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Cheltenham Preview Night pulls in a bumper crowd

The Gold Cup prospects of Might Bite were high on the agenda for the panel the Sean Graham and The Irish News Cheltenham Preview Night at the Europa Hotel on Monday night
Michael McWilliams at the Europa Hotel

LIFE would be nothing without opinions, and when it comes to the Cheltenham Festival those opinions become even more forceful.

I have a friend who sat down a couple of weeks ago and picked out all 28 winners for next week and no matter how gently you suggest an alternative school of thought, he’s not having it.

To a large extent, Mark ‘The Couch’ Winstanley is cut from similar cloth.

Of all of the experts at the top table during Monday night’s Sean Graham and The Irish News Cheltenham Preview Night, the infamous racing journalist was the most convinced that everything he predicted would come true.

Ahead of the discussion about the Gold Cup, the Blue Riband event of the week, chairman Gary O’Brien suggested it might be a wide open renewal of the race.

“I don’t agree,” replied Winstanley, who then went on to dismiss the claims of nearly every runner.

“Some of them could start now and not win,” he said, to much amusement in the packed Grand Ballroom at the Europa Hotel.

“Road To Respect won’t stay, Our Duke won’t get round, Native River isn’t good enough.”

So what do you fancy, Couch?

“Might Bite takes all the beating.”

That opinion, to be fair, is one shared by many observers ahead of the four-day Festival at Prestbury Park, with the bookies installing Nicky Henderson’s star as the favourite when he won the King George on St Stephen’s Day.

Richard Hoiles, the respected ITV Racing commentator, was in agreement about Might Bite but that was where the support for the jolly ended, both on the stage and in the room.

Interestingly, however, the claims of reigning champion Sizing John were not talked up by anyone, with Gordon Elliott suggesting Killultagh Vic might be the strongest contender from this side of the Irish Sea.

With that in mind, O’Brien was keen to hear what David Casey had to say, given that he is assistant trainer to Willie Mullins and sees Killultagh Vic, who fell with the Irish Gold Cup at his mercy earlier this year, doing his work away from the spotlight.

“He’s actually a very good jumper at home,” said Casey, who has forged a reputation as a straight talker and a shrewd judge at previous Europa previews.

“He lacks experience but he could run a huge race.”

At that point, Ronan Graham of Sean Graham Bookmakers pointed out that if Ruby Walsh rides Killultagh Vic he could go off at 4/1 or thereabouts.

He’s currently generally available at 10s so if you like him, it would be prudent to get on now.

The discussion wasn’t limited to the Gold Cup, of course, with 10 further races, concerns over the ground, Chelsea’s chances of winning the FA Cup and Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle all touched on at one stage or another.

As ever, the massive crowd were enthralled, with even Elliott paying close attention when Casey discussed the Champion Chase, the feature race on Wednesday.

The Mullins yard are expected to run both Min and Douvan in opposition to the mighty Altior, another Henderson favourite.

Douvan has been off the track all season but at his best could give Altior his fill of it, yet Casey pointedly refused to talk him up, even though he has been going well at home.

“I was hoping David would be bullish about Douvan,” said Elliott, “because Min’s not good enough.”

It looks like that massive prize will be going the way of England but there should be plenty of Irish success stories over the course of the meeting.

Finding the right ones is the hardest part, and come teatime next Friday most strongly-held opinions will be in the gutter alongside the beaten dockets.

But this time next year hope will be restored and the Grand Ballroom will be packed again.

Nothing beats Cheltenham.

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