Cheltenham 2015: Six things to watch at the Festival

AP McCoy
AP McCoy has won 30 times at the Festival
Cheltenham Festival 2015
Dates: Tuesday 10 to Friday, 13 March Big races: Tue - Champion Hurdle, Wed - Champion Chase, Thu - World Hurdle, Fri- Gold Cup
Coverage: Every race on BBC Radio 5 live or 5 live Sports extra
Going, non-runners and results

As anticipation builds ahead of this week's Cheltenham Festival, here's a look at some highlights to watch out for.

You can follow commentary on all 28 races at the four-day meeting, which takes place from Tuesday to Friday, on BBC Radio 5 live and Sports Extra.

McCoy's Festival swansong

AP McCoy insists that he only wants to be centre of attention at his 19th and final Cheltenham Festival if amongst the winners.

However, following the announcement of his impending retirement, there's no doubting that whatever the results, the soon-to-be 20-time champion jump jockey will be firmly in practically every spotlight.

Funnily enough, the four-day showpiece, for which McCoy has nominated Irish-trained reigning Champion Hurdler Jezki as his best chance, has not always been especially kind to him.

True, there have been Gold Cup successes on Mr Mulligan (1997) and Synchronised (2012) amid a total of 30 Festival trophies, in 17 of the 23 different races (never the World Hurdle), for which he's eligible.

But, considering his status as the sport's finest, it's perhaps surprising that McCoy, in whose honour the final race has been re-named the AP McCoy Grand Annual Chase, has only ever been leading Festival jockey twice, and that was way back (1997 & '98).

Additionally, he trails both Ruby Walsh (41 wins) and Barry Geraghty (31) as winning-most rider at the event.

Cheltenham
The Cheltenham Festival attracts thousands upon thousands of racegoers every year

And with Walsh set to partner many on the seemingly endless list of big fancies trained by Willie Mullins in Ireland, McCoy may have his work cut out to narrow the gap in his swansong year.

Oh yes, Willie Mullins…

A vast team of around 50 horses from Willie Mullins' string in County Carlow, Ireland - many expensively assembled by banker Rich Ricci - will make the 350-mile journey by road and ferry to the Cotswolds.

Just getting them there requires quite an operation, and Mullins, 58, the champion jumps trainer in Ireland for the last seven seasons (eight times in all), says that though every required runner arrives ok, the odd un-entered horse has been known to show up too.

Champion Hurdle hopes Faugheen (favourite) and the veteran Hurricane Fly, twice the winner, lead the charge by Mullins, who is as short as 8-1 ON to be top Festival trainer, just like 2014 and '13.

Remarkably, he's providing the horses that head the betting for the four big first-day prizes - the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle, Racing Post Arkle Trophy, Stan James Champion Hurdle and OLBG Mares Hurdle - with Douvan (Supreme) said to be potentially the best he's ever brought across.

Ruby Walsh on Hurricane Fly
Ruby Walsh rode Hurricane Fly to victory in 2013 Champion Hurdle

Talking of Hurricane Fly…

The ever-popular dual Champion Hurdler has taken on a new lease of life in recent months, winning all of his three starts, beating Jezki each time, and taking his tally at Grade 1 level to a magnificent - and runaway record - 22 victories.

Sentimental support will be rampant for the 11-year-old warrior, but, even with his record, it's quite likely Hurricane Fly will succumb to younger legs.

Mullins' unbeaten Faugheen, aged seven, and successful on his only previous visit to Cheltenham, in the 2014 Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle, has continued to carry all before him.

He's hot favourite, but the vibes around fellow seven-year-olds Jezki and The New One, first and a luckless third in the race 12 months ago, are also highly positive especially from the latter's trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and his jockey-son Sam.

The race may be short on numbers, but it's long on quality.

Back from the brink: Sprinter v Sire and the rest

The showdown between the last two Queen Mother Champion Chasers is a clash that has been anticipated for months.

