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Preview volley gets all in right frame of mind for Cheltenham Festival
IT’S blink and you’ll miss it stuff. Amid the clinking of forks on plates and the supping of pints, Niall Hannity is running through form parrot-fashion.
Tips are hurtling out like bullets from a gun. Speed, speed, speed.
A woman peering over her glasses into a notebook snaps a pencil in the frenzy to get it down, while all around the room a crowd of nearly 200 are rapt in their attention.
Because this isn’t idle advice, these morsels are potential money earners. Such is the curious case of the Cheltenham Festival preview evening.
It’s a ritual peculiarly unique to National Hunt racing.
Imagine paying £15 to hear York City manager Nigel Worthington running through Saturday’s football fixtures while working your way through a pie and mash supper.
Well, you wouldn’t. Would you?
But they are packed into the Bramham Hall at Wetherby Racecourse, who have dipped their toe into the ‘preview scene’ for the first time.
Hannity is the man in the know. The Racing UK pundit and Northern Echo columnist is an encyclopaedia of Cheltenham knowledge.
With just a list of runners and their odds to go on, he is a wonder to watch at work – smoothly blending facts and opinion while scattering the room with the names of horses.
Those that should win, might win and – won’t.
He’s the one doing all the work but he’s not the main draw. In the clapometer of applause that marked the introduction of each of the panel of four, there’s one that stands out above all the others.
The love in the room is for the mild-mannered Malcolm Jefferson. The trainer from Norton who might just saddle the Gold Cup winner next week.
When he speaks, a deathly calm descends on the watching masses.
That’s a good thing too because, despite being hooked up to a microphone that’s prone to reverbing like a drill when it gets too close to the mouth, it’s hard to hear Jefferson even in full flow.
The man isn’t there for idle chit-chat either.
Do you have any view on the handicaps, he is asked? ‘I’m not a betting man’ is the straight-talking reply.
Any ideas on the Triumph Hurdle Malcolm? “I’ve not got any four-year-olds,” is the response that leaves the Wetherby hall in fits of laughter.
On Cape Tribulation, however, the horse that ended his 17-year Festival hoodoo last year when winning the Pertemps Final over hurdles, he is forthright and open about his chances.
“I am very happy with him,” he says.
“There’s a lot of young horses in this year’s Gold Cup. Even with Bobs Worth, there aren’t many horses that have won a Gold Cup and just had one run.
“The thing about Cape is that if it was run like last year’s race he will be staying on past other horses – a bit like Synchronised. He is more of a stayer and the three-and-a-quarter miles will suit him.
“He likes Cheltenham, is in great form, the ground doesn’t really bother him. He’s a tough horse and, if he is there or thereabouts, he will tough it out up the hill.
“If he’s good enough, I’m not quite sure but if you are going to have a go at a Gold Cup it might as well be this year because there are a lot of novice horses.
“He won’t stop. Last year, they were racing in the Gold Cup a mile out.
“If you had asked for a price on Synchronised at the top of the hill they would have given you 50-1 because Tony (McCoy) had been pushing for nearly a mile before that.
“When they jumped the last, you would have thought Tony was flying. It wasn’t that he was flying, it was that horses just stopped dead in front of him and that’s what won the Gold Cup. It has happened before.
“He could run nicely, I’m not saying he can win the Gold Cup but if you are not in it you can’t win it.”
Cape Tribulation’s victory last year almost brought Jefferson to tears, but he is not the trainer’s nap of the meeting.
That honour falls to his other Festival hero of 2012 – Attaglance.
The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle was his stage then. This time, if he gets in, it’s the attractively titled Rewards4Racing Novices’ Chase.
But Jefferson will be watching the weather forecasts closely.
“He’s in great order but the ground wants to keep drying out,” is his view. “He’s a much better horse on better ground. If it comes good then he will have a great chance.
“They say he will get in. He ran a great race at Musselburgh and that’s the first time he had decent ground this year.
“He jumped well and he made the running which doesn’t suit him. He likes a big field. He likes to be handy, likes Cheltenham, he doesn’t like to be in the bunch.
“He likes to be on the outer, on his own, which he was last year in the hurdle. He’s joint second or third favourite and he deserves to be there.
“If everything is right on the day, he will run a big race. But every race takes winning at Cheltenham and I am very happy with him.”
So the evening is a success, and the punters disperse with a pocketful of tips and the sounds of the panel’s naps ringing in their ears.
Want to know what they were? Jefferson unsurprisingly plumped for Attaglance. Jockey Graham Lee was sweet on Overturn in the Arkle. Hannity wants Cloudy Copper in an each-way bet in the Albert Bartlett.
And me? I’m sitting on Long Run, each-way, in the Gold Cup. At 10-1, I think he’s a steal. Good luck at Cheltenham.