Noel Fehily and Buveur D’Air pictured after winning last year’s Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Owner JP McManus is hopeful of it retaining the title Picture: Sportsfile
THERE is one job in racing that nobody envies and that belongs to the man with the dubious honour of starting the Aintree Grand National.
Forty horses and riders jostling for position, nudging one another out of the way, shouting, crying foul, pleading for a chance to turn.
Putting order to that situation before you can drop the flag, lift the tape and get the big event under way, while millions watch you on TV, ready to curse your incompetence, is a feat of authority to behold.
I couldn’t help but think of that man as I watched Nick Luck, master of ceremonies at the Dunraven Arms Cheltenham preview recently, endeavour to get the main business started, with the last dabs of dessert being wiped from plates around the expectant room.
Not that this is a rowdy crowd. Perish the thought.
No, but after last year’s unexpected hiatus, this most high profile of Cheltenham previews was making a welcome, if only brief, return and its faithful attendance had the bit between the teeth.
With the season-defining national hunt festival just about a week away, there was a frisson in the air and like a horse off the track for a long spell, we were keen for action. If we were indeed horses, we would be those 40 beasts ready to thunder towards the first fence at Aintree.
With his usual polish, however, Luck managed to get things moving smoothly, introducing our expert panel with the right blend of gentle jibes and respect where due.
Rising British training star Ben Pauling, for example, was presented with the anecdote that his fellow jockeys in the amateur ranks back in the day gave him the nickname ‘A’.
“Give it time, you’ll get there,” said Luck.
Also on board were Willie Power of the bookmaking clan, British trainer Philip Hobbs, Limerick trainer Andy McNamara, crack amateur rider Derek O’Connor and as Luck playfully announced, “the man the Racing Post calls the best tipster in the world...the Racing Post’s Tom Segal”.
He added, that Segal has been at 24 of these previews so far, and so will certainly be very rich by the time Cheltenham arrives.
There was almost a flash of annoyance in Segal’s protestations, but aside from that there wasn’t too much in the way of clashes between the panellists; it was all very civilised, unlike in some previous years when strong opinions and slagging were slung about like so many losing betting slips.
This year the fun came from Luck’s compering and a few cameos by well-known faces in the crowd, mainly JP McManus in expansive mood and amateur rider Katie Walsh, sister of jockey Ruby, who managed to upstage the host with her own quick wit.
But first via phone to the one man in the UK or Ireland who, despite the snow storms of the last couple of weeks, commands more attention on weather-related matters even than Evelyn Cusack - Cheltenham clerk of the course Simon Claisse.
Claisse, responsible for the state of the ground at the track, is normally a reticent interviewee who speaks with all the care of a supreme court judge deliberating on a tricky matter of constitutional law, anxious not to commit to one position or another.
He speaks more freely than expected, however, and when invited by Luck to pick his best bets stuns the crowd by actually answering (Our Duke in the Gold Cup and Redicean in the Triumph if the ground is quick - which he ought to know). For the record, he is optimistic of good to soft conditions.
On to the racing and the opening Supreme Novice contains the standard Irish banker in Getabird, whom the Irish members of the panel think will win but is too short and the English ones want to oppose with Kalashnikov.
The Arkle Chase sees some spirited debate on the merits of favourite Footpad with plenty keen to oppose him on grounds of value.
JP McManus’ Buveur D’Air is the hot favourite for the Champion Hurdle and there is little appetite to oppose him, though Pauling believes Yorkhill has the raw ability to do so. Andy Mac, however, says that one is such a difficult ride that even with Ruby Walsh on board, it has little or no chance.
The mic was passed to JP with apologies by the MC “I know this is your least favourite time of the year”.
JP tells us he’s keeping his fingers crossed over Buveur D'Air in the Champion Hurdle, (translation: we’ll win if we don’t get injured). He has another runner in it of course, perennial bridesmaid My Tent Or Yours.
“Might he, could he, the old boy, My Tent...” Luck probes.
“ Well it’s a high class problem for me if he does,” says JP to howls of laughter.
“When there was three places in the without the favourite market, non-runner no bet at 6/1, it was manna from heaven - if you could get on!”
Moving on to Wednesday plenty are keen to field against hot favourite Samcro in the opener with Vision Des Flos, On The Blindside and Vinndication all put forward.
There was some interesting debate on Altior’s preparation for the Champion Chase but few were keen to go against him.
Presenting Percy and Black Corton were popular in the RSA.
Dunraven owners The Murphy brothers, who sold the RSA winner in 2003, One Knight, got a mention in the bumper, when another horse that passed through their hands, Acey Milan, got a strong mention from Pauling.
“I’m not saying anything against that horse,” quipped Segal, “I still need a lift to the airport.”
O’Connor who has a good steer on the form of these races was strong on Hollowgraphic.
On to Thursday and there was a wide range of opinions for the JLT Chase from Modus, to Finian’s Oscar, via Terrefort.
Andy Mac declared Un De Sceaux unbeatable in the Ryanair chase if it comes up soft, stating the slower pace helped curb his exuberence.
Segal admitted to having opposed UDS 24 times and gotten it wrong each time. Still he was hoping for 25th time lucky plumping for Balko Des Flos. The same panellinst was keen on Sam Spinner and Yanworth for the Stayers Hurdle (JP owns the latter and reading between the lines, seemed keen on his chance too). There was some love for The New One in this race also.
Moving on to Friday, and the Gold Cup - Might Bite, Native River and Our Duke are the most popular selections with the proviso for the former that they don’t blunt his effectiveness by riding him from off the pace to put a lid on his madness.
Apples Shakira was most popular in the Triumph and JP said of this one, that he owns, “We’ll be disappointed if she doesn't go well”, (translation: she’s a good thing).
The Albert Bartlett, meanwhile, is a bit of headscratcher, though Derek O’Connor gives a good mention to Chriss’ Dream.
And so we wound up in good time, and as alluded to earlier, this event, which, until last year, was a fixture on the calendar for 25 years, appears to be set to wind up too.
Louis Murphy told the Limerick Leader, “Well we’ve been doing it a long time now, raised a lot of money for charity and, of course, we gave it a rest last year.
“So this year, we decided we’d call it our grand finale and we were delighted with how it went, there was a slightly smaller crowd and a nice chance to focus on the special guests,” he added.
There has been a huge proliferation of these events, of course, and Louis is coy about definitively leaving the field to those others, but safe to say, while they’ve decided to bow out for the meantime, the stable door has not been bolted shut.