Cheltenham Festival 2016: From Willie Mullins to Victoria Pendleton

Barry Geraghty on Sprinter Sacre
Sprinter Sacre won the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2013 ridden by Barry Geraghty, and has returned to something close to his best under new jockey Nico de Boinville
Cheltenham Festival 2016
Dates: Tuesday, 15 to Friday, 18 March Big races: Tue - Champion Hurdle, Wed - Champion Chase, Thu - World Hurdle, Fri - Gold Cup
Comprehensive coverage on BBC Radio 5 live and 5 live sports extra
Going, non-runners and results

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

There will be comprehensive coverage of the four-day meeting, which takes place from Tuesday to Friday, on BBC Radio 5 live and 5 live sports extra.

There will be about 12 hours of live commentary on Radio 5 live, and up to another four on 5 live sports extra, with coverage also available online and via the BBC Sport app.

Can Willie Mullins exceed record eight wins?

No trainer has ever before assembled such a powerful squad of horses for the Cheltenham Festival. The list of 60 or so runners that will travel from Mullins' County Carlow HQ to the Cotswolds contains the favourite, or at least a strong fancy, for 21 of the 28 races.

So the answer is yes, of course Ireland's champion jumps trainer, who's topped the Festival league table for four of the past five seasons, may equal or even go by last year's record tally.

With the likes of Annie Power, Un De Sceaux, Vautour, Djakadam and Don Poli, he has the equine ammunition to achieve it. But with horseracing as unpredictable as it is, no-one will be amazed if he falls short.

Ruby Walsh on Douvan
Douvan is unbeaten over fences

The general consensus is that Douvan (Racing Post Arkle Chase, Tuesday, 14:10 GMT) and Limini (Trull House Stud Mares Novice Hurdle, Thursday, 16:50), both to be ridden like a majority of the team's leading lights by the Festival's winning-most jockey Ruby Walsh (45 victories), are perhaps the standouts.

Mullins modestly insists he goes to Cheltenham hoping rather than expecting, seeking just one winner, but with the millions that have been pumped into his string, particularly by financier Rich Ricci and his wife Susannah, anything less than five or six will be viewed as disappointing.

Presumably the bookies hope he fails…

No question. In 2015, had his quartet of first-day 'bankers' all gone in it would have cost the betting industry a not particularly small fortune, with the final-obstacle fall of heavily backed Annie Power in the OLBG Mares Hurdle said to have saved a £50m payout.

Such was Mullins' luck however that he still won that race with the less-fancied Glens Melody.

For the bookmakers, Cheltenham is the biggest week of the racing year, knocking Royal Ascot into a Champagne bucket with a £150m turnover that can tear gaping wounds in their accounts.

This year some bookies may be more evident than others as the sport's new policy of awarding 'authorised betting partner' status only to those considered to be contributing sufficient of their profits to fund the sport means non-ABPs are no longer welcome as new or renewing race sponsors.

Is the new stand ready?

It is, very much so. In contrast to many construction projects the 6,000+ capacity stand was completed within its £45m budget and, after 18 months of work, ahead of the planned schedule so it's been in use since the autumn.

The building blends into the landscape remarkably well, and it's anticipated that balconies looking out over the paddock/winners' enclosure will enhance considerably the amphitheatre atmosphere, especially when there's a popular winner.

Public bars on the ground and first floor have been named respectively after long-serving course chairman Lord Vestey and the four-time World Hurdle victor Big Buck's. Upper floors are reserved, and, in my experience, their exclusivity is policed with a rare determination.

Any celebrity-spotting opportunities?

Ant and Dec
Ant and Dec have been spotted at previous Cheltenham Festivals

You could do worse than get a good position around the paddock before and after day two's Weatherbys Bumper (17:30) because race-favourite Augusta Kate is owned by a group calling itself The Masters Syndicate, which includes TV's Ant and Dec, football pundit Alan Shearer and golfer Lee Westwood.

The daughter of stallion Yeats has recorded two wins from two career starts so far, and attempts to give her trainer - yes, you've guessed it, Willie Mullins - an eighth Festival Bumper success.

A Mullins family anniversary

Willie Mullins' dad, the legendary Paddy, trained Dawn Run, probably Ireland's outstanding horse since the great 1960s icon Arkle - and it's 30 years since Jonjo O'Neill, then a top jockey, steered the mare to a famous victory over Wayward Lad, Forgive 'N' Forget and Run And Skip in one of the great Cheltenham Gold Cup finishes of all time.

Jonjo O'Neill on Dawn Run
Jonjo O'Neill has won the Gold Cup both as a jockey and a trainer

Sadly, only a short time after the much-celebrated victory of the only horse to have completed the Champion Hurdle (1984)/Gold Cup double, she lost her life in a fall in France and O'Neill was diagnosed with cancer.

