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Cheltenham Festival: Tony McCoy is all set for big take off

By Kevin Garside

A race in his honour is a nice touch, though were they to erect a statue at the gates of Cheltenham it would scarcely do justice to the contribution of AP McCoy to National Hunt racing.

His farewell to Cheltenham suffuses the Festival in valedictory splendour. What a way to say goodbye to a great champion. He is, in effect, starring in his own movie, an equine biopic rolled out over four daily episodes. He will ride on to Aintree, but never again in the lee of Cleeve Hill in this week of weeks.

According to some estimates there will be as much as £40m riding on McCoy, a detail that batters logic into the bleachers. He has 30 career winners here but he is not Ruby Walsh-prolific. We must reach back 17 years to the last and only second time he topped the jockeys' table in Festival week.

But what is Cheltenham about if not the suspension for four days of all reason?

McCoy takes his leave from a shifting landscape. The £45m grandstand development, due for completion early next year, is a bold statement intended to elevate the institution beyond the folky world of tweed and Barbour.

No longer dominated by racing devotees, Cheltenham appeals to a cross-section of partygoers, many of whom have nil connection to the horse, save for the conduit of a betting slip.

The emotional attachment to McCoy adds a layer of cream to a feature race on the opening day already loaded with flavour.

In the rush to embrace the next big thing, Faugheen, and his rivalry with veteran stablemate Hurricane Fly, the claims of the defending champion Jezki in the Champion Hurdle had been relegated somewhat, until McCoy declared for him.

The contest takes us to the heart of the matter, each of the components - jockey, horse, trainer, owner - steeped in racing lore. Jezki, ridden by an icon, owned by JP McManus and trained by Jessica Harrington.

The great Willie Mullins has already made plain his love for Hurricane Fly, but the big money is following the darling Faugheen, owned by the Ricci family and ridden by the talismanic Walsh.

And just to make things interesting, Mullins flags up the merits of the third wheel in his affections, Arctic Fire, a horse thought by him to be the best of the lot three years ago.

It could be that were Mullins and Walsh to go fishing for the rest of the Festival they would still wind up table toppers. With Walsh on the flanks of Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen and Annie Power on day one, all at short odds, Ruby Tuesday might just be the name we hang on him.

The return of Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase lights up day two. Experts would have him the best two-mile chaser in a generation. His victory in 2013 saw him clobber the erstwhile champion Sizing Europe by 19 lengths. Further victories followed that spring at Aintree and Punchestown.

However, the Sprinter was struck down with an irregular heartbeat at the end of 2013. In his comeback at Ascot two months ago, he was bettered by Dodging Bullets, acceptable given the uncertainty.

The man in the saddle that day, and tomorrow, Barry Geraghty, rates Sprinter Sacre alongside Moscow Flyer as the best he has ridden. He was last on his back a week ago and observed a different animal to the one that followed Dodging Bullets home.

"He didn't jump as well as he can do and that made it harder work for him (at Ascot). But he ran a good race and he looks and seems an awful lot better now," he said.

The final day belongs to the Gold Cup, though the showpiece may have to share top billing with the Festival's great goodbye, the AP McCoy Grand Annual Handicap Chase for the Johnny Henderson Challenge Cup. McCoy would trade any win for victory in the big one on Carlingford Lough, and were he to bring Ned Buntline home in the 5.15pm, the bookies will need counselling.

"However I do at the Festival this year, it will be better than I do at i­t next year," McCoy said. "I'm going to try to enjoy this one more than ever."

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