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brennan's brief Why the spectre of Cheltenham is already looming large over the jumps season

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Ruby Walsh has been keeping us up to date with the latest movers and shakers for Cheltenham 2021

Ruby Walsh has been keeping us up to date with the latest movers and shakers for Cheltenham 2021

Ruby Walsh has been keeping us up to date with the latest movers and shakers for Cheltenham 2021

Last night we saw the latest episode of the Racing TV programme Road To Cheltenham.

In just its second season on our screens, it has become required viewing for any jumps racing lover, as presenter Lydia Hislop and superb pundit Ruby Walsh guide you through the latest big races in the world of hurdling and steeplechasing.

Lydia repeatedly insists that the words ‘Road To’ in the title are just as important as ‘Cheltenham’ – that they will guide you to horses who might win races along the way. And they look at things beyond next year's festival too.

For instance, if Lydia and Ruby agree that a horse seems to prefer going right-handed to Cheltenham’s left-handed track, they will immediately pick a race more suitable at Fairyhouse or Punchestown in April.

And if they spot a horse that would like a flat track instead of Cheltenham’s undulations, then Aintree and the Grand National meeting is swiftly nominated.

But the very fact that a TV programme called ‘Road to Cheltenham’ exists, shows just how highly the four magic days in March loom over the jumps season in Ireland and Britain.

The issue reared its head again two weeks ago when Nicky Henderson withdrew Altior, his star two-miler, from the Tingle Creek chase at the last minute, citing worries about the softness of the ground for the horse at Sandown.

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Trainer Nicky Henderson with his star two-miler Altior

Trainer Nicky Henderson with his star two-miler Altior

Trainer Nicky Henderson with his star two-miler Altior

Now, there was a 102-day gap between the Tingle Creek and the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. And the Tingle Creek is regarded as the second-best two-mile race of the campaign in Britain.

But Henderson was having none of it. Anything that suggested that Altior would not be cherry-ripe for his Cheltenham date with destiny was off the schedule.

Henderson knows what he is doing at the Festival, he’s behind only Willie Mullins in training winners over the famed four days.

And he has a coterie of wealthy owners, including Ireland’s JP McManus and Joe and Marie Donnelly, whose only interest in having a winner on a wet Wednesday at Ludlow is if the race is viewed as essential on their horse’s, yes, road to Cheltenham.

Jump racing has only itself to blame for the focus on Cheltenham. The jumping season in Ireland and Britain runs from the end of October to the first few days of May the following year.

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In that time, three-quarters of all the prize money on offer is dished out in a seven-weeks period at the end – at Cheltenham, at the three Grand National meetings at Aintree, Fairyhouse and Ayr, at the British end-of-season jamboree at Sandown and at Ireland’s brilliant five-day festival in Punchestown.

Contrast that with the flat, where British and Irish owners and trainers have huge meetings, of great prestige and financial reward, each month from May right up until The Breeders Cup in America and at Australia’s famed Melbourne Cup meeting in November.

But in the world of jumps racing, the bird of having a balanced season has long since flown. And when a horse wins a decent race at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival in ten days’ time, the first question asked will be: ‘What race will it go for at Cheltenham’?

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