It’s Cheltenham, Jim, but not as we know it
Alice in Wonderland syndrome is a rare condition that causes temporary episodes of distorted perception and disorientation. Time may seem to pass faster or slower than you think, brought about by changes in how your brain perceives the environment, so that something feels further away than it is.
The Cheltenham Festival feels further away than it is, only 26 days, sharing symptoms with Alice in Wonderland disorder, the brain conflicted by an uncommon landscape in what could be described as panorama paranoia: the uneasy sense of having insufficient information to process the surroundings, shadowed by the summit of Cleeve Hill.
There are certain pillars of predictability that, even on this peculiar pathway, act as Cheltenham checkpoints, where we know how things stand because they stand out and stand tall, such as the untouchable Altior, a juvenile juggernaut in Sir Erec and the power-hungry Paisley Park, who has one hoof on the Stayers’ Hurdle. But in all other areas, notably the novices, the comfortable slippers of familiarity are sliding off our feet, because this is a Cheltenham Festival like no other in the modern age, less of a numbers game and more of a guessing game, a matter of speculation over calculation.
The destination is fixed, as are the rules of engagement once there, but, this year, it feels like driving to Cheltenham with fewer road signs, no SatNav and a faulty petrol gauge.
Luck, preparation and opportunity are intertwined. The former occurs when the latter two meet, so they say, but it has spelled bad luck for the campaign and the contributors that preparation has been disrupted by plausible opportunities failing to materialise, due to some unseasonable weather, some unreasonable ground and, of course, some unfeasible equine influenza.
The stuttering season has put a filter on the lens of analysis, making for a blurry, black and white picture, draining all the colour and context out of the snapshots, and the sub-divisions, especially, as mentioned, the novices. Of the thirteen Cheltenham-entered novice chasers rated 150+ by Timeform, as many as six of them have raced only twice this season, on top of Cilaos Emery who we’ve seen just the once.
And then there are the novice hurdles, none of which have so far breached the 150 barrier, which in itself isn’t exactly uncommon pre-Festival, though there were half a dozen last year, including the first and second in both the Supreme and Ballymore, showing the power of packing a heavyweight bag for Cheltenham, and the clarity that comes with it. To illustrate the impact of the low bar, as things stand, the juvenile Fakir d’Oudairies would be Timeform top-rated for the Supreme with the 4-y-o allowance if, as looks likely, he switches out of the way of Sir Erec in the Triumph.
The peculiar point about this batch of novices isn’t that none have hit 150 but that only ten have surpassed 140, meaning there must be a whole lot of talent swimming beneath the surface, fostering the feeling that the Cheltenham winners may be found more in the unusual recesses than the usual races, as in the traditional trials, in this division at least.
Angels Breath, according to sonar and speculation, may be the biggest fish of all in the baby pool, but he’s in a race against time, because of the times he’s had to race, or not as is the case. Since a winning hurdling debut in late-December, when his reputation preceded him, favourite in the Grade 2 Supreme Trial at Ascot, which wasn’t much of a trial at all given the steady pace and omitted hurdles, Angels Breath missed the Rossington Main due to not being 100%, missed Musselburgh because the frost didn’t miss Musselburgh that weekend, then missed several engagements last week as a result of racing’s man flu.
He has entries at Wincanton on Saturday and Huntingdon on Sunday, low-key events but categorically critical to get some extra experience into him ahead of the Festival, more so for him than most, but generally the next two weekends will bring a riot of colour to Cheltenham’s sparse colouring form-book, spewing messages and skewing markets.
And therein lies the danger of focusing on the next fortnight, where every move won’t just be analysed but over-analysed, and every action will prompt an over-reaction, taking recency bias into the red zone, in response to a data-deficient campaign in which normal rules don’t apply.
All of which brings us to the real victims of this stop-start season, of which I am one. Pity not the trainers, owners nor the horses themselves. Save your pity instead for the overpaid, underprepared panelists at the Cheltenham preview nights up and down the land, who this time can’t trust in trends or pin on patterns. This year, to earn their corn, each and every member of a Cheltenham panel has to discover the dots and not just join them and has to locate the lines and not just read between them.
The next couple of instalments of this column will embark on some of that detective work, against a backdrop of the Festival’s ticking clock, but this article hopefully sets out the strange scene of a different approach, demanded by a different season, en route to a different Cheltenham: it’s Cheltenham, Jim, but not as we know it.