Spills and thrills as heroes etch names in racing folklore
AND THEY’RE off!
No, we’re not talking about the prawn sandwiches being nibbled on by some of the more hoightytoighty Man United fans as Liverpool well and truly soured their Marie Rose sauce on Sunday or the regular utterances from commentators during Celtic versus Rangers tussles this season.
When the starter gives his signal to let the finest novice hurdlers in Ireland and Britain charge towards the first obstacle in the opening race at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, excitement will reach fever pitch amongst battle-hardened punters and casual observers alike.
Fans of the sport of kings will be glued to their screens for the four-day feast of top-class racing that can set the pulses racing to the rate of a speeding juggernaut and make the hair rise up on the back of the neck like soldiers standing to attention.
The Cheltenham Festival is simply about quality National Hunt racing and pure unbridled enjoyment, no Royal Ascot style stuffiness here, here’s a festival that welcomes all in equal measures, from the working class to the upper echelons of society.
Admittedly the change from a three-day festival to a four-day marathon in 2005 and the addition of extra races has diluted the quality a touch, but one thing that hasn’t been watered down is the atmosphere and there’s nothing in racing to match the famous Cheltenham roar.
There is something truly magical about Prestbury Park in spring-time. The annual gathering of owners, trainers, jockeys and punters in the heart of the Cotswolds in the midst of March produces marvellous tales of characters, heroes, both equine and human, and the rags to riches stories of small fry owners who got lucky and hit the big time - sport and soap opera rolled into one wonderful tapestry.
The Festival throws up stories that are talked about for generations - ‘Arkle’ trouncing ‘Millhouse’, memorable Gold Cup wins from ‘Desert Orchard’ and ‘Dawn Run’, not to mention ‘Best Mate’ winning three-in-a-row.
In recent years we’ve had the classy hurdling hero ‘Istabraq’, the gallant ‘Brave Inca’, the stylish ‘Kauto Star’ and the gutsy ‘Denman’, just to scratch the surface of thousands of wonderful memories.
This year the action promises to be as enthralling as ever, with the Irish handlers hoping to land a sizeable haul and the British trainers determined to keep most of the big prizes on home turf, and it will be a thrill a minute watching the whole thing unravel.
We’ll have a look at the four feature races as yours truly has neither the space nor the inclination to delve into all 27 and the old pin jabbed into the newspaper method would have to be used for a number of contests, particularly before the final declarations are released.
The opening day feature, the Champion Hurdle, looks like it could be the race of the meeting - an extremely open looking event with no shortage of quality.
‘Inside Right’ has been a huge fan of Willie Mullins’ classy inmate ‘Hurricane Fly’ for quite some time and sees no reason to change tack at this late stage.
The seven-year-old is undoubtedly Ireland’s top hurdler and has convincingly accounted for ‘Solwhit’ in his last four starts.
There may be question marks over how that form compares to his rivals across the Irish Sea but to these eyes the way he quickens up on the run-in bodes well for the famous Cheltenham hill.
Obviously there are huge dangers, particularly in the shape of champion ‘Binocular’, last year’s Supreme Novices’ winner ‘Menorah’ and the unbeaten ‘Peddlers Cross’, but the Irish raider gets the nod from these quarters.
Wednesday’s showpiece is the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the winners of the past two years go head to head in this one.
The Paul Nicholls-trained ‘Master Minded’ has lost the air of invincibility he once had but looks like he’s somewhere near to being back to his best after winning his three starts this season.
His below-par display in the race last year would raise some doubts but he’s probably still the one to beat.
If he is vulnerable, the horse most likely to take advantage is the reigning champion, Colm Murphy’s ‘Big Zeb’, while ‘ Somersby’ is another live contender having narrowly gone down to ‘ Master Minded’ in the Victor Chandler Chase.
He’s not one to put your life savings on, but ‘’Master Minded is the pick in the hope that he’ll find the spark that saw him light up the track in 2008 and 2009.
Thursday is the weakest day of the festival but the course will be illuminated by ‘Big Bucks’ in his attempt to win a third World Hurdle in a row.
The Paul Nicholls-trained, Ruby Walsh-ridden star has dominated the stayers’ hurdling division over the past couple of years and is the most likely winner of the contest, but at prohibitive odds of around even money it might be worth looking elsewhere for a bit of each way value.
The bookies see it as a two-horse race, with ‘Grand Crus’, who couldn’t have been more impressive in two starts at three miles and has tremendous speed for a staying horse, rated as generally a 9/4 chance.
The plus side of this is that there’s plenty of meaty prices to be found outside of this pair and it just might be worth taking a chance with ‘Fiveforthree’ from the Willie Mullins yard.
He won the two-mile five-furlong Grade 1 novice hurdle at the 2008 Cheltenham Festival, but his career-best effort came on his sole start to date at three miles when he ran out an impressive winner of a Grade One event at Punchestown in 2009.
He won a two-mile hurdle in Punchestown on his return from a long absence recently and if he shows no ill effects from that run he’s worth a punt at 16/1.
Friday’s piece-de-resistance, the Gold Cup, pits old warriors ‘Kauto Star’, ‘Denman’ and ‘Imperial Commander’ against young pretenders to the throne like ‘Long Run’ and ‘Kempes’ and, although it doesn’t look like the best renewal with some of the leading lights starting to wane, it’s a fascinating contest nonetheless.
The brilliant ‘Kauto Star’ was well and truly left in ‘Long Run’s wake in the King George VI Chase at Kempton, but whether it’s just a hunch or being a sentimental old fool, yours truly is willing to give him one last chance.
Most pundits will say time has caught up with him and it would be impossible for him to recapture his form, but ‘Inside Right’ can’t resist a bet at odds of around 6/1, considering he was a short-priced favourite just 12 months ago, when he took a tumble in the race.
There will be plenty of young bucks snapping at his heels but maybe, just maybe, the grand old champ can put them in their place just one last time.
Whatever way it goes, there’s sure to be thrills and spills as new magical memories are etched in folklore. Good luck and happy punting.
Many will be hoping that ‘Kauto Star’ can recapture his old form in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
‘Hurricane Fly’ is going for Champion Hurdle glory.