Ben Linfoot looks ahead to the Open Meeting
By Ben Linfoot. Last Updated: 13/11/13 12:59pm
It's 51 years since Arkle won at the Open Meeting
There is a tingle of excitement that accompanies The Open Meeting at Cheltenham. With the Flat season packed away, racing's focus is now solely on the jumps. The National Hunt. Slick hurdlers and warrior-like steeplechasers. Brave, brilliant, jockeys. Jumps racing is officially back.
But timing isn't the only reason The Open is greeted with such enthusiasm by National Hunt aficionados. History is another. The meeting is synonymous with greats of the game.
Take Arkle, for example. On the Saturday of The Open in 1962 he made his British debut in the Honeybourne Chase, smashing up his rivals by a sensational 20 lengths. Legend born.
Best Mate, too, is another triple Gold Cup winner to burst onto the scene at this meeting, this time on his debut in the bumper. Another worthy of a statue.
Other Gold Cup winners such as Denman and Imperial Commander won here as novices, Rooster Booster landed the Greatwood before going on to Champion Hurdle glory the following March and Long Run, bloody Long Run, failed to win the Paddy Power off a mark of 158 before winning the King George and the Gold Cup on his next two starts. Go figure.
We can but dream that there will be another Arkle or Best Mate on show this weekend. If it's too optimistic to witness a future statue in action, then another Imperial Commander will do. Or another Long Run.
There could well be another Long Run, when you consider Paddy Power Gold Cup favourite Dynaste's profile: Exciting novice. Beaten in his Festival assignment. Still regarded as a future star. Set to go off a short-price favourite off a handicap mark in the high 150s. The similarities are obvious.
They don't end there. Also like Long Run, the thing with Dynaste is he probably needs further. Even if his Jewson run didn't necessarily suggest as much, all of his best efforts have been over three miles. Connections could well wait for the Betfair Chase.
Unlike Long Run, you would expect Dynaste to be fit as a fiddle, primed and ready for a race the Pipe stable have such an affinity with. Martin Pipe won the race a staggering eight times, including seven in ten years from 1996-2005. David has won it too, with Great Endeavour two years ago. (The late David Johnson's famous green and blue silks were carried to victory on six occasions by Martin Pipe horses in the race and by Great Endeavour. He has a race named in his memory on the Friday at this year's Open Meeting; the David Johnson Memorial Intermediate Handicap Hurdle).
If Dynaste is an absentee, Pond House will still be well represented. Salut Flo could take the Great Endeavour 'Byrne Group Plate-to-Paddy Power' route, although Salut Flo has had an extra year off the track. His absence is a concern. Ballynagour ran in this year's Byrne Group Plate, but he disappointed in eighth after being sent off the 7/2 favourite. However, if he bounced back to the form he showed at Warwick it wouldn't be a surprise.
If Pipey doesn't win it for the second time, Jonjo O'Neill might. His sole victory came in 2006 (is it that long ago?) with Exotic Dancer who was another horse to go on to greater things following his Open Meeting success. Such was the ease that Johns Spirit's victory exuded at Cheltenham's Showcase Meeting, a 10lb rise may not stop him. O'Neill's charge is a danger to all.
Perhaps you feel previous winning form at Cheltenham is a pre-requisite. Try Champion Court, Rajdhani Express, Nadiya De La Vega, Vino Griego or Carrickboy, as all have triumphed in the Prestbury Park arena. The latter is trained by the wily Venetia Williams, always one to watch in the big handicaps. She has Katenko, too, touted as a Gold Cup and Grand National prospect when winning here twice in January, but he has had a bout of colic which is an obvious worry.
It hasn't been a great race for the Irish over the years. Only five raiders have won the prize with Tranquil Sea's 2009 romp the last time the trophy disappeared back over the Irish Sea. If the prize is to take the same journey this year, perhaps John Joseph Hanlon's Hidden Cyclone will be the reason. His profile isn't too dissimilar to Tranquil Sea's, given he was a talented novice hurdler that also won the Grade 3 Poplar Chase at Naas.
But it's not all about the Paddy Power Gold Cup.
Highlights are wide and varied, but the Roy Blandford 65 years at Cheltenham Novices' Chase is high on the list. Nigel Twiston-Davies has won the race five times with Tipping Tim, Earth Summit, Whereareyounow, Ballyfitz and Pettifour and he will bid to make it six with the exciting African Gold.
The winner of four hurdle races in a row last season, he finished off his campaign with a highly-creditable second to At Fishers Cross and a fine fifth behind Solwhit. That was all a bonus, given he screams chaser. His debut over fences is eagerly anticipated.
Ditto Oscar Whisky in the Steel Plate And Sections Novices' Chase on the Friday.
Luminaries such as the aforementioned Denman and Imperial Commander have won this contest in the past and Oscar Whisky is one of the most high-profile hurdlers to go chasing this campaign. An inbetweener over timber, his optimum distance seems to be two and a half miles - the distance of the SPASNC. He should have more opportunities to run at his ideal trip over fences and his first chase run is another spectacle not to be missed.
The novice hurdlers get their chance to shine as well in the Grade 2 Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle on the Saturday, with Emma Lavelle's Timesremembered likely to be well-fancied after his demolition job in the Persian War at Chepstow. Recent winners of this race include Black Jack Ketchum, Diamond Harry and Champion Court.
The race of the weekend, potentially, could include a bunch of highly-promising novice hurdlers in the Skybet Supreme Trial on the Sunday. Cue Card is a previous winner of this contest and a whole host of possible Sky Bet Supreme horses are set to do battle in this, with Nicky Henderson's West Wizard, David Pipe's The Liquidator, Paul Nicholls' Lac Fontana and Philip Hobbs' Garde La Victoire all oozing potential. It promises to be a cracker.If bumpers are your thing there are two for the first time this year as we welcome the U-Kash Mares' National Hunt Flat Race to the Open Meeting. We hope you enjoy the party. The already well-established bumper is the Fairlawne - Festival Jockey Club Fine Dining Bumper on the Sunday, a race won by Best Mate, Back In Front, Rhinestone Cowboy, Cork All Star and Rock On Ruby in previous years.
Sunday's highlight, though, is the StanJames.com Greatwood Hurdle, the second big handicap of the weekend. Rooster Booster was the last horse to do the Greatwood-Champion Hurdle double, but it's usually a good pointer to the season ahead nonetheless, with Detroit City, Sizing Europe, Khyber Kim and Menorah winning the race in subsequent years.
A posse of interesting four-year-olds, most of them spanked by Our Conor in the Triumph, are sprinkled among an eclectic mix of seasoned handicappers in this year's renewal.
So there you have it. £738,000 in prize money to be won, 19 races, Dynaste, African Gold, Oscar Whisky, West Wizard, Balthazar King, Swing Bill, Shutthefrontdoor, Champion Court, Sire De Grugy and Get Me Out Of Here just some of the stars on show. As well as the beagles. I told you the jumps were back.