The human dimension of the Cheltenham Festival that begins today is so rich that you can sometimes forget it is all supposed to be about the horse.
This time round, however, the tapestry woven by horsemen – with their different biographical strands of flair, cunning or sheer, bloody-minded perseverance –is unmistakably stitched around a central motif of equine champions.
On each of the next four afternoons the feature race will be defended, at very short odds, by last year's winner. In so precarious a calling, for Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe, Big Buck's and Long Run simply to return in one piece is itself quite remarkable. For them to do so with their reputations so undiminished is perhaps unprecedented.
True, Long Run has in the meantime been beaten twice by a rejuvenated Kauto Star. As a result, the ageless veteran himself bestrides all four reigning champions as the week's towering presence – win, lose or draw. It turns out that his shocking fall in a recent schooling session was just another melodramatic flourish in his captivating career. Yesterday he thrilled Paul Nicholls in an equivalent school and, barring some fresh crisis, the 2007 and 2009 winner will definitely line up against Long Run in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday. "Kauto was awesome," Nicholls said in his Betfair blog. "He jumped six fences – the plain fence and the open ditch three times each – and was foot-perfect. He looked magnificent."
The news doubtless contributed to David Pipe's confirmation that Grands Crus will instead keep to novice company in the RSA Chase tomorrow. That looks a wise call, as he will only be eligible for the race this once, and an "easier" option at the Festival often proves plenty hard enough. Nonetheless, as yet another hot favourite, the grey will now extend an unusually long list of death-or-glory bets at the meeting this year.
For while the purists have much to anticipate, many who renew this rural rite of spring will as usual be confining themselves to those twin dens of dissipation: the betting ring by day, the tavern by night. And it will be these Festival-goers who will decide the tenor of the first day. In Hurricane Fly, Sprinter Sacre and Quevega, they have three opening salvoes that threaten to hole the bookmakers below the waterline even in the preliminary bombardment.
Over the past couple of years, the punters have been reminded how perilous it can be to discover a "banker" in the opener. Twelve months ago, Cue Card was fourth at 7-4; a year before, Dunguib only third at 4-5. The William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle is once again contested by a big field of improvers, and it is hard to put a ceiling on any individual's progress. But the very next race, this time round, will be contested by a small field and dominated by an outstanding talent. And, in the ring at any rate, it may well prove that the Racing Post Arkle Chase sets the tone for the whole week.
That is a rare state of affairs, novice chasers being typically viewed as the most hazardous of all betting conveyances. But the fact is that no novice in recent memory has taken to fences with greater exuberance than Sprinter Sacre. Barry Geraghty, once the rider of Moscow Flyer, is saying quite freely that he may never have ridden a better chaser. There seems to be something contagious about Sprinter Sacre's own, palpable excitement in his new vocation, and the punters are certainly not proving immune. Electrified by his freewheeling humiliation of all comers this season, they have made him hot favourite. To many, in fact, there is no more exciting horse running all week.
As a trainer on the brink of Festival history – with 39 winners to date, he remains just one short of Fulke Walwyn's all-time record – Nicky Henderson has seen it all before. But even he seems astounded by Sprinter Sacre. "He scares the daylights out of us," Henderson admits. "He's the most gorgeous horse, and he knows it. He's a bit of a film star. That's not to say he's a poseur, because he's a serious talent. But he is a show-off, and doesn't do things by halves. That makes him great to watch, albeit pretty frightening. We just have to keep his eye on the ball, keep him as accurate as he is spectacular. Certainly, there'll be no complacency."
Sprinter Sacre was beaten by one of his rivals today, Al Ferof, in the Supreme last year. Some have perceived an Achilles' heel in the way he flattened out on the climb to the line that day, but Henderson does not buy that. For one thing, Sprinter Sacre's physique always guaranteed that he would be better over fences. Henderson says the horse has strengthened with maturity. Moreover, Sprinter Sacre had a wind operation after his jockey reported him "a bit noisy" on the hill.
Henderson accepts that today will provide a much stiffer test of stamina, jumping and opposition than Sprinter Sacre has encountered since switching to fences. "But the times he has been setting are absurd," he said. "Every single one of them has been quite staggering – and he has been setting them more or less on his own, on the bridle. At Newbury last time I actually went to ask if anything had been changed about the course. I didn't see how he could possibly have beaten a 30-year-old track record when Barry was easing down for the last two fences." But Henderson does have one caveat. "His jumping is so exuberant," he said. "If he's going to make three lengths at every fence, he's got to bank it. There's no point doing it, if you have to give it all back."
With Hurricane Fly and Quevega also in their first-day arsenal, punters might be well advised to take that counsel to heart. However these opening skirmishes go, plenty of attrition remains guaranteed over the days still to come.