Racing fans fearing Cheltenham cancellation due to coronavirus

Racing fans fearing Cheltenham cancellation due to coronavirus
Runners in The Paddy Power Road To Cheltenham Novice Handicap Chase race. Picture: Healy Racing.

WE'RE less than two weeks out from the Cheltenham Festival. We should be focused on 'bankers' and 'morals' — but instead of concentrating on the runners and riders, all anyone can seem to discuss is the coronavirus.

Only a few weeks ago, we were worried about Brexit impeding Ireland’s challenge at the meeting, but now the world faces a much more serious crisis.

Similar to Australia’s wildfires, the Chinese-born virus continues to spread across mainland Europe this week, and now the virus has cast a shadow over any multinational gathering that could potentially risk further infection.

Between them, the Irish Government and the IRFU postponed the Ireland versus Italy Six Nations clash, and now our own sport needs to pause and assess the situation ahead of Ireland’s mass pilgrimage to Prestbury Park.

The British Horseracing Authority’s chief executive Nick Rust has confirmed an industry steering group is in place to consider the implications of the virus.

In a statement earlier this week, Rust stated: “In terms of potential ramifications for the festival, any decision that impacts on it taking place will not be a decision that racing makes, but rather the Government. In the event that the Cheltenham Festival was postponed, either in its entirety or in part for any reason, there are contingencies already in place to re-stage it later in the season.”

Well Mr Rust, let’s not mislead the public. One cannot simply 'postpone' the Cheltenham Festival in cases like this — the virus won’t be cured in a matter of weeks. No, this is a case of black or white. On or off.

Not since the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth in Britain has the Cheltenham Festival been forced to cancel. Of course, that was absolutely the correct call to contain that deadly animal disease.

However, this is a human virus we’re dealing with, 19 years later. All we can do it hope the virus doesn’t continue to spread at its current rate or else the Cheltenham Festival will be the least of our worries.

Now back with an eye on the festival itself, is there any value bets worth considering away from the obvious names?

Last year’s festival leading rider Nico De Boinville must be considered value at 8/1 to retain that crown. Nicky Henderson’s number one rider will have a quality book heading into the meeting with the likes of Shishkin (Supreme), Pentland Hills (Champion Hurdle), Altior (Champion Chase), Mister Fisher (Marsh), Floressa (Mares Novices’ Hurdle), and Santini (Gold Cup) amongst others to have on side.

With no Ruby Walsh to contend with this year, that looks like a generous price from Skybet!

Not to be outdone, Paddy Power Betfair have some juicy specials themselves, with one particular accumulator catching my eye. Envoi Allen (Ballymore), Paisley Park (Stayer’s), and Benie Des Dieux (Mares) are all considered bankers for the week — thus 13/2 about the treble looks a nice opportunity. This trio are versatile regarding ground, so punters can rest assured in that regard.

Some punters study trends ahead of the Cheltenham Festival, which isn’t something I investigate deeply myself. However, some are interesting and worth knowing when having a flutter.

For instance, nine of the past 11 Ballymore Novice Hurdle winners were the highest or second-highest-rated horse in the race. Clearly not a race for dark horses. Envoi Allen it is then!

I’m a huge fan of Defi Du Seuil, and he is my tip for the Champion Chase, but the fact that Altior has never been beaten over two miles in a hurdle or chase is a statistic difficult to ignore.

Altior was messed around in the autumn, but his recent reappearance was quality. Nobody would begrudge Altior becoming the first horse since Badsworth Boy to win three Champion Chases — he truly is a special horse.

The weights for the handicaps were released on Wednesday, and while I haven’t had much of an opportunity to study them yet, I will be attending a few preview nights over the coming days so I’ll try and report on a few dark horses next week.

That said, I do have a tendency to side with class horses in those tricky handicaps.

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