BE selective has always been my motto when it comes to choosing which of the various Cheltenham preview evenings to attend and I always give a wide berth to those panellists who continually sit on the fence. So, when I got a call telling me that four of the best informed judges in the game were being assembled at a London venue by Coral bookmakers last week, I sat up and took notice.
The venue was the Loose Cannon Club, which was highly appropriate as one of the panellists was freelance journalist Mark “Couch” Winstanley, who has never believed in the maxim “think twice before you speak” and invariably has the libel lawyers rubbing their hands with glee.
However, Winstanley has more moles than you will find on Watership Down in his diary and has never had a splinter in his backside in his life, so, with Nick Luck from Channel 4, Simon Clare, the knowledgeable face of Coral, and Gold Cup winning jockey Paddy Brennan sitting alongside him, an entertaining evening was a shade of odds-on. I was not disappointed.
Clearly fired up by news filtering through the room that his beloved Chelsea were showing signs of a form revival against Birmingham in the FA Cup at St Andrews, the swashbuckling Winstanley took the first ball on the front foot like Kevin Pieterson of old, ridiculing the chance of Galileo’s Choice in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle mainly on the basis that Dermot Weld was a Flat trainer and had barely sniffed a winner whenever he ran one at Cheltenham.
Indeed, Winstanley advised we give this race a swerve, whereas Clare reported that the right faces have been backing Darlan, influenced no doubt by the fact that his owner, JP McManus, had suggested at an Irish preview evening that he was his nap of the week. Luck and Brennan preferred Charlie Longsdon’s Vulcanite as an each-way investment.
Nobody was entertaining defeat for Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle, though Clare felt that he might start odds against as on-course layers would be “keen to get him” and Winstanley offered up Blackstairsmountain “without the favourite”.
Surprisingly, the panel were not similarly unanimous in their support of Hurricane Fly retaining his Champion Hurdle crown. Luck suggesting that Binocular was “terrific each-way value”, while Winstanley preferred the chances of Rock on Ruby.
The panel suggested that any winnings we have accumulated after the Champion we should padlock in the back-pocket as the last three races look “hellishly tricky”, though Clare and Winstanley clearly have the same mole in Seven Barrows as both indicated that Triolo D’Alene, supposedly considered by Nicky Henderson to be one of his best chances of the week, was worth a look in the first-day finale.
Winstanley implored us to pack our size 10 betting boots for the Wednesday, when we should follow Willie Mullins as he was going to win with Allee Garde (NH Chase) and Sir Des Champs (RSA Chase), describing the latter as “an aeroplane”, while all agreed that 5-2 about Simonsig in the Neptune was “too good to pass by”.
The quartet felt that the Queen Mother Champion Chase lacked substance, and, though Coral go 10-11 about Sizing Europe, Clare encouraged us to shop around for some evens “and if you find it, then you should fill your boots”, while, though Alan King has indicated that Vendor might be his best of the week in the Fred Winter, Winstanley pooh-poohed the claim, observing “he does not jump well enough”.
Brennan struggled to get a word in between Winstanley’s rants, but when it came to the Pertemps Final he was determined to stand his ground, informing us “Sivola De Sivola has serious talent and if he makes the cut he would have an excellent chance”, and, while Luck, Brennan and Clare were anxious to quickly move on from the World Hurdle, agreeing that Big Buck’s “should be 1-4”, the lagers might have by now got to Winstanley as he dared to oppose his good friend, Andy Stewart, and put up Dynaste at 14-1 and 5-1 w/o the “jolly” to play the party-pooper and spoil the fairytale.
According to Brennan, Salut Flo had “worked exceptionally well at Exeter recently” and was worth a bet in the Byrne Group Plate, but nobody seemed too excited about the Kim Muir and suggested that maybe we should “give it a miss and beat the traffic”.
It was getting late by the time we moved on to Gold Cup day and Brennan, who rides Baby Mix in the opening Triumph Hurdle, suggested that “normal service was resumed at Kempton and granted good ground he will be very hard to beat”; though Winstanley chimed in “he won’t beat Grumeti”.
Brennan was adamant that “he would not swap anything for Olofi in the County Hurdle”, and Winstanley insisted that Boston Bob, who runs in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, was “one of the best bets of the week”.
Coral have eased Long Run out to 7-4 for the Gold Cup – “the vibes have been negative and we haven’t seen a shilling for him,” said Clare – but neither Brennan nor Winstanley were keen to oppose the champion with Kauto Star, the jock, who felt that Long Run was “a certainty barring accidents”, saying “you need a perfect preparation to win a Gold Cup, and he has had anything but”, while the “Couch” said “he could not win the race as an 11-year-old, so how can he win it at 12?” Couch’s glass was empty – time to return to the bar!
Clare – Champion Court (Jewson)
Brennan – Sivola De Sivola (Pertemps)
Luck – Cristal Bonus (Jewson)
Winstanley – Sir Des Champs (wherever it runs)