Rising like a cliff in the midst of the floods, Cleeve Hill and the mite of the Cheltenham Festival is once again upon us.
The recent months may have been damper than a Majorcan wet t-shirt competition, with the National Hunt season doing its utmost to avoid the puddles, fords and minor tsunami’s that would have struck terror into Noah’s heart. Now the sight of a few snowdrops amongst the trees and four days of absolutely unrivalled competition at the sacred home of jump racing have arrived in a very timely manner.
Every year the quality seems to be higher, the competition tougher, the riddles harder to solve; this year is no different, only exacerbated by the wettest of winters, yearning for the reflection of a ray of light from the gleaming armour of equine champions.
A party without the belle of the ball starts slowly, but soon those present forget those absent and move onto the real feast in store.
Regrettably the highest rated chaser in our world is injured, and the masses visiting and tuning into the Festival will have to do without the site of the wonderful Sprinter Sacre. A magnificent beast of giant proportions, he needs to be made up of every hand and inch just to carry the lofty reputation that he has deservedly established. A beautiful, natural creature, he crafts his art in arguably the most impressive of equine fields, the 2 mile chase. Over the minimum trip and attacking fences at top speed, athleticism, precision and nerve are the order of the day. Attributes he holds in spades.
No one who loves the sport has ever wanted to see Sprinter Sacre do anything but spread his wings and win, emphatically, and as such the Festival will be lacking without him. Nonetheless, it is better that a horse who is not showing the master that is the ruddy-cheeked Nicky Henderson his true self stays out of the limelight until he is back to full song. And the supporting cast for the Queen Mother Champion Chase (Wednesday), as well as all of the other Championship races, certainly serve up more courses of Michelin-starred cuisine than even the most pie-eyed of scoffers could demand at his table.
Day One, Tuesday 11th March, centres around the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Arguably the most competitive race of the whole week, the quality is astounding, with all the best 2 mile hurdlers from Britain and Ireland fit, on form and in line to start.
Joint-favouritism is shared between two-time Champion Hurdle victor Hurricane Fly, who will be attempting to maintain his crown, and the comparatively sprightly The New One, who weighs in at four years the junior. Both recorded victories at the Cheltenham Festival in 2013, boast 5 wins from 6 starts between them this season and deserve to be Champion.
However this is by no means a two horse race; My Tent or Yours, owned by the enigmatic JP McManus, has speed to burn and has winning form against The New One, taking his scalp by half a length at Kempton on Boxing Day; Our Conor looked a Champion Hurdle winner all over when romping home in the 2013 Triumph Hurdle by a colossal 15 lengths, a rare distance when the competition is so intense; as well as the ‘no-hopers’, including the unbeaten Un De Sceaux for Willie Mullins, McManus’ second hope Jezki that the Champ AP McCoy regrettably had to discard in favour of My Tent or Yours, and Melodic Rendezvous, who has time and again shown his quality against the top opposition.
It seems the most hardy sports fan, looking for a proper riddle to solve, has already bitten of more than they can chew. And that’s before we get onto the other 6 races on Day One, including a sensational Supreme Novices Hurdle, an astounding Arkle Chase and a potential history maker in Quevega, bidding to be the first horse to win six times at the Cheltenham Festival.
The rest of the week continues in similar fashion. A Sprinter Sacre-less Wednesday is only slightly poorer than the most optimistic of fan could have hoped for. Sire de Grugy has stood in as an able deputy all season for SS, and he will go eye to eye with some fierce opponents.
Thursday centres around the World Hurdle, the Championship race for staying hurdlers over 3 miles. While one hero may be absent, another household name has dragged himself away from the physio and masseuse to take his chance: Big Bucks racked up 18 victories on the bounce before returning from almost 14 months off with a brave three-quarters of a length defeat at HQ in January. The roar he will receive from the crowd will be from the bottom of everyone’s heart, he is loved so much, but he will have more on his plate and more to prove than ever before. He is the wizened pro who has been around the block, the Tom Jones of the field, and he squares up against a sassy little blonde-bombshell Kylie Minogue-esque number… Annie Power, the star mare, is a mouth-watering proposition who has been victorious in all ten of her starts. She has already won in the knee-deep mud around Cheltenham on New Years Day, albeit over half a mile shorter, and if seeing out the trip, which one must expect with the drier ground, she could throw down the gauntlet and demand every ounce of fierce ferocity that Big Bucks can muster. The drama, oh, the drama!
The week will culminate in the minor spectacle of the Gold Cup, the dream of every owner, breeder, jockey, fan, pundit, gambler, bookie, and anyone else who may exist in this humble world. Quality is very much to the fore, and Bobs Worth, victorious twelve months ago, appears to have an excellent chance to retain his crown. In recent years we have been spoilt with the multiple Gold Cup winning feats of Best Mate, the epic duels between Kauto Star and Denman, and the lowering of both their flags by the immense Long Run.
It would be greedy to expect anything similar to this class once again, but forgive me for licking my lips at the juicy proposition. Bobs Worth is a real Champion and a true ‘Gold Cup horse’, running and jumping like the purest, classiest of thoroughbred that an equine artist could ever dream to draw. Silviniaco Conti, a faller when the screw began to turn last year, now has a King George VI win under his belt, and must be taken more seriously than ever. The rest of the field are also no slugs, and whoever turns up on the day will ensure that we have a wonderful treat ahead of us.
The 2014 Festival also marks the beginning of the Prestbury Cup. As if the natural rivalry between the British and Irish is not enough, a Ryder Cup-styled trophy will be presented to the most successful ‘team’, whichever side can show more victories. With only an Irish Sea in between the rivalry has never been anything but friendly, and fierce, and will have an added degree of spice this year. Even with the mighty stable that Willie Mullins will undoubtedly present, the Brits are offered at 1/5 versus the Irish at 7/2 – surely a little value in the Paddies and a chance to get the week off to a flyer?
The sport will be wonderful and the admiration these horses command should have our attention alone. However, the races also offer differences of opinion, the breeding place for a good wager. As such, we will take out the tarot cards, tea leaves and astronomy guide everyday next week in the aim of plotting a path through the marvelous, sumptuous, twisting turns of four days of regal feasts. And once our bet has been placed, we can sit back and enjoy the race, because as Bill Barich points out in his excellent run up to the 2004 Cheltenham Festival, “there’s always relief in placing a bet. Like boarding an airplane or going broke, you’re delivered into the hands of fate”.
by Daniel Polak
Keep an eye out next week as we analyse patterns, mysteries, gossip and gut feelings, one more layer of subterfuge surrounding this magic of the Cheltenham Festival.
For more race details, please refer to the Cheltenham 2014 website: