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Keep your eyes on the spectacle

Sue Montgomery

Yesterday morning Cleeve Hill, the last eastern outcrop of the Cotswolds that overlooks the sprawling natural amphitheatre that is Cheltenham racecourse, stood silent, calm sentinel ahead of the storm that will erupt at its foot at 1.30 this afternoon.

The roar from the 60,000 faithful that will signal the rising of the tapes for the Supreme Novices Hurdle marks the start of four days of sporting endeavour that will stretch every emotion, horse racing at its most powerful, most captivating.

But though the timeless backdrop, its rugged outline limned sharply by the early sun, was set in a clear sky, there are clouds gathering nonetheless.

The trainer of the third favourite for Friday's Gold Cup is currently under criminal investigation in Ireland after forbidden steroids were found on his premises and will appear in court next week.

The sport's authorities here have, after rigorous testing, cleared the horse to run but even so if the elephant is not quite in the room, it is certainly hanging about in the corridor.

More immediately, though, to the rite of spring. The Festival offers 27 races, 13 at Grade 1 level, four iconic senior championships, and £3.85 million prize money.

Two of the reigning title holders will be back for more: today Hurricane Fly will be aiming to join Hatton's Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq as a three-time winner of the Champion Hurdle and on Friday Bobs Worth is going for back-to-back Gold Cups.

Today, too, could mark an unprecedented Festival achievement as Quevega tries to become the first horse at jump racing's showcase occasion to win the same race six times.

For the past five years she has come home victorious in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle, to take her numerically level with Golden Miller, winner of the Gold Cup from 1932-36. She owns only a fraction of that great horse's talent, but in her own sphere she is a legend.

The peerless long-distance hurdler Big Buck's might have been trying to match her, but for being ruled out last year of the race he made his own, the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, by injury.

He will be back on Thursday to try for a fifth success in the three-miler, but has lost his aura of invincibility after defeat on his comeback in January, leaving his winning streak on a mere 18.

But in so precarious a calling his mere presence in the fray, at the age of 11, is remarkable. In Hurricane Fly, Bobs Wort and Big Buck's, there is achievement and talent far out of the ordinary.

But the absence of the defending two-mile champion Sprinter Sacre from tomorrow's Queen Mother Champion Chase means the meeting lacks a horse that brings with it the possibility of wonder, as did Frankel on the Flat.

Or does it? One of the rivals to Big Buck's will be a horse who might just prove another of those freak performers who bring another dimension.

Annie Power, unbeaten and unextended in 10 races, is a mare of such prodigious untapped talent that even her trainer Willie Mullins has not yet ascertained its limits.

Mullins, Ireland's perennial champion, also has Hurricane Fly and Quevega under his care, the flagbearers of an extraordinary raiding party of 41 from his base in Co Carlow, of whom 25 were safely encamped yesterday, with reinforcements due later in the week.

Mullins is 4-9 favourite to take the week's trainer's title, and was as levelheaded as ever in the face of suggestions that he could singlehandedly surpass last year's Irish record score of 14 at this most competitive of fixtures.

"The horses travelled well," he said. "We are happy with the ground [good to soft yesterday] and we are keeping our fingers crossed. People obviously think that we are going to have a few winners and I hope they are right. But we don't expect, we come over here and hope."

The sport is primarily about the horse, and at this meeting, what horses. But without the human element they could not, would not do their job and the men on top, with their different attributes – flair, empathy, perseverance, strength, unbreakable nerve in a calling where serious injury is always only a stride away – are stitched into the week's tapestry.

Ruby Walsh, even more than Tony McCoy, is the meeting's motif, the most successful of all time at the Festival with 38 winners and leading jockey for seven of the last ten.

This season, he threw his lot wholly in with Mullins (pictured) in Ireland, rather than splitting his time and talents between Closutton and Manor Farm, base of Britain's multiple champion Paul Nicholls, and this week he will be the hunter home to the hill, the gruelling climb to the finish he knows so well.

He reported Hurricane Fly in fine fettle after his morning exercise.

"He's travelled over a few times and knows what it's all about," Walsh said.

"He's been here and done it twice before and if we are being clinical about it the others have got something to prove and he hasn't. The Festival is just different to any other meeting. I don't know if it's the crowd, the atmosphere or the expectation, but there is something magical."

There is much for the purists to anticipate, but more venally there will be £250 million wagered during the week during the battle between those manning and queuing at the boards in the betting ring.

The gamble of the build-up has been the Hennessy Gold Cup winner Triolo d'Alene, who will accompany his Nicky Henderson stablemate Bobs Worth to the Gold Cup.

The gelding, as long as 40-1 for the week's finale, is now a 12-1 shot and those who jumped on the bandwagon will not have been dismayed at yesterday's news that he will now be ridden by McCoy, who has been allowed to jump ship from rank outsider Teaforthree.

Belfast Telegraph


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