Henderson and Mullins set to rule Cheltenham
And so the rite of spring is renewed, even as winter makes a spiteful last stand. In most years, after toiling through heavy ground for months, horses are typically rewarded at Cheltenham in early spring with a more fitting platform for the measurement of excellence. This time, however, they must gallop through a bitter wind – the wind chill at the track yesterday registered minus 10 – over a track likely to have congealed malignly beneath its frost blankets.
But then when has this ever been a place for faint hearts? Professionals and punters alike convene knowing that Cheltenham will dispense its benedictions and curses no more equitably than in years past. And that is precisely the terrible enchantment of the Festival. Deep down, every optimist knows to fear the worst. But those tutored by experience into bleak expectations, equally, will nourish a secret conviction that this could finally be their time.
As ever, however, the luck of some has been so cruelly rationed that it did not extend even as far as the starting tapes. Two of the smallest stables in legitimate contention for glory have had their hopes extinguished even before leaving home. In a sport increasingly dominated by wealthy patrons of the very biggest yards, Peter Casey and Jeremy Scott had promised a rearguard action on behalf of romantics. Casey, a throwback to the days when smallholders and horse dealers emerged from nowhere to win the very biggest races, had to abandon plans to bring Flemenstar over from his tiny yard near Dublin after the horse contracted a lung infection. Scott had, meanwhile, produced two of the most exciting young prospects in Britain on his former dairy farm, high on Exmoor. Empiracle suffered an injury over the weekend, however, and yesterday Melodic Rendezvous also had to be scratched after a medical test.
So the odds seem loaded ever more heavily in favour of the Goliaths. Having saddled a record seven winners last year, Nicky Henderson appears to have assembled an even stronger team this time round. In Ireland, Willie Mullins has lent fresh distinction to one of the sport's most celebrated surnames. Even Paul Nicholls, champion trainer in Britain for the past seven seasons, finds himself obliged to rebuild urgently and expensively to remain competitive, having lost the bedrock of his stable to injury or retirement. Kauto Star, who ran at seven consecutive Festivals, is now experimenting with a new career in dressage; the record-breaking hurdler Big Buck's will remain sidelined for the next 12 months.
On Friday, that sense of regrouping will extend to the whole sport for the climax of the week. The three horses at the top of the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup market were all novices last season. Perhaps one will make a breakthrough, stamping his authority on the field. But the race could just as soon prove a slugfest, over three and quarter miles in tiring conditions, and the Festival for now vests its marquee status in another rising star.
Sprinter Sacre, who instead operates in the freewheeling two-mile division, was also a novice last year. But he proved as exuberant a jumper as has animated the Cheltenham crowd in recent years, simply pulverising his rivals for the novice championship. He has reduced each of his three races since to little more than laps of honour, and is duly at microscopic odds for formal coronation tomorrow in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Sprinter Sacre bears the standard not just for Henderson's formidable team, but arguably for a sport seeking to repeat the inroads made by Frankel, on the Flat, into a broader public awareness. He has that Hollywood touch, in his physique and his approach to racing. "He's the most dreadful show-off," Henderson says affectionately. "A phenomenal athlete, and as gorgeous a horse as you'll ever see. It's all just terribly easy for him. But we won't be complacent – and he has to learn not to be, either."
The bigger Sprinter Sacre's reputation becomes, the more his trainer watches with heart in mouth. "With him, anything but flawless and people won't be satisfied," Henderson says. Though he faces his toughest rival yet in Sizing Europe, Sprinter Sacre is as short as 1-4 favourite. "He will start the hottest favourite at this meeting since the days of Arkle," said David Stevens, spokesman for Coral bookmakers. "It would have to be counted the biggest Festival shock of modern times if he does not win."
In the Gold Cup, Henderson will not only saddle the likely favourite in Bobs Worth, but also an estimable past winner, Long Run. Moreover, he has the red-hot favourite for each of the first two races today, My Tent Or Yours in the opener and then Simonsig. With two equivalent "bankers" in their slipstream for followers of Mullins – Hurricane Fly is favourite for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, while Quevega seeks a fifth consecutive Festival success in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle – the opening skirmishes have the potential to determine the course of their entire meeting.
"This is always the biggest week of our year," Stevens said. "Lots of people will be linking those hotpots tomorrow in combination bets, and if all four were to go in it would have to qualify as the worst day we have ever had at Cheltenham."
On the track or off it, it seems that few prisoners will be taken.
The £100 challenge
Merry King (2.40) £40 win
Arabella Boy (4.0) £40 win
Shangani (5.15) £20 win
My Tent or Yours (1.30) £40 win
Zarkandar (3.20) £40 win
Swing Bowler (4.40) £20 win
Hurricane Fly (3.20) £50 win
Un Atout (1.30) £15 each-way
Cloudy Too (2.40) £10 each-way
Knockara Beau (2.40) £20 each-way
Arabella Boy (4.00) £30 win
The Druids Nephew (5.15) £30 win
John Cobb (Of the 'Racing Post')
Champagne Fever (1.30) £20 each-way
Poole Master (2.40) £10 each-way
Rock On Ruby (3.20) £20 each-way
Coral have kindly donated a £100 bet for each day of the Festival, any proceeds going to charity.
DAY ONE: John Francome, former champion jockey
It's going to be a slog out there but this one will see it out really well – and Paul Nicholls will be desperate to retain his place at the head of the trainers' table.