To coin an advertising slogan, The Festival™ presented by Magners is refreshing the parts that other sporting events hope to reach.
Racing is not gloating as it completes four of the biggest days' racing of the year - with the backing of the government and chief medical officer - but while other sports face cancelling or playing behind closed doors the G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup has become a beacon that shines through the gloom. Newspaper coverage also continues as normal, with previews of a great day's racing and reviews of yesterday's action.
'They all want to win it' proclaims the Racing Post's front cover alongside a photo of the gold trophy. Marie Donnelly knows what it feels like to 'win it' for her Al Boum Photo landed the great race last year, and is widely tipped to do so again. Donnelly's horse is the selection of Chris Cook in The Guardian, while several tipsters believe there will be 'a Photo finish' to this year's big race, including Templegate of The Sun.
Paul Kealy of the Racing Post sides with Chris's Dream, but his colleague, Tom Segal, prefers Clan Des Obeaux, who is also the selection of The Gloucestershire Echo, Jason Heavey of the Daily Star, Marcus Armytage of The Daily Telegraph and Captain Wessex of the Western Daily Press. Jon Freeman of i, Rob Wright of The Times and Chris Goulding of the Daily Express side with Santini, but the Irish Independent's Michael Verney believes Delta Work will land the prize. His colleague, amateur rider Patrick Mullins, puts in a good word for his mount in the big race, Kemboy. David Yates of the Daily Mirror is another Delta Work fan, but Marcus Townend of the Daily Mail is backing the claims of Clan Des Obeaux. He writes: "Champion trainer Paul Nicholls is confident he has Clan Des Obeaux in the form of his life."
The Irish Independent can be forgiven a headline on the front of its 'Cheltenham punter' racing pull-out, which states, 'Irish eyes are smiling as five-timer [on day three] makes it a day to remember'.
The Festival presented by Magners may have gone ahead unhindered by virus fears and stock market crashes, but with racing in Ireland about to play out behind locked doors some members of the press ponder the 'carry-on' position taken by Boris Johnson's government.
The Daily Telegraph's Paul Hayward writes: "Nothing could better illustrate the popularity of the Cheltenham Festival than the third-day attendance of 65,218, only 2,603 down on last year when there was no pandemic." Reflecting on the sigh of racing relief that the meeting will be completed, and noting the words of Jockey Club regional director Ian Renton that, "We have been in close liaison with the government throughout," Hayward adds: "The racing set can be a stubborn lot - and The Festival is a religion - but there was no sense of entitlement; only the hope that racing could creep over the line this afternoon before the world turns darker."
The Daily Telegraph's Marcus Armytage writes: "There has been an overriding sense of the band continuing to play as the Titanic goes down about this year's Festival . . . but there is one more tune to play, the Magners [Cheltenham] Gold Cup." Jon Lees, writing in The Times, quotes Rich Ricci, the owner of yesterday's Ryanair Chase winner Min, saying: "It's great that it's on, it's fantastic."
Greg Wood of The Guardian writes: "Racing tends to live in its own little world at the best of times - for many that is part of the attraction - but the sense of deliberate detachment can never have felt so strong as it will when a dozen horses head to post this afternoon for the 92nd running of the [Magners] Cheltenham Gold Cup." Wood considers the irony that Ireland supplies 59 runners today, "looked after by two to three staff", who will join thousands of their countrymen among some 70,000 racegoers. Tomorrow they go home to a country where gatherings of more than 500 people are banned. It will be interesting to see how historians judge the contrasting positions taken by the British and Irish governments, but at Cheltenham the public have voted with their feet.
Those awaiting a first win at this week's meeting include champion jockey Richard Johnson, who in his Racing Post column writes: "It has been a low-key Cheltenham Festival for me, but everything has led towards my final booked ride of the meeting, Thyme Hill, in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle."
