Amid the gloom of floods and pestilence it would help public morale if the show goes on, which means The Festival™ presented by Magners gains special significance when getting underway at Cheltenham today.
Britain and Ireland's newspapers have stepped up to present a wealth of coverage that will guide racegoers, television watchers, yes, and self-isolators, through some of the very best of Jump racing. As racing correspondent Chris Goulding of the Daily Express puts it: "There was a huge sigh of relief for racing fans when the Prime Minister said there was no reason to cancel sporting events."
The Sun and Daily Star kicked off Festival coverage yesterday when printing racing pull-outs designed to tee up the week, and both papers follow up with racing sections again today. The Daily Mirror also deserves plaudits for its 24-page pull-out, which is fronted by one of the likely stars of the week, Rachael Blackmore, tipped by some to become the first woman to lift the Holland Cooper Leading Jockey Award at The Festival for the Ruby Walsh Trophy. Fellow jockey Richie McLernon is unlikely to challenge for the Award, but he made a splash when stripping down to his breeches for an appearance on page 3 of yesterday's Daily Star.
Blackmore tells the Daily Mirror's David Yates: "I grew up in a horsey family, without it being a racing family," a comment which will give hope to thousands of pony-mad children who harbour jockey ambitions. David Jennings of the Racing Post writes" "Day one of Cheltenham used to revolve around Ruby Walsh. This year it is all about Rachael Blackmore," while, in a chat with Marcus Townend of the Daily Mail, Blackmore says: "I needed to improve with more practice. That's what I got when I turned professional."
'Bookies in fear of Rach' is a Daily Star headline, while another Irish contender for the Ruby Walsh Trophy is Paul Townend, the man who replaced Walsh as no.1 jockey to trainer Willie Mullins. Townend reveals some of the highs and lows of his life to The Guardian's Donald McRae. Champion jockey Richard Johnson, whose views are being printed daily in the Racing Post, rode his first Festival winner 21 years ago, but writes: "I'll be going back there every bit as excited as some of those young jockeys who were not even born [in 1999]."
Curiously reigning champion trainer Paul Nicholls does not have a runner on day one, and expects to be supping pints and watching the action at his local pub. He tells Lee Mottershead of the Racing Post: "It's just not worth running horses in races when you really don't think they can win." It will be Nicholls' first Festival blank day since 1995, yet he could win the big one, Friday's Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Clan Des Obeaux. Nicholls tells James Gray of i that the horse is "physically better" one year on from finishing fifth in the race.
Nicholls is advised to greet his pals at the pub with a fist pump. On the theme of hellos during this period of Coronavirus precautions, Marcus Armytage of The Daily Telegraph writes: "A tipping of the cap may be the in-vogue greeting," and he adds: " . . . the famous roar of approval which greets the first race could be louder and longer than normal." The Daily Telegraph's Tom Morgan looks at the racecourse's virus precautions under the headline 'On the front line with paper towels and hand gel', while the Irish Independent reports: "Throngs of Irish racing fans have pushed ahead with their annual jaunt to Cheltenham despite Coronavirus fears." The Western Daily Press says: "Cheltenham Racecourse said it has taken all recommended public health steps as it prepares to welcome tens of thousands of racing fans."
Few jockey quotes can beat Patrick Mullins's assessment in the Irish Independent of his day-one rides. He says of his Unibet Champion Hurdle mount Sharjah: "I'll be riding him like a mouse stealing cheese from a cat," while he describes his National Hunt Chase ride Carefully Selected as: "A horse that looks more suited to a hunting field, with a head the size of a small dinosaur." Greg Wood of The Guardian finds an imaginative way of describing the four-day Festival, writing: "For devotees of jumping it is Christmas for grown-ups."
Tipsters have a profusion of opportunities to whet our betting appetites, and plenty side with likely Unibet Champion Hurdle favourite Epatante, the mare whose picture front today's Daily Star racing special cover. Chris Cook of The Guardian writes: "Epatante appears on a steep upward curve and can prove it by giving Nicky Henderson his eighth success in the race." That would be some consolation for Altior's absence from this year's Festival due to lameness, although Sam Turner of the Daily Mail believes a win for Henderson is more likely to be derived through Pentland Hills.
Rob Wright of The Times opts for Epatante, and gives readers his 'Banker or Bust' best and worst bets of the week, while Tom Pepper of The Sun writes: "Let's hear it for the girls. Bookies fear a double night-mare could cost them £10million," if Epatante and Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle hope Benie Des Dieux both win today.
Henderson and Nicholls target huge prize funds at The Festival in neck and neck race for trainers' title
Just over £8,000 separates Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls in the trainers' championship ahead of The Festival™ presented by Magners 2020, at which £4,590,000 in prize money will be available over the course of the four days.
Despite not having a runner on day one of The Festival, Ditcheat-based Paul Nicholls - who has saddled 92 winners this season at a strike-rate of 22% - will have high hopes of pegging back his Lambourn rival on days two, three and four, with Solo looking to have a favourite's chance in the £125,000 G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle on Friday.
Day Four could be pivotal for Nicholls, as dual King George winner Clan Des Obeaux will attempt to better his fifth-place finish in the week's most prestigious and valuable contest - the £625,000 2019 G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Clan Des Obeaux has had a lighter campaign this season, having not raced since Boxing Day, and his trainer hopes this will give the eight-year-old a stronger chance of lasting home over the extended three mile and two-and-a-half-furlong trip of Friday's highlight. Nicholls also trains Greaneteen, the current favourite for the £110,000 G3 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase on the same day.
The 11-time champion trainer Nicholls will also be hoping to pick up some of the £400,000 prize fund available for Wednesday's G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase with Politologue and Dynamite Dollars amongst the final field, particularly after his rival Henderson withdrew two-time winner Altior on Tuesday morning. Frodon also looks to have every chance of repeating his 2019 victory in the £350,000 G1 Ryanair Chase on Thursday.
Despite the loss of Altior, Henderson - who has trained 114 winners this campaign at a strike-rate of 28% - has several chances of success at this year's Festival. Perhaps the £470,250 G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle could be key, as Henderson trains the first two in the betting - Epatante and Pentland Hills are among his four runners.
Henderson, who has won the trainers' title five times in total - also has two leading hopes in the £125,000 G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle on day one, with Shishkin and Chantry House both unbeaten in completed starts over hurdles.
The JP McManus-owned Champ will bid to bounce back from a fall in the G2 Paddy Power Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham on New Years Day when he lines up for Henderson in the £175,000 G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase on Wednesday, while Santini looks to use that same race in 2019 - in which he finished runner-up - as a springboard to Cheltenham Gold Cup victory on Friday.