Alex Hammond on her crash-course on South African racing and Cheltenham thoughts

Michael Roberts winning at Royal Ascot on Cassandra Go

The Sky Sports Racing presenter reflects on Cheltenham and undertakes a crash course in South African racing with help from a familiar name.

Well, what a strange and worrying time this is.

Under normal circumstances I’d be reveling in the glow of the Cheltenham Festival and most likely having a speculative punt on something for next year’s jamboree.

However, in this surreal situation, I’m instead studying a crash course in South African racing and hoping for a bit of normality to return soon. I won’t get into the rights and wrongs of British racing being suspended and/or Irish racing continuing for the time being, but it all feels very odd and hugely worrying for our magnificent industry and the tens of thousands who rely on it for their income.

I’m an optimistic person by nature and one of my over-used phrases is ‘health is wealth’, but never has that seemed more pertinent than it is now.

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So, South Africa you say? At Sky Sports Racing we have acted fast to bring you content to try and keep you enjoying some acton. At the time of writing there are still meetings out there as well as in Australia and some parts of the US amongst others, all of which you can watch with us.

Now South African racing isn’t completely alien to me as I used to cover it back in the day for The Racing Channel before joining Sky Sports News. Granted, I’m a bit rusty (as anyone who watched the show on Wednesday will have seen!), but racing is racing and I’m sure the winners will flow soon.

Many of you will remember Michael ‘Mouse’ Roberts, one of the biggest riding names of the 80s and 90s. For those of you that don’t, he was champion jockey in 1992 riding 206 winners, beating Pat Eddery into second, Willie Carson in third and bagging almost double the number of winners as Steve Cauthen who fourth.

He was associated with some star names too, the likes of Mtoto, Indian Skimmer, Intrepidity, Lyric Fantasy, Barathea, Opera House, Sayyedati, Cassandra Go, Mystiko and 500/1 Derby runner-up Terimon, amongst many, many more.

Michael Roberts and Mtoto win the King George

He’s now training in his native South Africa and was kind enough to agree to a phone interview with me on SSR on Wednesday to chat about his career and talk us through his runners at Greyville. Despite telling me he expected one of his horses to win and he could only finish third (I forgive you Michael!) he was incredibly informative and it was a pleasure to catch up. He made a serious error though, he said we could call him anytime, and I imagine he may live to regret that!

So, hopefully we’ll be keeping you entertained with our racing coverage over the coming weeks and months and we’ll have our usual debate and banter that you have come to expect from us on the channel. Stick with us and remember, this too will pass.

So, to the ‘C’ word, not the dreaded Coronavirus, but to Cheltenham.

I went to Prestbury Park on the Thursday and whilst there was a huge crowd, it did feel a bit weird being there given the escalating crisis. If only we knew at the time that would be pretty much it for the National Hunt season.

The gates are closed at all racecourses

Still, we can look ahead to the next campaign and there was much to celebrate on the track throughout the week. First off all, how many of you had written Barry Geraghty off, thinking that he was in the twilight of his career? Well, he proved all his doubters wrong with an incredible five winners from just 11 rides.

What a week he enjoyed, kicking off with Epatante, who outclassed her rivals to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle, taking in the last-gasp win for Champ in the RSA, through to Saint Roi who was one of seven winners for JP McManus and the same figure for his trainer Willie Mullins.

Geraghty wasn’t leading jockey though, that honour went to Paul Townend, also with five winners, but he won the accolade thanks to his superior number of placed rides. The highlight of his week no doubt must have been the win of Al Boum Photo, who became the first horse since Best Mate to win back-to-back Magners Cheltenham Gold Cups.

Al Boum Photo beats Santini to win a second Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup

My personal favourite was the victory of Envoi Allen in Wednesday’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. It was a cracking week for his trainer Gordon Elliott too, but the pressure he must have felt going into the Festival with this lad will have been immense.

He was many people’s idea of their banker (myself included) and he justified that to maintain his unbeaten record. The sky really is the limit with this guy. Chasing looks the most likely path for him next season and the RSA Chase would be his most likely destination in 2021, for which he is now Sky Bet’s 6/1 favourite (and like Lostintranslation last year, I’m already involved with a bit of that!).

Another horse I’m keen to keep on side next season, who wouldn’t have the same glamorous profile as Envoi Allen, is The Conditional. Thanks to a phone interview on Sky Sports Racing with his trainer David Bridgwater, I’d backed him to win the Ultima Handicap Chase on the opening day of the meeting.

The Conditional surges to the front in the Ultima

Win he did and in impressive style too. Bridgy told us that he has high hopes for this horse and was baffled by his below-par run in the Classic Chase at Warwick on his last start before Cheltenham. I get the impression he thinks he could be a top class staying chaser next season, so put him in your tracker.

You can’t talk about the week without mentioning the agonising result in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. Goshen had it in the bag when a freak incident at the final flight of hurdles saw jockey Jamie Moore catapulted out of the saddle, handing the race to Burning Victory for Mullins and Townend.

As the winning trainer said afterwards, no one wants to win a race like that and Goshen was showing us all what his trainer Gary Moore already knew, before the prize was snatched from him.

A cruel moment for Goshen at the Moore team

The consolation for his connections is that they have a superstar on their hands going forward and I don’t think the 5/1 on offer with Sky Bet for next year’s Champion Hurdle over estimates him. Like Arnie “He’ll be back!”.

So, that just leaves me to say, stay safe guys as we will have much to discuss when this is all over. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to find you a few winners in whatever location necessary and be keeping you up to date with news in this blog.

Sending love to you all and chat soon x

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