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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

The best week of the year

Teehupoo and Galvin are two leading hopes for Gordon Elliott this weekTeehupoo and Galvin are two leading hopes for Gordon Elliott this week
© Photo Healy Racing

Cheltenham is finally upon us. The build up seems to get longer and longer each year, but fortunately the Festival always lives up to the hype. The best four days racing of the year, bar none.

I love the anticipation, the endless discussions with friends about all the main protagonists. The deep-diving into the form looking for nuggets others might have missed. The tips, the rumours and the blind faith punters have in Willie Mullins’ ability to perform miracles.

Facile Vega in the opening race on Tuesday is an example. If the horse was trained by anyone else it would be a 10/1 chance. He trailed home 20 lengths behind his stablemate at Leopardstown just five weeks ago and finished lame, not the sort of prep run you would expect a Supreme Novices Hurdle winner to have, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference to punters and he’ll probably be no bigger than 2/1 come the off. And he’ll probably win.

I also love how punters when presented with the exact same information can come up with such opposing views. This clash of El Fabiolo and Jonbon is a prime example. I’ve watched every race each of them has run in and have a strong opinion that El Fabiolo will prevail on Tuesday, yet many will firmly disagree with me. And they’ll make plausible and logical arguments contrary to mine. I suppose that’s why there are bookmakers and why they always win in the long run.

Willie Mullins has an incredible team of horses going to Cheltenham this week. 17 runners on Tuesday alone, including leading contenders in 6 of the 7 races. He trained a record 10 winners at the meeting last year and if the bounce of the ball falls his way this time he could easily surpass that number with the firepower he has this time around. On paper he could win more than half the races across the week with his horses towards the head of the markets in 22 of the 28 races. That can’t happen, can it?

Whatever total Mullins finishes up with this week I do think Gordon Elliott, Nick Henderson and Paul Nicholls will also get on the scoresheet at least once each which doesn’t leave much for the rest.

Henry de Bromhead, Barry Connell, John Kiely, Alan King, Joseph O’Brien, Gavin Cromwell, Charles Byrnes, Ben Pauling, Emmet Mullins, David Christie, and plenty of others will be hoping I’m wrong.

The two races I’m most looking forward to during the four days are the Mares Hurdle (sacrilege) and the Stayers. Thanks, in no small part, to the dominance of Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle division, this year’s renewal of the Mares Hurdle is a cracker. I think 9 of the 10 mares have realistic chances of winning, but whatever happens on the track there will be some reception for Honeysuckle, Rachael Blackmore and the de Bromhead family afterwards.

The Stayers’ Hurdle ante post market has been one of the most turbulent I can remember. There was a period during the season when we had a different favourite for the race nearly every week. It has finally settled down, but even at this late stage I wouldn't hazard a guess as to which horse will go off favourite. Flooring Porter going for three wins in a row in the race with his exuberant band of supporters, Teehupoo having gained the scalp of Honeysuckle enroute and the ground turning in his favour, the vastly improved Home By The Lee, or perhaps the cunning Charles Byrnes will prevail with Blazing Khal. And even then there are a few others in the reckoning that are capable of causing a surprise on a given day.

My main fancies for the week are El Fabiolo (Arkle), Gaillard Du Mesnil (National Hunt Chase), Nikini (wrong price in Mares Novice), Seabank Bistro (also wrong price in Albert Bartlett) and Vaucelet (Hunters' Chase).

All in all, it’s going to be a great week and I sincerely hope all the horses and jockeys come home safe.

Cheltenham races are exciting enough without needing to have a bet in every contest, but if you are betting on the races, set realistic goals and limits and don’t get carried away. Whatever chance you have of beating the bookies across the four days will be greatly reduced if you start chasing losses. And my number one tip is that alcohol and betting definitely don’t mix.