Only the best will arrive at Cheltenham
One of the most disarming remarks on the road to the equine extravaganza in the Cotswolds that starts tomorrow came from jockey Mattie Batchelor in the wake of the victory of Carruthers, his mount in a race at Ascot.
Asked if he thought the gelding was that elusive beast, a "Cheltenham horse", the journeyman grinned and shrugged. "You're asking the wrong person," he said. "How would I know?"
The self-deprecating Batchelor, more used to provincial rep than the glittering stage of this week's Festival, may yet find out when the exciting, bold-leaping Carruthers contests one of the novice championships, Wednesday's RSA Chase. But over to some of his higher-profile weighing room colleagues for the qualities needed in the most intense of arenas.
Over four days and 26 races – 12 of them Grade Ones, culminating in the Gold Cup on Friday – very little quarter is given, with glory and £3.56 million at stake. "Everything happens that little bit quicker this week," said Ruby Walsh, the meeting's leading rider for two of the past three years, "and things are so much easier for you if you have a horse who can travel. If you're travelling, you've got tactical speed to play with, which can be key in big, competitive fields."
A horse who is travelling through a race is one who is galloping within his comfort zone. "If you're travelling," said Tony McCoy, "then you're balanced. And if you're balanced, you jump better, in your own rhythm. You can ride your own race."
The longer a horse can travel in a race the better. Then other attributes kick in, particularly up Cheltenham's famed against-the-collar finish, a home run that can turn the most willing legs to jelly. "If you can get to the bottom of the hill and still have a gear left, it's not so daunting," said Choc Thornton, who rode four Festival winners two years ago. "But otherwise it's a long way home. You need a horse with a lot of heart. And all the way round you probably need more luck than normal."
Walsh is favourite with the bookmakers to retain his Cheltenham title. The 29-year-old Irishman has the pick of the rides from the leading stables in Britain – that of Paul Nicholls – and Ireland – that of Willie Mullins – which is akin to playing simultaneously for Manchester United and Barcelona.
Among his scheduled partners are two of the most charismatic horses of the week, Master Minded and Kauto Star. Both are trained by Nicholls, both owned by Clive Smith. Master Minded will start long odds-on to retain his crown in Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase; Kauto Star (pictured) is favourite to regain his in the Gold Cup.
Twelve months ago, all the talk was of the great head-to-head between the then reigning Gold Cup champion and his stablemate Denman, the contender. It was Denman who famously prevailed, but the tide – in the collective guise of wellbeing, racecourse form and underfoot conditions – seems to be running in Kauto Star's favour this time. Back to that business of travelling. "Last year I always seemed to be squeezing him along," said Walsh. "The ground was sticky and he'd had a race in February, after the King George. This time he'll be fresh. He's been ducking and bucking at home, and seems as good as he's ever been."
The athletic, white-faced nine-year-old will need to be. Apart from his rivals, Kauto Star must overturn a weighty page of history. Although six horses have won more than one Gold Cup since the race was instigated in 1924, none has ever won one back.
Twenty have tried, most recently another Nicholls inmate, See More Business, seven years ago. He finished a gallant third but, at 40-1, was not seriously fancied. However, Mont Tremblant (fourth at his second attempt and fourth again at his third), Pas Seul (second and fifth) and Forgive 'N' Forget (third and seventh), who all started favourite, and Desert Orchid (third and third) and Jodami (second and eighth), second market choices, were.
The opposition to Kauto Star includes Denman and another from Manor Farm, last year's Gold Cup third Neptune Collonges, plus perennial opponent Exotic Dancer, the eyecatchingly upwardly mobile Madison Du Berlais and the Queen's first Gold Cup runner, Barbers Shop. And, intriguingly, the 2006 hero War Of Attrition, who has overcome injury. It will be the first time since 1958 that three former winners will face each other; then it was Gay Donald, Limber Hill and Linwell, who were upstaged by Kerstin.
The Champion Hurdle, too, is something of an old comrades' reunion. As with the Gold Cup, last year's first three, Katchit, Osana and Punjabi, are due to turn up again tomorrow, and the two-miler may also provide an unprecedented clash between four former winners, with Sublimity, Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace joining Katchit. Only one horse has ever regained the title, Comedy Of Errors 34 years ago.
However, the favourite in what is likely to be one of the largest-ever fields (a record-equalling 24 are still engaged) is one of the young guns, McCoy's mount Binocular, a five-year-old unbeaten this season and possessed of lightning pace and a notably slick technique in the air. But the sole defeat over hurdles for Nicky Henderson's charge came up that uncompromising Cheltenham climb as a novice last year. Travelling hopefully is one thing, arriving quite another.