ITV Racing's Ed Chamberlin reflects on the first Saturday card of the season from a very wet Cheltenham, where Saint Calvados and Tobefair stole the show off top weights.
As the rain tapped against the window of the owners and trainers bar at Cheltenham this morning I thought we were doomed. I had one eye on England’s sensational performance against the All Blacks in Japan and one eye on the wet weather outside, which showed no sign of relenting.
We had already lost Newbury and Doncaster, so it would have been very unfortunate to lose Cheltenham as well, but the Showcase Meeting went on thanks to a track that can take an incredible amount of rain very well indeed.
At least twice as much rainfall fell than had been forecast, but clerk of the course Simon Claisse remained calm and kept everybody informed of the situation. He had a lot to deal with as every trainer and jockey wanted to know the score yet he still had time to deal with the media which was great.
It was a relief when the track passed an unexpected inspection and we went ahead, and when The Conditional won the opener from the bottom of the weights I thought it might set a precedent – light weight wins in heavy ground handicap.
However, the two standout performances of the day came from top weights.
Firstly, Saint Calvados, who completed a memorable few weeks for the Whittingtons. Their daughter, Penelope, was born six weeks ago and she was experiencing her first day at the races at Cheltenham, her father delighted to get his equine pride and joy back in the winners’ enclosure.
It was a tremendous effort to win off top weight, and, while you might think first time out in heavy ground might be the time to catch him, I thought a positive for him moving forward was the way he seemed to enjoy being ridden with more restraint.
I’m also thrilled for owners Kate and Andrew Brooks who put so much into the game and deserve days like this.
But, while that was a heart-warming story, how about Tobefair landing the Pertemps qualifier off top weight for Debra Hamer and the Down The Quay Club?
He just epitomises everything that is good about National Hunt racing and he was my horse of the season in our first year on ITV when he racked up seven consecutive wins in tremendous style.
For the eighth time now there will be an almighty party at the pub in Wales where the owners celebrate and they should enjoy every drop after another brave performance from their little warrior of a horse.
It was obviously our first full day of the season covering the jumps and already it’s so good to see the love shared between small owners and trainers having their day in the sun – or, in today’s case, the cold and the rain.
I have to say, racing came together for us today and it’s much appreciated. The BHA and HRI, who moved race times so we could cover both Kelso and Cheltenham, demonstrated a very healthy way of running the sport and it's of huge benefit to the armchair viewers.
We were jealous of the Scottish sunshine watching Kelso on our monitors and the performance of the day up there was from another old favourite, Mysteree, the former Eider winner landing the feature race for Michael Scudamore.
My old friend One For Arthur threatened to get in the mix for a while, but, while his jumping is usually his best asset, I thought it let him down today. It was great to see the engine remains intact though and Lucinda Russell said that he’d be rusty.
He heads to the Becher Chase next where hopefully he’ll love seeing those Grand National fences once again.
Seeing these old friends – Cogry, Tobefair, One For Arthur, Mysteree and Saint Calvados – it really whets the appetite for the next few weeks of jumping action, and I’m delighted that the full ITV team will be heading up the A1 to Wetherby for next Saturday’s Charlie Hall Chase.
I can’t wait for that and it looks like fellow Sporting Life columnist Warren Greatrex will be there too, hopefully, with his star mare La Bague Au Roi.
While I’m heading to Wetherby the Sporting Life budget has managed to stretch itself again to send Matt Brocklebank out to the Breeders’ Cup in California, but I’ll have to make do with his video diaries to see what’s going out at Santa Anita!
That’s for next Saturday evening, but in the afternoon not only do we have Wetherby on ITV but Down Royal as well, with the Grade One JNWine.com Champion Chase being beamed live into English living rooms.
Great news, I’m sure you’ll agree, but I’m a little disappointed we couldn’t project the rearranged Group One Vertem Futurity Trophy to a bigger audience. Unfortunately that’s not a goer with it being scheduled for the Friday evening card at Newcastle.
Still, I’ve just about fully transitioned to the jumps game now, so I’ll sign off this week’s column with three to follow for the National Hunt season. See you at Wetherby next week!
Three To Follow
He might’ve been 50/1 when winning the Albert Bartlett but it was no fluke as he travelled like a dream. He won that race like a very good horse and I think people might continue to underestimate him. Clearly, he’s got a massive engine, and he’s one to follow in novice chases.
I’m gambling the Albert Bartlett was a really good race as I like the third, Allaho, too. Ruby Walsh thought a lot of this horse going into the race and when you watch it back he pulls his arms out for a great deal of the contest, but still finishes third in what is an attritional race for novice hurdlers. He’s a beautiful looking horse and looks every inch a chaser. He’s my fancy for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March (20/1 with Sky Bet).
I think Fusil Raffles could be very good. Often juvenile form is overrated but this fellow looks the real deal and Simon Munir and Isaac Souede have put together a really exciting team for the new season. Daryl Jacob sat on him last week and he gave him a really good feel and the two-mile hurdling division still looks pretty weak to me. There’s room for a new star and this horse could run himself into contention for top honours via the Christmas Hurdle.