For competitors The Festival can be the loveliest and loneliest place on the planet, depending on whether they win or not, but for those on the losing side at present the victory of 50/1 shot Lisnagar Oscar in yesterday's Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle - headlined 'Oscar winner' by the Daily Express's racing pullout, and 'Oscar Bravo' in The Sun - was a lesson in staying positive by Rebecca Curtis. The Pembrokeshire trainer had not visited The Festival's winner's enclosure since 2015, but quoted by Lewis Porteous in the Racing Post, she said: "It was tough but we've worked hard and kept going and it's hopefully coming back."
A similar sense of stoicism will serve racing well in the coming weeks.
Elliott, Geraghty and McManus enjoying fabulous Festival
If day four of Cheltenham's 'Four Days Of Extraordinary' is anything like the first three it's going to be quite a day, for it's been a terrific week - particularly if your name is Gordon Elliott, JP McManus or Barry Geraghty.
It was not until Tuesday's seventh race that Elliott got off the mark with Ravenhill in the G2 National Hunt Chase. However, days two and three began with wins from two of the biggest names in the stable, Envoi Allen looking every inch a future superstar in the G1 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle and Samcro returning to his brilliant best by beating Melon and Faugheen in a gripping G1 Marsh Novices Chase.
By the end of day three Elliott had rattled up six wins and six seconds, achieving both first and second in the same race when Sire Du Berlais repeated last year's win in the G3 Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle.
McManus is also on six winners, and he has now enjoyed a total of 65 in a lifetime love affair with the sport, more than any owner in history. Champ's turbocharged RSA Insurance Novices' Chase finish will live long in the memory, but the pick of them this week was undoubtedly the stylish success in Tuesday's G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle of his top-class mare Epatante.
In different circumstances she might have been his third string in the race behind previous winners Espoir d'Allen and Buveur D'Air, but she put up a performance of real authority.
Epatante and Champ were among four winners on the first two days for Nicky Henderson, who briefly moved back ahead of Willie Mullins at the top of the all-time trainers' list with 68 wins. They were also among four winners spread over three days for McManus' retained jockey Barry Geraghty, who has been riding better than ever.
Mullins made a slow start and was frustrated when Benie De Dieux was beaten by Henry De Bromhead's Honeysuckle in a G1 Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle which might have gone the other way but for a tactical misunderstanding.
However, Ferny Hollow got the ball rolling in the G1 Weatherbys Champion Bumper at the end of day two, and normal service was resumed with a double on Thursday, including an overdue first Festival™ win by Min in the G1 Ryanair Chase. He is now back upsides Henderson on 68.
Paul Nicholls has been quieter than usual but took tremendous satisfaction from Wednesday's G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, in which Politologue led home stablemate Dynamite Dollars and was given a terrific ride by one-time stable regular Harry Skelton in a race weakened by Defi Du Seuil's uncharacteristic disappointment and the 'no shows' of Altior and Chacun Pour Soi.
There's still all to play for. Even the Paddy Power Prestbury Cup, in which Ireland currently leads by 11 to nine, could still go either way, and French-trained Easysland's defeat of Tiger Roll in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase means another tie is almost impossible.
Claisse before racing
Simon Claisse, Cheltenham's Clerk of the Course, has just walked the track again and is leaving the going description unchanged after the update he issued this morning. The going on the chase track is Good to Soft, Soft in Places, while the hurdle course is Soft, Good to Soft in Places.
Claisse said: "This is our second day's racing on the New Course, and we have opened up a fresh strip of ground that has not been raced on since this day last year. That inner chase ground is always a little bit quicker than the remainder of the track.
"The soft places in the chase track are where the Old and New Courses intersect, so are few and far between. And the hurdle track, even having had another walk in the past hour, remains soft enough, hence calling it Soft, Good to Soft in Places. It has taken the racing extremely well, however; we've only moved on bit of rail on the hurdle course - down the back straight just as the runners turn to come up the hill. In places elsewhere you would hardly knew they have been over it.
"We are predicted a dry afternoon.
"The sun is out and we are looking forward to a superb afternoon's racing. The Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup is an enthralling-looking race and a very tough one to call, I think, but maybe the horses which like the slightly quicker ground will be favoured by the conditions."