Cheltenham 2014: From A-team to young pretender - Festival preview
Cheltenham Festival 2014
- Tuesday 11 to Friday 14 March
- 13:30-17:15 GMT. Champion Hurdle (Tue), Champion Chase (Wed), World Hurdle (Thur), Gold Cup (Fri) all 15:20
- All 27 races on BBC Radio 5 live & Sports Extra. Live text commentaries, results, reports on BBC Sport website
More than 230,000 racegoers are expected to attend the Cheltenham Festival this week.
Jump racing's showpiece event takes place from Tuesday to Friday at the Gloucestershire track.
There will be plenty of drama across 27 races, and here are some of the potential talking points.
The cloud of drugs
Some take the view that trainer Philip Fenton and his Tipperary-based team should be declared Festival non-runners as he prepares for a court hearing after being charged with possessing anabolic steroids and other banned substances.
But having tested the horses thoroughly and taken counsel's opinion, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), which for all its deficiencies has looked more on the ball than its Irish counterpart over this, is permitting Fenton's entries to line up.
It does mean, however, the whole matter hangs over the four days like a bad smell which will drift away for a time - during post-big race euphoria, for example - but is an absolute dead cert to return.
Meanwhile, Ireland's champion trainer Willie Mullins has spoken of his "nobbling" fears, recalling fancied horses under the care of his late father Paddy being "got at" in the 1980s.
The BHA has a well-drilled team of what it calls "equine welfare and integrity officers" to oversee matters of security, some of whom have been in place since the weekend guarding early arrivals. A minimum of 64 runners (more than average) will be tested, including all Grade One race winners.
Temperatures up: A brighter outlook
Endure a very wet winter, conventional wisdom goes, and you can throw the form book out of the window on arrival at Cheltenham, when spring has sprung and conditions are that much drier.
Ahead of the 2013 Festival, we were talking about one of the wettest winters on record - now surpassed - but heavy going was forgotten as proceedings started (after an inspection because of frost) on soft going, good to soft in places, and it improved all week.
The results, however, contained a general lack of shocks, particularly in the championship races, proving perhaps that quality runners deal with whatever is hurled at them. Solwhit ended a long Irish drought in the World Hurdle at 17-2, but his talents were widely underestimated.
The handicaps were a little different, with some big-priced winners to cheer the bookies on days two and three, but although the state of the ground played a part, so did long-term planning.
Do, though, beware favourites who gained their lofty positions in the betting based on results in rain-soaked conditions.
The A-team: Mullins & Walsh
Has any team ever brought a more powerful squad of horses to Cheltenham than Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh?
Their 40 or so runners is a similar amount to the past three years, when Irish champion Mullins has twice ended up as leading trainer, but the strength in depth is simply astounding.
History seekers Hurricane Fly, chasing a third Champion Hurdle, Quevega, who would create a new record for Festival wins if taking the Mares Hurdle for a sixth year, and would-be champion stayer Annie Power are at the forefront.
Of the rest, many top the betting and most will be ridden by Ruby Walsh, leading jockey at seven of the past 10 Festivals and, like Mullins, hot favourite to beat the rest again.
The one and only…
AP McCoy believes he has no "bankers" for the Festival this year, but that won't stop punters piling into the two dozen mounts to which the 18-time champion jump jockey is assigned.
They've been doing it for years, and have, so far, been rewarded with 29 victories. The JP McManus-owned Champion Hurdle hope My Tent Or Yours, chosen over Jezki, is the highest-profile hope this time now he has recovered from a scare.
Since reaching the unforgettable milestone of 4,000 winners in November, 39-year-old McCoy has batted away any questions about retirement but, in a recent interview, said it was "definitely not my plan" for this to be his final Cheltenham.
Anyway there's some unfinished business to attend to, which, as it happens, makes a good quiz question: which of the 'Big Four' features - the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, World Hurdle and Gold Cup - has McCoy never won?
Supporters of World Hurdle candidate At Fishers Cross will be hoping that gap on his CV is plugged on Thursday.
The young pretender: Sam's the man
Sam Twiston-Davies has come far in a short space of time.
Not long ago, the 21-year-old was swapping tips for his father Nigel's Festival runners with teachers at his Cotswold school in exchange for a blind eye being turned to yet another mid-March truancy.
Then, Twiston-Davies, whose easy manner and chat laced with street lingo have made him a big hit with young fans, dreamed of emulating the stable's principal riders, Carl Llewellyn and Paddy Brennan.
Nowadays, he doesn't have to imagine being in the hot seat as Champion Hurdle hope The New One, trained by his father, and brilliant former long distance champion Big Buck's are included in a book of top-notch mounts.
Twiston-Davies admits the family connection would make victory for The New One extra special, but adds, actually, the same applies to Big Buck's as he goes for a fifth World Hurdle.
Victory for Big Buck's would help to erase the memory of the defeat inflicted on the Andy Stewart-owned, Paul Nicholls-trained 11-year-old, when returning from injury, and partnered for the first time by his new rider, over the course in January.
Horses for courses: Bob's back
When you get a good National Hunt horse that likes a particular track, it's really very rewarding when that track happens to be Cheltenham, the sport's famous headquarters.
That is certainly the case with Bobs Worth, trained for members of the Not Afraid partnership by Nicky Henderson. In five visits (three for the Festival), the horse - sold to the group unraced by his jockey Barry Geraghty - is unbeaten.
In last year's Gold Cup, he positively gobbled up the gradients of the closing stages that others find less palatable.
The nine-year-old, an impressive winner when travelling to Leopardstown just before the New Year having failed to sparkle first time out this season, faces an intriguing Gold Cup rematch with two old foes.
One, King George winner Silviniaco Conti, fell when travelling strongly late on last year, while race regular The Giant Bolster, fourth last year, showed his wellbeing with a course win in January.
End of an era as Cheltenham rings changes
The 230,000-plus visitors to this year's Festival would do well to have a good look around, as things won't be quite the same again.
Practically as soon as the last punter has weaved his or her way out of jump racing's iconic HQ, builders and engineers will be moving in as work on the £45m grandstand development comes, so to speak, under starter's orders.
Replacing a quaint but increasingly tired block of viewing boxes, originally constructed in the 1920s, the new state-of-the-art stand is due to be open in time for the 2016 Festival.
Plans to close down, as Ascot did during its development, were never considered as managers, who raised nearly £25m towards the project (far more than expected) via the first retail bond in British sport, believe they can work around the construction site to ensure racegoers are "minimally affected".
The steppings and ground floor are expected to be in use for the fixture in 12 months' time.
To absent friends
Five stars lauded in 2013 as likely to further enhance their big reputations this season haven't even made it: Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Cue Card, Solwhit and Sir Des Champs.
Once again their absence demonstrates the exquisite training performances involved in bringing back horses like Quevega and The Giant Bolster (racing at a fifth Festival) year in, year out.
Queen Mother Champion Chaser Sprinter Sacre is not showing his usual brilliance after an irregular heartbeat; Arkle Trophy winner Simonsig has a leg problem; ditto champion stayer Solwhit and Gold Cup second Sir Des Champs; and Cue Card, successful in the Ryanair Chase last time, has a pelvis fracture.
While their non-appearance is lamented, it does give the opportunity for others to shine, and many believe Sire De Grugy, whose popularity is growing in tandem with an impressive success rate, may take advantage in the Champion Chase.