Cheltenham jumps into action, despite low sun and high prices

Baron Alco, on his way to victory in the big race of the weekend, the BetVictor Gold Cup.
Baron Alco, on his way to victory in the big race of the weekend, the BetVictor Gold Cup.

If, for you, Breeders’ Cup Day in the States was really Charlie Hall Chase Day, and Melbourne Cup Day Down Under was really Haldon Gold Cup Day, then the Jumps season has been in full swing for some time.

But for most racing fans, the traditional period for the handover of the baton from the Flat to National Hunt is Cheltenham’s November Meeting, headlined by the BetVictor Gold Cup, formerly best known as the Mackeson.

Lalor, the most impressive winner of the weekend, in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy Trial Novices' Chase.

Lalor, the most impressive winner of the weekend, in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy Trial Novices' Chase.

It is a prestigious package. Nineteen races, including eight Graded affairs and three Listed contests, and while a bank of prize money worth £810,000 is mere peanuts compared to the annual salary of bet365 chief Denise Coates, it represents a hefty dollop of dosh for the Jumps game.

So, did last weekend’s three-day renewal at Prestbury Park deliver the goods? Did it whet the appetite for the winter wonders to come?

Regular readers will know that, every now and then, I like a moan. And this time last year, I was moaning hard about what I perceived to be the most underwhelming Cheltenham November Meeting I could recall, both in terms of quality of action and quantity of runners, particularly in the novice events.

This year was better. The racing all round was stronger, helped no doubt by perfect ground supplied by clerk of the course Simon Claisse.

Bun Doran, who could be a big fancy for the Festival next March after this win on the opening day of Cheltenham's November meeting.

Bun Doran, who could be a big fancy for the Festival next March after this win on the opening day of Cheltenham's November meeting.

The centrepiece on Saturday offered a thoroughly enjoyable card. OK, the two handicap hurdles lacked strength in depth, but they threw up winners from the Ian Williams yard, FIRST ASSIGNMENT and SPEEDO BOY, who look sure to win bigger prizes as the campaign progresses.

As for the Friday and the Sunday action, I still maintain there is no place outside of the Festival, Royal Ascot and York’s Ebor meeting for six-race cards. Even less so when one of those races is a cross-country race or a Bumper.

Friday just about got away with it because the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Handicap marked the return of popular Grand National hero TIGER ROLL. But Sunday was seriously scarred by an extra problem, the scourge of low sun, which spoiled and devalued both the big race, the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle, and also the Grade Two novice hurdle.

My views on low sun are well documented. Never should the safety of horse and jockey be compromised. But the resultant omission of hurdles or fences short-changes both punter and racegoer. The race a punter studied before placing his bet is very, very different to that which he ends up watching. The action a racegoer witnesses is very, very different to that for which he shelled out good money to see. The Greatwood, for example, promised to be an intriguing, competitive contest. But with only five flights jumped, it deteriorated into a slog that suited those handy, and I wouldn’t trust the form one iota.

To its credit, Cheltenham has taken steps to eliminate the disappointment felt. The track knows when low sun is likely to strike during the autumn and early winter and, therefore, ensures the chase races are run by or before 2.30 pm. But hurdles races are affected too, so why was Sunday’s card scheduled to start as late as 1.15 pm, meaning the Greatwood, fourth race on the card, wasn’t off until 3 pm? The previous two days had kicked off at 12.40 pm.

The suggestion is that it was to accommodate the events and activities the track staged alongside the racing to mark the centenary of the Armistice. We will find out in 12 months’ time whether that is correct or not when the race schedule for 2019 comes to light. In the meantime, it is outrageous that so little is being done, by Jumps racing as a whole, to find a solution to low sun. I get the impression the authorities have become blase about it, as if punters and racegoers aren’t bothered. A quick scroll down my Twitter feed suggests they are. At the very least, warnings should be issued by clerks of the courses, hand in hand with their pre-meeting going reports, of the possible risk of hurdles or fences being taken out if sunshine is forecast.

Cheltenham was bathed in sunshine throughout Saturday and Sunday which, no doubt, helped to soften the resentment many on track also felt at the increased prices for food, drink and other accessories on course. I know Jockey Club Racecourses has a newish stand to pay for and is under constant pressure to raise prize-money levels, particularly at the Festival. But was it really necessary to charge as much as £5.60 for a pint of Carling, £8.30 for a small tray of about a dozen chips and a sausage, £5.35 for a routine sandwich, £2 for a can (yes a can) of water and £4 for the flimsiest of racecards?

In all fairness, it must be said that all my grumbles are not reflected in the attendance figures for the three days. Friday’s Countryside Day drew a record crowd of 22,491, while Saturday’s figure of 32,721 was up on last year and Sunday’s 17,674 was the highest since 2008.

Such statistics also provide a firm riposte to question marks against the quality and depth of the racing, which is boosted too by the little-known fact that the November Meeting has a remarkably good record for producing winners who also go on to glory at the Festival. Last season, four came out of it -- SUMMERVILLE BOY, COO STAR SIVOLA, MOHAAYED and LE PREZIEN. In 2015/16, there were as many as seven, and in 2013/14, as many as eight.

So which horses to shine last weekend are likely to taste success again in March. The obvious candidate is LALOR, the startlingly classy winner of the Arkle Trophy Trial Novices’ Chase on Sunday. Against a strong field and on his chasing debut, no less. I was also hugely taken by the victory of Alan King’s filly THE GLANCING QUEEN in Saturday’s Bumper. And no doubt BUN DORAN, winner of Friday’s 2m handicap chase, will be aimed at the Grand Annual.

Lalor’s triumph tugged at the heartstrings, given how brave trainer Kayley Woollacott has been in continuing the family training operation in Devon after the death, ten months ago, of husband Richard, whose inquest is scheduled for this Friday.

Cheltenham has an uncanny habit of bringing emotion to the fore, and it surfaced again at the weekend through the father-and-son triumphs of trainer Gary and jockey Jamie Moore with BARON ALCO in the feature race and of the two Jonjo O’Neills in Sunday’s opening handicap hurdle. By the way, Jonjo jnr is some rider with some future ahead of him.

Talking of riders and handlers, Paddy Brennan was leading jockey over the three days thanks to his enterprising treble on Friday, while no fewer than five trainers, Paul Nicholls, Colin Tizzard, Fergal O’Brien and the aforementioned King and Williams, bagged two winners apiece, hogging more than half of the races among them.

Surprisingly, and interestingly, the roll call of winners did not, for once, include champion Nicky Henderson. BetVictor Gold Cup fancy RATHER BE was unlucky to be brought down, but the rest of his horses performed most disappointingly, particularly BRAIN POWER in the Shloer Chase. All that will be forgotten, though, when Henderson unleashes MIGHT BITE on Haydock Park this Saturday, won’t it?