported down from 9/2 and 5/1 in the morning exchanges, the Rebecca Curtis runner opened on track at 5/2 and bookmakers were knocked over for even the scraps in the final minutes before the race – he was sent off at 11/8 and backed to the exclusion of everything else despite the presence of 13 plausible rivals.
Barry Geraghty nursed his mount – in the colours of owner JP McManus whose fingerprints were on the gamble, metaphorically and quite probably literally too – into contention two out, but he couldn't quite reel in the winner from the last.
Curtis and Geraghty both managed to find welcome winners elsewhere on the card, but there was less consolation for McManus, whose only success from well over a dozen runners on the day came when Buveur D'Air scored at Warwick at 30/100 – notably well-backed runners at Punchestown, Uttoxeter and Warwick all narrowly missed out.
Perhaps we shouldn't feel too sorry. Not only can McManus afford it with an estimated net worth of €775million, but like the rest of us he won't have long to wait to try and turn things around – he has another stack of runners in action on New Year's Day, including Protek Des Flos in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham, old friend Shutthefrontdoor elsewhere on the same card, and a host of runners in the big handicap chase at Fairyhouse.
He could choose to stay nearer to home, but McManus rarely misses a meeting at Cheltenham and it will be a surprise if he is not in attendance. He probably doesn't have to worry about getting there early and bagging a decent parking spot, but it's a useful spot of advice for anyone else because the New Year's Day card at the home of jumps racing grows in popularity each year, not least because it seems the quality of racing does likewise.
After a stop-start time over the past two or three months, Warren Greatrex's team suddenly seem to have found greater consistency with three winners from his five runners over the last two days.
Greatrex saddles Cole Harden in the meeting's highlight, the Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle, and although he has still to taste victory again since the 2015 World/Stayers' Hurdle, the signs are positive, Greatrex reporting: "I honestly don't think I have had him as well for a long time and I'm looking forward to seeing how he gets on in cheekpieces – they won't slow him down and I have a feeling they might just really help him."
It's a fascinating contest, perhaps made more so on the basis that none of the leading contenders have found winning easy in recent starts. L'Ami Serge last scored at Wetherby at 1/6 in a non-event almost 12 months ago. Camping Ground has been beaten in five starts since winning this race last season. Even likely favourite Lil Rockerfeller is still looking for a first win of the campaign, notwithstanding the fact that the form of his latest runs behind Yanworth and Unowhatimeanharry should make him hard to beat.
But Greatrex's confidence and current form could make Cole Harden a tough nut to crack, especially if he is able to get to the front from the start. Stablemate Warrantor might not be a bad bet earlier on the card in the three-and-a-quarter mile handicap chase.
Stick in Village Vic, who knows Cheltenham even better than McManus, in the two-and-a-half-mile chase at 2.00 and you've got a trixie to get 2017 off with a bang. Here's hoping anyway.
Also starting the New Year in hope on Sunday are the new ITV racing team, who begin a stint as terrestrial broadcast partner to the sport that will last for a minimum of four years. Like you, I guess, there are some in the new team of presenters and pundits who make me want to wrench my ears off, and others whom I could happily listen to all day. Whichever group they belong to, I genuinely wish them all the best of luck for their first show.
Everyone has their own ideas about what racing needs from TV and what TV needs from racing. Some of those ideas are mutually exclusive, which means inevitably toys will be thrown out of prams, whatever happens on their first few shows. My advice would be to be like Nicky Henderson in the last race at Newbury and keep it simple.
Show us the horses, the betting and the people – the three best things about this, the greatest game. Happy New Year.
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