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Cheltenham Preview

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Cheltenham Preview
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Five things to look out for

1. Every Cheltenham Festival has an Irish ‘banker’ bet, but only the most charismatic horses make the further leap to legendary status: in the 1960s, the three-time Gold Cup winner Arkle was perhaps the greatest example, and in subsequent decades champions Dawn Run, Danoli and Istabraq followed. More recently, however, nothing has entirely fitted the bill, but the brilliant mare Honeysuckle, a leading contender for the Champion Hurdle on day one, could change all that. The possibility revolves around an undefeated record — 11/11 — her jockey being Rachael Blackmore, one of Ireland’s leading female sporting figures, plus an all-important catchy name.

2. And it’s not just Blackmore: in Britain, the fascination with the success of women in what is perceived to be a male-dominated sport — though it is arguable whether that is entirely the case these days — shows no sign of abating, certainly not as regards jockey Bryony Frost. Frost’s already prolific profile multiplied when winning the Ryanair Chase on Frodon at the 2019 Festival, and this time they are scheduled to chase top honours in the event’s centrepiece, the Wellchild Cheltenham Gold Cup, on day four. Previously, Frodon has won six races staged over the course’s famously tricky contours, clearly an advantage.

3. The ghostly silence that will envelop much of the racecourse because of the pandemic is all the tougher because the festival has grown over the past 40 years from a parochial, purists’ event to one of the biggest, noisiest and most profitable weeks of the sporting calendar. The 2020 staging proved controversial as the first lockdown was looming, leading to claims it should have been cancelled; officials believe arrangements were within national guidelines, and they look forward to returning to a normal, crowded service.

4. Talking of changes, the success rate of horses from Ireland has accelerated beyond all recognition. Twice in my early working days, there was just one Irish-trained winner and in 1989 none at all. But these days the talent under the care of Ireland’s leading trainers Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead means the boot is firmly on the other foot. Covid-19 restrictions combined with Brexit-related red tape mean that the number of horses travelling this year may be down, but most of the major fancies — from de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle and unbeaten chaser Envoi Allen, to Gold Cup hat-trick-seeker Al Boum Photo, from the Mullins stable — are booked on the ferry.

5. Oh yes, Al Boum Photo: a third Gold Cup victory for the nine-year-old would see him jump into festival history alongside racing ‘greats’ Golden Miller — who also won two more — Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate. But opponents are queuing up against him: they include the de Bromhead-trained A Plus Tard, and, for the ‘home’ team, Champ and Royale Pagaille.

Cornelius Lysaght. Fitzdares Ambassador. Former racing correspondent of the BBC.

My first Cheltenham winner

Thirteen has never been considered unlucky in the Webber family. I was born on 13 August, my father’s 33rd birthday — not that he was conscious of my arrival until the following day, as he was busy celebrating ‘harvest home’, considered far more important than the arrival of a third child. Saddling our horses with a ‘13’ number-cloth has never brought on superstitious worries, so the fact they were competing on Friday 13th was not a concern.

On the day last year, having spilled white wine all over my best tweed, my wife Ku and I quickly left the party marquee and bumped into Carol and Martin Pipe. We said just how much we would love our runner Indefatigable, nicknamed ‘Mary’, to win his race, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. We decided this meeting must have been a great omen.

Her odds of 33-1 were an insult to both of us. Just two days earlier, Dame de Compagnie, who had beaten her at Cheltenham in December, had won the Coral Cup. Form does not get more solid than that.

She was in the hands of pilot Rex Dingle, in his very first sortie for us. Our plan was for Rex to jump off middle to outer and get a position with a bit of daylight in the forward half of the pack. As taught by Jack Ramsden: ‘Don’t worry if you don’t quite get there, but don’t get beat because you hit the front too soon.’

Plan A looked to be going really well — until the false start. Then trouble began when Mary began snarling and trying to bite her opponents. She was flat-footed, jumping the first hurdle in plum last. However, our ace pilot was ice-cool, letting things unfold in front of him. Still last, with less than a mile to go, they started to thread their way through the field, bravely jumping the second last like a gazelle between two horses. Ten lengths off the leaders as they turned into the straight, they were flying. They were very quick over the last, dodging a faller and setting their sights on Pileon, crossing the line together. Nobody at that moment knew who had won.

Amazingly, Indefatigable got up by a short head, and, as hoped, we got to meet Martin Pipe again in the winners’ enclosure — the closest finish in the last race of a festival that might not have taken place.

Racing ceased four days later. I am more grateful than most that Cheltenham did indeed go ahead. My father trained two festival winners, the last of which was Elfast in 1994, the year before he died. I feel he may have played a part in aligning the various stars in this story in the correct order, which enabled this fairy tale to become reality.

To be a dual Royal Ascot winner and — finally — a Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer feels good, and I send huge gratitude to everybody who made it happen.

Paul Webber. Dual Royal Ascot and now Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer.

