TIME TO GET PERCY ONSIDE
Fives to the left – 59; fours to the right – 591. If the length of the Cheltenham Festival was like a division of the parliamentary assembly, the overwhelming vote to stay at four days would smother any strive for five, or so it seems from a perfunctory temperature take of Twitter.
It’s an unusually indicative question that elicits a usually individual response, as is the way with a sport which offers so much to so many, from those invested within the industry to those investing from outside. In theory, there’s a balance to be struck, to suit everyone’s needs. In practice, to suit everyone’s needs, it’s an impossible balancing act.
The secret of the Cheltenham Festival is only partially down to where it takes place and what it’s made up of, as the crucial component is its timing, in March, acting quite organically as the final filter in a seasonal system, itself a mechanism of quality control; and quality control is the rock of the resistance to expanding the extravaganza.
But the lid is long since off that particular Pandora’s box, as there are only half a dozen or so races – out of 28 – have the quality-qualifying criteria, and there’s a certain irony in that it’s one of the newer championship races, the dreaded halfway house of the Ryanair, that has arguably produced the moment of three of the last four Festivals: the story around Frodon, the thrill of Un De Sceaux, and the virtuoso performance by Vautour.
In short, on the metric that matters, in maintaining Cheltenham as the meeting that matters, it’s almost irrelevant whether it’s three, four or five days, so long as there are three, four or five memory-making equine earthquakes that resonate in racing and beyond, for which the bedrock isn’t in messing with the present but in pressing on the past, because the collective races and faces of former Festivals is the perennial pulling power of Cheltenham.
From the abstract to the actual of Cheltenham, this week saw the latest declaration stage for the Gold Cup. The answer to how many days the Festival should be is disappointingly the same as how many prep runs a Gold Cup winner should have: it depends.
The last two winners had just one race in advance, Al Boum Photo and Native River, but that’s an approach that works for some and not others, as Presenting Percy found out. It wasn’t only that he came in cold last season, because, post-race, he was also found to be lame on his right hind. That’s one of a number of facts about Presenting Percy.
Previewing the Gold Cup is like previewing any race in that the worthwhile work needs doing in the grey areas, rewarding supposition and speculation, but there are known facts with Presenting Percy, known facts that make his double-figure odds seem generous.
Besides the fact that he had legitimate excuses in the Gold Cup last year, to focus on that single blemish brushstroke is to lose sight of the bigger picture, the artistry behind the fact he went off favourite, at 10/3, despite the unorthodox route.
And the reason he went off favourite, despite the unorthodox route, brings us to the next fact: his power-play performance in the 2018 RSA Chase. In terms of Timeform ratings, Presenting Percy was the best winner of the race since Florida Pearl, some 20 years earlier.
It was a masterclass by Presenting Percy, one that screamed future Gold Cup winner, and though he didn’t do it in 2019, the horse who was set to finish upwards of 10 lengths third behind him that day subsequently did, Al Boum Photo put well in his place prior to falling at the last.
It’s possible that the nine-year-old Presenting Percy isn’t quite the same as the 2018 version, but his two efforts this season have suggested – strongly suggested – that his big engine is intact, to be fine-tuned for his Festival date.
Which brings us to the next fact, that this campaign looks very different to his last, a case of lessons learnt. It’s back to the tried-and-tested formula, to the extent that he’ll reportedly run next in the Galmoy Hurdle, the exact path plotted ahead of the RSA.
Connected to the path is the destination, the final favourable fact surrounding Presenting Percy, as not once but twice has he shone at the Cheltenham Festival, remembering the 2017 Pertemps Final. He has an excellent track record, and Pat Kelly has an excellent track record of bringing him to the boil for March, notwithstanding last season’s mis-step of just one step prior to Prestbury.
There’s one reason why he can’t win the Gold Cup, specifically last year’s renewal, but loads of reasons why he can, all of which make his price of 10/1 too tempting to turn down, considering that, taking a step back, little or nothing has changed or emerged since he was favourite in 2019.
He’s being prepared and primed for one day, the fourth day of the Festival. Let’s hope it all stays that way.