He made an inspiring recovery and now trains at stables close to Cheltenham from where former champion staying hurdler More Of That defends an unbeaten record over steeplechase fences in Wednesday's RSA Chase (14:10).

Sprinter Sacre is back again

The winner of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2013 - when he also took equivalent major trophies at the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals - Sprinter Sacre's apparent invincibility combined with a flamboyant style led him to be dubbed an equine James Bond by adoring fans.

But later that year the now 10-year-old, trained by the Festival's most successful trainer Nicky Henderson (53 winners), dropped from 007 to zero when pulled up in his comeback race.

Nicky Henderson and Sprinter Sacre
Nicky Henderson will be hoping to add to his Festival success with Sprinter Sacre

A heart problem was discovered followed by a long winless period, including pulling up behind Dodging Bullets in this race 12 months ago, but in November, the gelding made a triumphant return to the track at Cheltenham before following up at Kempton after Christmas.

Henderson and new jockey Nico de Boinville, last year's Gold Cup winner, believe 'Sprinter' is back to somewhere near his best. However, with the brilliant Un De Sceaux, Dodging Bullets, Sire De Grugy, another former winner on the comeback trail, and Special Tiara in the mix he will have to be.

The surprise package?

It is not quite a Leicester City scenario - trainer Colin Tizzard has been a growing force for some time - but his stable stars Cue Card, bound for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (Friday, 15:30), and Thistlecrack (Ryanair World Hurdle, Thursday, 15:30) have behind them a tide of emotional as well as financial support at least partly because the Tizzards aren't among the 'usual suspects'.

Colin Tizzard with Thistlecrack and Cue Card
Thistlecrack and Cue Card are both well-fancied for Festival success

And the former dairy farmer, based on the Somerset/Dorset border and assisted by ex-jockey son Joe and daughter Kim, has the opportunity to win more than most at the Festival. Cue Card will net £1m if he adds the Gold Cup to his Betfair Chase and King George VI Chase successes late last year, as winner of the Jockey Club's new Steeplechasing Triple Crown.

Already a two-time Festival winner, he and Smad Place are the two big hopes for the Britons in the race which has the strongest of Irish challenges. Meanwhile, Thistlecrack is hot favourite for the World after a prolific run.

Tizzard, who as a schoolboy preferred cricket and played with and against Ian Botham at county level, has gone through the season looking part-excited and part-disbelieving at his latest 'innings'. A memorable Festival double is not impossible.

And what of Victoria Pendleton?

The double Olympic cycling champion's attempt to swap saddles and line up as a jockey on Pacha Du Polder in the St James's Place Foxhunter Chase, the race for amateur riders immediately after the Gold Cup on Friday, has ensured the most frenetic Festival build-up in years.

Victoria Pendleton on Pacha Du Polder
Pendleton and Pacha Du Polder will be the centre of attention

Pendleton's every high - a first win, at Wincanton - and low - the inevitable tumbles - have been well-documented and forensically analysed.

Either you believe Pendleton has embarked on a daring and bold adventure barely a year after being legged up of a horse for the first time, or it's an extremely well-paid and hazardous sideshow on the most significant day of the jumps season.

Of course there will be an element of distraction on Gold Cup day, but it's hard not to doff the proverbial Trilby to what she's achieved already. As for the horse, the three-and-a-quarter-mile distance is probably a little far and completing the course without incident is, realistically, the best that can be hoped for.

Any other whispers?

With the reigning Stan James Champion Hurdler Faugheen absent from the first-day feature, along with the next three home from 12 months ago, there may well not be as much strength-in-depth as usual. Last year's fifth The New One, the mount of jockey Sam Twiston-Davies, is being talked up for the race in which he was also a luckless third in 2014.

Yanworth, trained by Alan King and unbeaten over hurdles, is all the rage to get the new association between owner JP McManus and jockey Barry Geraghty, who replaced the new retired AP McCoy, off to a flying start in the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle (Wednesday, 13:30).

On a pre-Festival visit to Ireland I heard the name of McManus' Gordon Elliott-trained Campeador being well-touted for the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Wednesday, 16:50).

And while Geraghty and Ruby Walsh head the betting for the week's top jockey, one or two shrewdies like the look of the chances of Bryan Cooper in his capacity as number one rider to airline tycoon Michael O'Leary's powerful Gigginstown House Stud operation, which is likely to have 30-plus runners.

Final word to Balthazar King, the mount of champion jockey-presumptive Richard Johnson in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase (Wednesday, 16:10). Returning from serious injury sustained in the Grand National, the 12-year-old veteran attempts to win the race for the third time.