A Cheltenham certainty

In a year where almost everything has gone wrong, those famous ‘three certainties in life’ have become increasingly prominent. We won’t dwell too much on death and taxes, suffice to say the former has become ever more pronounced, while the latter will shortly be rearing its ugly head. This leaves us with the third, and perhaps most important certainty. The ‘good news’ certainty, shall we say. The Cheltenham Festival.

An eternal flame of the racing calendar, the festival is one candle that is hard to blow out. And boy, has Mother Earth tried. While foot and mouth disease had its success in 2001, the ‘Beast from the East’ merely huffed and puffed (a nickname wasted prematurely on bad weather). Then equine flu. Let’s face it, if that couldn’t stop the horses, what chance did the pandemic have? Not last year. Not this year.

Cheltenham really does showcase the spirit of the British public. It is a hearty gathering of risk-takers, fun-makers and dreamers. Everyone is in it for the love of the game, for the love of fun and — dare we say — for the love of a punt.

Alas, this festival will bear no crowds and thus no Cheltenham roar. The sitting room will have to make do, although that shouldn’t lessen the excitement. Almost the entire Cheltenham experience can be reimagined within your four walls.

Wearing tweed is the unnecessary but crucial first step, even just a flat cap to cover your bald patch. Speaking of patches, we designed tweed masks for Cheltenham-goers to wear last year. Sadly, and curiously, we were banned from handing them out. It was deemed a PR stunt. We will let the readers decide on that one.

As for grub, our Fitzdares Club chefs are already grafting away at members’ hampers. Not a well-done beef wellington in sight. Alternatively, empty a can of warm Guinness into that stolen pint glass and raid the back of the fridge.

The final and most important step is getting your bets on. We have a fast-touch app for you to download. For a more personal experience, give us a call or text your bets, depending on whether it’s the wifi or reception that lets you down more often.

If you’d like to cheer when the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle starts, that’s up to you. Trying to organise a 1 p.m. national roar for Cheltenham might raise some emotions.

The racing, as always, will do most of the talking. The main story is whether Al Boum Photo can leap his way to a Gold Cup hat-trick and emulate Best Mate and Arkle. His trainer Willie Mullins is the all-time festival leader with 72 winners and the Irish genius has enough favourites to all but guarantee the return of the Prestbury Cup to Ireland.

Our ambassador Cornelius Lysaght will be offering his daily insights every morning via our voice note service, WhatSport. It is with his words, we suspect, that you will find the most value.

Rory Fairfax. Editor of the Fitzdares Times.

Fitzdares is the SBC Racing Sportsbook of the Year. If you are interested in becoming a member of the world’s finest bookmaker and would like to find out more about the exclusive Fitzdares Club in Mayfair, please visit www.fitzdares.com

The Fitzdares Club

Fitzdares is the oldest bookmaker on the planet. A takeover of Sunderlands in 2018 saw them inherit almost 140 years of experience, dating back to T. Guntrip in 1882. Back then, results were delivered from the racecourse by carrier pigeon to their Mayfair headquarters. Now, races are shown live on giant screens in their Mayfair headquarters. Some things change. Some stay the same.

That is the essence of Fitzdares, an old-school bookmaker with modern innovations. They were the first to launch text betting; the last to launch an app. Yet when they did, it came with free streaming and an extreme racing focus. You are only ever a few taps away from any race in the world. This recently saw them named Racing Sportsbook of the Year. They’ve long lived by an in-house motto: properly, or not at all.

Customer service is at the heart of everything they do, although they see it more as customer experience. When you bet with Fitzdares, it is more than just a transaction. It is a lifestyle choice. You have the option of speaking with an expert broker about the sport of the day or keeping things discreet with a simple tap of the app or a text bet. Whatever suits the occasion.

Then the immersive element. The Fitzdares Club was launched last September to bring luxury and comfort to the sporting experience. Fitzdares chose Davies Street for its new home, bringing it right back to the industry’s spiritual roots.

Set on two floors above the Running Horse on Davies Street, the club is an immaculate hideaway for discerning sports fans, exquisitely decorated by 5 Hertford Street’s Rosanna Bossom. There is no hard and fast dress code, but you certainly wouldn’t want to be the eye sore in such a beautifully curated environment.

Nine giant screens mark every corner of the club, which consists of a restaurant, bar, two private rooms and a dedicated racing room. There is a remote control in that room, but it only turns to channels with the geegees.

The menu is exquisite and the service impeccable. Headed up by former bar director of Sketch, Dom Jacobs, the team are at your every beck and call. The beef wellington is the highlight on a confident menu, while the extensive wine list overlaps pages. If you find that intimidating, you are never better off than just asking Dom for his choice.

Yet for all the food and wine in the world, this club is really about one thing: the pure love of sport. In fact, on the application form that is the only requirement. That you love sport. At this time of year, the screens would be showing every race, Champions League match and Test Cricket ball bowled.

Until the great unlocking, that will have to wait. In the meantime, you’re best served by filling in that membership application and hoping the limited spaces don’t fill up before then.