Although the build-up to this year’s Cheltenham festival has been blighted by several high profile absentees, the levels of anticipation it still manages to incite is impressive.
Frankly, it is testament to the festival’s inherent appeal that thousands of people, young and old, here and across the Irish Sea, are awaiting next week as a child does Christmas Day.
This year the championship races are either dominated by high class favourites or enigmatically competitive due to lack thereof. Day one’s feature is the Stan James Champion Hurdle, where the sport’s fastest over the smaller obstacles will compete.
The absence of the race’s last two winners has left the door open to horses who have been switched from previous targets. Yanworth, the likely favourite, was first aimed at longer distance hurdle races, while Buveur D’Air aborted a season chasing to line up here. Both will have significant chances but may still be vulnerable to an improving outsider who has always had the race in their sights.
Brain Power is one such horse, who will arrive on the back of an impressive handicap win, as is Petit Mouchoir, who has made fair progress with each run this season.
Elsewhere on Tuesday’s competitive card Willie Mullins will hope to continue his dominance of several races, including the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. Spectators will also have the opportunity to witness one of the most exciting horses in training, Altior, confirm their lofty reputation.
Such is the enthusiasm for Altior that many are already savouring a clash between him and the imperious Douvan, who is likely to put in a similar performance in Wednesday’s feature, the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. The unbeaten favourite has earned industry-wide worship, in large part thanks to superlative reviews from connections who aren’t short of quality horses. The fact that some of his worst performances have come at Cheltenham and he’s still won impressively is as clear a sign as any of his innate talent.
Wednesday also offers some excellent clashes between the British and Irish novices, as the Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle sees Neon Wolf and Bacardys fronting the market, while the RSA Chase lies open for a horse from either side of the Irish Sea to prove themselves a future Gold Cup contender.
In the staying hurdle division, Unowhatimeanharry has all the form to comfortably claim Thursday’s feature race. The dominance of Harry Fry’s gelding this season has been hard to dispute, although returning festival winners such as Jezki and Cole Harden will be sure to try their best.
Punters will be quick to oppose another of Thursday’s short priced favourites in Yorkhill, currently trading around 6/4 for the JLT Novices’ Chase. His jumping has been far from perfect, a weakness that the front running Disko will do his best to expose.
The festival culminates in its most anticipated spectacle of all, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Despite being the race perhaps most blighted by a high profile absence, it still represents the opportunity for the week’s most heart-warming result.
Cue Card has long been recognised as the most popular horse in training and has a chance at redemption that few would have expected. After falling at the third last a year ago, Colin Tizzard’s chaser has since lost his King George VI Chase crown but put in a stirring performance last month to reanimate his supporters.
His competition is stern though, nearly sharing favouritism as he is with stablemate Native River and the Mullins-trained Djakadam. There is certainly strength in depth too with Outlander, Sizing John and Minella Rocco all having chances.
Cue Card though is one of the few horses punters would be happy to see win at the expense of a discarded betslip. It would be a tale to blow away thoughts of what might have been and instead celebrate a remarkable achievement, career and thoroughbred.
Champion Hurdle – Brain Power
The forecast good ground will see this progressive horse make the most of a weak renewal.
RSA Chase – Whisper
With reasons to swerve those at the front of the market, this chaser’s Cheltenham record will serve as invaluable experience.
JLT Novices’ Chase – Disko
This grey can pile on the pressure from the front, and jump his rivals into submission.
Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup - Cue Card
Heart over head for what would surely be the perfect end to a brilliant career.