Jumps racing in the UK is infested with minor nagging problems. Such as its stubborn refusal to embrace 48-hour declarations, its obsession with omitting fences and flights because of low sun and its unedifying spectacle of long-distance slogs in midwinter mud.
But if it were given a thorough MOT tomorrow morning, it would pass with flying colours. Its popularity with the punting public remains undimmed. And there’s no doubt that, at this time of year, its capacity for sending tingles of excitement down the spine is undiminished.
It’s the week of Cheltenham’s three-day Open Meeting, which heralds the start proper of a new Jumps season.
It also heralds the deadline for entries in the annual Ten To Follow competition, so anticipation is running high as all the established stars, the old favourites and the young, new pretenders make their seasonal bows.
The Open weekend is an occasion all Jumps enthusiasts must sample. Each of the three days possesses its own intoxicating identity.
Countryside Day on the Friday appeals to the traditionalists, those with racing-green National Hunt blood running through their veins.
Paddy Power Gold Cup Day is the first big Saturday of the season, highlighted by the first big betting handicap. A rumbustious day, bristling with drama and atmosphere.
And then, if you’ve made it through to the Sunday (no problem if you’re teetotal), relax in the comfort of a more laid-back day, one for purists and families alike.
With quality racing guaranteed, no other event could possibly do a better job of setting up the winter ahead.
Within a week, it’s Betfair Chase Weekend at Haydock Park. Within two weeks, it’s on to more three-day fare, courtesy of Newbury’s wildly under-rated Hennessy meeting.
Then the bandwagon moves into Sandown Park for its ever-improving two-day Tingle Creek meeting, followed by two more days to drool over at Cheltenham.
Before you know it, but also after top-class offerings at Ascot and Haydock too, Christmas is upon us. And from Kempton’s King George package, it’s downhill all the way to the incomparable Cheltenham Festival next March and Aintree’s magnficent Grand National meeting next April.
Cheltenham racecourse has entered a transitional phase, with work beginning on a new £45 million Arkle Stand that will be completed by the Festival of 2016.
And racegoers will notice one or two other changes this weekend after a re-jig of the running order for the three days. An extra race, a Bumper for mares, has even been added to the Saturday card.
As ever, the centrepiece is the Paddy Power Gold Cup, however, and punters are faced with a renewal that looks as tricky as ever to solve.
The cream has risen to the top of the handicap, where ex-champion chaser FINIAN’S RAINBOW and one of last season’s brilliant novices, DYNASTE, jostle for prominence with rising stars such as KATENKO and RAJDHANI EXPRESS and Irish challengers TEXAS JACK and HIDDEN CYCLONE.
But all carry marks of 152 or higher -- and the statistics tell you that the 2012 winner, AL FEROF, is the only horse in the last ten years to have carried more than 150 to victory.
So should we be looking nearer the foot of the weights and the likes of JOHN’S SPIRIT, easy winner here a month ago, or the JP McManus-owned trio, NADIYA DE LA VEGA, COLOUR SQUADRON and TAP NIGHT?
It’s such a tough nut to crack that my financial fingers have already been burned, thanks to three speculative ante-post wagers that are now in the non-runners bin.
And it’s such a wickedly competitive race that jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, who partners Rajdhani Express, memorably described it this week as “the nearest thing in racing to a knife fight”.
Whether you be a jockey, a punter or a ten-fo-follow tipster, win the Paddy Power and the path through the Jumps season is yours!
BY RICHARD ‘SCOOP’ SILVERWOOD (@ScoopSilverwood)