Cheltenham: Dunguib can rise to Supreme test
Seldom can an animal as capricious as the thoroughbred seemed so obedient to our own choreography.
Once the curtain goes up today, admittedly, you can guarantee the sort of unaccountable twists — either of pleasure or pain — that make four mad March days in the Cotswolds so tense an addiction, for so many.
As things stand, however, this has all the makings of a vintage Cheltenham Festival.
Sport's great rite of spring opens today with the full kettle-drum treatment as Dunguib — perhaps the most exciting young hurdler since the tragic Golden Cygnet, 32 years ago — offers bookmakers and punters alike a critical test of nerve in the very first race of the meeting.
After that pulsating overture, the week's themes will be elaborated at a varying tempo until finally drawn together for a momentous crescendo on Friday, when Kauto Star and Denman square up for their decisive showdown in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.
For some of the great virtuosi of their sport, the carnival may just as easily lead to a career-defining moment, or a stretcher and oxygen mask. If Dunguib gets turned over, there will be Irishmen who have to swim home. If he wins, equally, they may end up just as wet on the inside. At the very short odds, admittedly, only the most recklessly patriotic punters will sense any kind of imperative to
back him. As a potential superstar, however, he can certainly set the tone for the week. After all, however intriguing the cast of characters in the Gold Cup, they have become pretty familiar by now.
Dunguib, in contrast, emerges in classic Cheltenham style from a small yard in Co Tipperary. His owners turned down fortunes for the horse after his runaway success in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at last year's Festival, and are showing touching fidelity to a greenhorn rider with a career aggregate (under Rules) of just 16 wins over jumps.
Whatever happens, it will not be long before the usual suspects retrieve centre stage.
Ruby Walsh, the big-race master of his generation, last year mustered an unprecedented tally of seven winners during the meeting, three of them in championship races for Paul Nicholls. Those three all return this week as odds-on favourites to retain their prizes: Master Minded tomorrow, Big Buck's on Thursday, and finally Kauto Star.
The credentials of the Gold Cup as an opportunity for the sport to reach a new audience have become somewhat strained since November, when Denman looked back to his very best in the Hennessy and Kauto Star had potentially approached a plateau in scrambling home on his own reappearance, at Haydock.
At that stage, it looked as though the horses famously stabled in adjacent stalls might finally settle their differences in their third Cheltenham stand-off, each having been considered below par when previously finishing second to the other. In the meantime, however, Kauto Star has produced the most awe-inspiring exhibition of his career at Kempton on Boxing Day, whereas Denman had a disastrous first date with his new partner, Tony McCoy, at Newbury.
The real craziness, of course, would be to set your ambitions too high. As Walsh has repeatedly insisted, he would readily settle for a winner on the first afternoon — just to ease the pressure — and then to walk away in one piece on Friday.
Whether dealing with a barman or a bookmaker, the rest of us would doubtless profit from an equally conservative approach to the week. At Cheltenham, however, only the horses are unpredictable.