During the coming week you’ll hear much talk of the Old Course and the New Course at Cheltenham. In October and November the Old Course is used, in December and January, the New Course. That’s the regular schedule. Only the spur was not used in January due to waterlogging.
Frost covers are already down. There’s been enough rain for the course to be declared officially soft everywhere and overnight temperatures in the coming 48 hours are set to plunge well below freezing, The upside of frost covers is that we almost always get to race. The downside is that they can trap moisture in ground that’s already very wet; this can leave sticky, cloying going for horses, although Andy Clifton, Cheltenham’s PR boss tells me the covers are breathable so let’s hope they breathe enough to prevent pudding-type ground but not enough to let frost through.
Sandown on Saturday looked sploshy and very wet, but horses and riders invariably prefer this as horses run through it, finding it easier to splash through than sticky ‘waterless’ mud. They’ll still be tired but not Tough Mudder tired.
Cheltenham’s a stamina-sapper as it is, and while it’s almost always better to race than not to, we could see some very tired animals slogging up that hill. Let’s hope for minimal use of the stick: the public will not be aware how well-padded whips are, and hitting exhausted horses climbing a muddy hill could bring us the kind of publicity we’d don’t need with the Grand National looming (April 6th).
Anyway, I am blethering away here, let me get to the point. The Racing Post carries just one course graphic for Cheltenham – that of the Old Course. The blessed Timeform display two. I’ve used them below. You can get them, along with course maps for every other track as a free download.
Although it’s a taxing track, whichever course you’re on, I’m never afraid to back front-runners at Cheltenham; I have no stats but from my many years watching racing here, I’ve formed the impression front-runners can do better than they would on tracks which appear to be easier.
Something you’ll hear at least once before the Champion Hurdle is that Zarkandar won his Triumph Hurdle in 2011 on the New Course whereas the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday will be on the Old Course, considered by many less of a stamina test because it is a slightly shorter run-in (In Tuesday’s field, Zarkandar should be much better suited than most of his rivals to a stamina test).
A peculiarity of the New Course is that only 2 hurdles are jumped in the last seven furlongs – 42% of the race gets just 25% of the jumps.
The only other course at Cheltenham is the cross-country, a race you love or hate. I love it. I enjoy the spectacle of watching the jocks figuring out the twists and turns (many don’t manage it!). I like to see the horses scale the banks and face all different sorts of obstacles. Racing should have more of them – I’d be amazed if newcomers to the sport, especially youngsters, don’t enjoy them.
You’ll see by the map why the jocks need a GPS (some senior jockeys refuse to ride in these races for fear of ‘taking the wrong course’ bans).
The map and the fence illustration are courtesy of the talented folk at Chestnut Creative
Let’s hope the Cheltenham exec has updated the signage for jockeys on this maze of a course. We don’t want to see something like this happening this week . . .
Finally, an aerial pic of the track to give you a truer perspective on how the courses wind through those famous undulations in our modern-day Colosseum, where you can gaze in horror while live humans are devoured by bookmakers.
If your brain needs a break from form study, try the Kindle version of Warned Off, a snip at £2.50. It’s a Dick Francis-type mystery which has garnered 95 reviews on Amazon (UK &.com), most 4 & 5 star.
Good Luck for Cheltenham