But neither Sprinter Sacre, a spectacular winner in 2013, nor the equally memorable Sire De Grugy, hero of last year, have had what you might call ideal preparations.

Famously, the Nicky Henderson-trained Sprinter Sacre, also a winner of the Arkle Trophy, missed all of 2014 following a heart condition, and returned with a second place, plus a puzzling nose bleed, at Ascot in January.

Meanwhile, the Sire De Grugy team has had to overcome a recent injury scare and then a comeback race at Newbury in which the horse and his jockey Jamie Moore parted company, before an admittedly convincing success.

The conqueror of 'Sprinter' at Ascot, Dodging Bullets, bred by Frankie Dettori, is being talked up, rightly, by champion trainer Paul Nicholls as the form horse.

Dodging Bullets
Dodging Bullets, bred by Frankie Dettori, clears the last to win the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December

Nicholls also has Mr Mole, with McCoy riding, who might well have beaten 'Sire' anyway at Newbury even if that horse hadn't come a cropper.

Champagne Fever, for Mullins, and already twice a Cheltenham Festival winner, is also right in the mix.

Sponsor Betway has barely five points between the odds of the leading quintet, reflecting the hard-to-predict nature of the race.

That said, it's been difficult not to be struck by the very bullish enthusiasm of Sire De Grugy's jockey Jamie Moore and his trainer-father Gary, let alone the owners, the Preston Family and Friends.

If at first you don't succeed…can it be third time lucky for Silviniaco in the Gold Cup?

As the horse that's been successful in the last two stagings of jumping's mid-season championship, the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, you might think Silviniaco Conti ought to be a favourite of red-hot temperature for the Betfred Gold Cup.

Okay, the nine-year-old, trained by Nicholls and the mount of Noel Fehily, does indeed head the betting but not by that far.

The reason is that based on the evidence provided by the last two Gold Cups, punters and pundits alike are not entirely convinced the horse really relishes the unique Cheltenham course.

In 2013, he fell, when still there with a chance, at the third-last and then, 12 months ago, despite leading at the last obstacle he faded to fourth place.

Nicholls, who's attempting to equal the record of five Gold Cups set by Arkle's trainer Tom Dreaper, is adamant 'Conti', who now wears cheek pieces to aid concentration, is better than ever, and, significantly, that means he finishes his races better.

Of the others, Many Clouds has emerged into the brightness of the big-time this season without blinking, taking the Hennessy Gold Cup and BetBright Cup in his stride for the popular Oliver Sherwood stable.

Along with Silviniaco Conti, Many Clouds plus Holywell and race-regular The Giant Bolster - who's previously finished third, fourth and runner-up - head the British challenge.

The general feeling is that there isn't a lot to choose between principal Irish hopes Road To Riches, Carlingford Lough, who's the mount of AP McCoy, and last year's winner Lord Windermere.

Lord Windermere, trained by Jim Culloty who, as a jockey partnered Best Mate to Gold Cup glory, bounced back to form last time and it would be no shock to see him play a decent supporting role at least.

All change at Cheltenham as the £45m development takes shape

The much-heralded project to redevelop parts of jump racing's HQ is on target to be completed in time for the 2016 Festival, but already parts of the new grandstand will be open to the 235,000 punters who will be attending this year.

Cheltenham Racecourse
Cheltenham Racecourse is currently undergoing a £45m development

The ground floor bar and viewing 'steppings' of the five-storey grandstand will be open, along with more loos than ever - 156 - a favourite stat for course officials, indicative perhaps that it's the subject on which they annually receive most grumbles.

Away from the new stand, bars have been opened honouring hurdling legends See You Then and Quevega, and a re-furb of the weighing room, including the jockeys' changing room, is complete.

So all is set for - if we include the charity St Patrick's Derby, in aid of the Injured Jockeys Fund - 28 races with total prize money of £3.9m and, if you can't make it, there's commentary on every single one on BBC 5 live.

The Cheltenham Festival runs 10-13 March