Cheltenham Festival fever is here again!
Not long now. Not long until you can banish your stresses and strains, park your family problems, put on hold your job worries and even forget about Brexit.
Not long until you can transport yourself out of the real world and treat yourself to the highlight of the horse-racing year.
Yes, the Cheltenham Festival is with us again next week. A sporting event par excellence that is not only an unmissable annual ritual or pilgrimage for racing fans but also one that grips the interest of the nation.
For four days from Tuesday to Friday, a quiet corner of the Cotswolds is transformed into a spectacular cauldron of sporting theatre, bolstered by almost £5 million in prize money. The best Jumps racing in the world. The best Jumps horses in the world. And all cloaked by an atmosphere of partying bonhomie and camaraderie that is hard to match.
If you can’t be there, ITV is showing the first five races of each day live, and whether you read your news online or in print, Festival Fever will be hard to escape from.
So, what are are we to expect this year? Even the most ardent of enthusiasts would admit that the Jumps season to far has been largely tame and insipid, plagued by small, uncompetitive fields and testing ground. But the arrival of the Beasts From The West, alias the battalions of top Irish stables such as those of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, is sure to ratchet up the quality.
Indeed many are predicting a repeat of the Irish dominance of last year’s Festival when they won no fewer than 19 of the week’s 28 races.
Last year was also marred by the absence of a host of big-name horses. But most are expected to be on parade next week, including the big guns from the Mullins yard, such as FAUGHEEN, DOUVAN and YORKHILL, all brilliant Festival winners in their pomp.
The halos of all three have slipped in recent months after setbacks, but Faugheen and Yorkhill are expected to throw down challenges in the Unibet Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, while Douvan is earmarked for an eagerly-anticipated duel with hot favourite ALTIOR in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday.
Mullins’s 8yo has not been sighted since bombing sensationally as a 2/9 favourite at the 2017 Festival. But like Altior, he was an eye-popping winner of both the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Arkle Chase in previous years.
Altior could well form the middle leg of an unprecedented big-race treble for the UK’s champion trainer Nicky Henderson. For the Lambourn maestro, in the form of his career at 67, also saddles the warm favourites for both the Champion Hurdle in BUVEUR D’AIR and Friday’s Timico Gold Cup in MIGHT BITE.
Buveur D’Air, classy winner of his last nine starts, is odds-on in his bid to become the first horse to land back-to-back Champions since Hardy Eustace in 2005. While Might Bite heads a richly competitive field for the Blue Riband event of the week after winning the 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Henderson’s majestic 9yo was also the winner of a race last year that has entered the annals of Festival folklore as he veeered violently right up the famous Cheltenham hill after the final fence and almost threw away an RSA Novices’ Chase that he had bossed with a magnificent display from the front.
Might Bite had displayed the same naughty quirks on a previous visit to Cheltenham too. Whether or not he will exasperate his followers by making it a hat-trick next week is just one of the many intriguing questions for the 2018 Festival to answer.
For example, is SAMCRO, the unbeaten monster of a novice, branded ‘the second coming’ in some quarters and trained by in Ireland by Elliott, as good as they say he is? We will find out in Wednesday’s opening race, the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
Can another Elliott inmate, APPLE’S JADE, land his second successive OLBG Mares’ Hurdle on the opening day? Can UN DE SCEAUX achieve a similar double in the Ryanair Chase on day two? Are the Mullins novices, FOOTPAD (Tuesday, Racing Post Arkle Trophy) and LAURINA (Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, Thursday), as exciting as they have looked so far over fences and hurdles respectively?
Samcro, Apple’s Jade, Footpad and Laurina are four of an unusually large bunch of horses who will be sent off as short-priced favourites during the course of the week. Punters are often warned not to be seduced by supposed ‘good things’, but Festival statistics suggest we should not be afraid of upsets. Of the last 15 odds-on favourites, 11 have won. Of the last 33, going back to 2000, 19 have won and 27 have made the frame.
While many punters and racegoers get stuck into the fancied favourites, others will marvel at favourites of a different kind, the evergreen veterans who return year after year.
The mighty CUE CARD, now 12, is back, eight years since he won the Champion Bumper. After crashing falls in each of the last two Gold Cups, he aims to repeat his 2013 victory in the Ryanair Chase.
Almost as popular as Cue Card is THE NEW ONE, heading next week for his seventh consecutive Festival. After four gallant but unsuccessful efforts in the Champion Hurdle, he steps up to 3m for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday.
And let’s not forget CAUSE OF CAUSES, who helped Elliott end Mullins’s dominance of the Festival’s top trainer championship last term. This will be the 10yo’s sixth appearance at the Festival, having won three different races. He is favourite for the week’s anomaly, the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase on day two.
In the search for winners, it is impossible to ignore the probability that the week will be dominated by the yards of Mullins, Elliott and Henderson. But one of the beauties of Jumps racing is that small-time trainers do get a look in. A point that could well be reinforced by the likes of Jedd O’Keeffe, on the comeback trail from cancer with Stayers’ Hurdle fancy SAM SPINNER, by Amy Murphy, who hopes to launch the meeting by firing KALASHNIKOV to victory in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and by Nick Gifford, son of the legendary Josh, who has genuine hopes of breaking his Festival duck with DIDTHEYLEAVEUOUTTOO in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.
By now, you must get the picture. There is fascination wherever you turn, potential storylines by every furlong pole of what is sure to be a rollercoaster of a ride, mixing drama with emotion. Imagine the scenes, for instance, if EDWULF wins the Gold Cup. This is a horse who collapsed in front of the stands due to lack of oxygen at the end of the 4m National Hunt Chase last year. All feared the worst, yet he has been nursed back to health by his trainer, Joseph O’Brien, and has made such a miraculous recovery that he won the Irish Gold Cup last month.
All this and we haven’t even mentioned the meeting’s cluster of high-class handicaps, puzzles that are always fiendishly difficult to solve.
Nor have we mentioned Ruby Walsh, winner of the Festival’s top jockey prize for nine of the last ten years but absent from the saddle with injury since a nasty fall in November.
Ruby has cut it fine with his comeback, but like the rest of us, there’s no way he will miss the Cheltenham Festival!
TO catch my exclusive race-by-race selections for next week’s Festival, please log on to this website from 7 pm on Sunday.