Cheltenham countdown begins
Clash between Annie Power and Big Buck's would set all pulses racing
Published 01/02/2014 | 02:30
Such is the prestige of the Cheltenham Festival, from the moment every National Hunt season begins, owners, trainers and punters alike are looking to those four special days in March.
Young horses with potential on both sides of the Irish Sea are spoken about as possible 'Cheltenham horses,' while the tried and tested are nursed and cajoled to their peak in the hope they will be performing at their optimum in March.
It doesn't always go to plan.
Regretfully, in recent weeks, we have witnessed the heart troubles of reigning champion chaser Sprinter Sacre and, indicative of Cheltenham's status, his trainer Nicky Henderson has confirmed if his horse doesn't make Cheltenham, he won't be pushed to race anywhere this season.
For the UK champion trainer, it's Cheltenham or nothing with his best horses.
With just over five weeks to the Festival, I, like every other member of the racing community, am in countdown mode. I have the privilege to be a Cheltenham ambassador for the current season and it will be an honour to attend the Festival in an official capacity.
Growing up in Ireland, regardless of one's interest in racing, the importance of the Cheltenham Festival was always very apparent and considering the attachment Irish people have with Prestbury Park, it will give me great pleasure to welcome my fellow country men and women as they make the annual pilgrimage to the Cotswolds.
Let's hope the weather becomes a little kinder in the next few weeks and racing conditions make for no hard luck stories.
Indeed, heavy ground was the story of the day last Saturday as Cheltenham hosted its final fixture prior to the showpiece beginning on March 11.
Before racing, we all looked forward to the return of Big Buck's, arguably the greatest ever staying hurdler. Much had been made of connections' decision to give Sam Twiston-Davies the ride on the four-time winner of the World Hurdle and after last Saturday's race, the rider found himself at the centre of headlines once again.
In the circumstances, I thought criticism of the young jockey was harsh.
Big Buck's trainer Paul Nicholls confirmed Twiston-Davies was issued with instructions to ride his champion positively and he duly did by taking up the running three hurdles from home.
The more senior jockeys in the race were happy to see Twiston-Davies in front a considerable distance from home and when a horse starts to flag in the last 150 yards, just as Big Buck's did, immediately such tactics become an obvious criticism of a losing rider.
Perhaps, he was in front a little too far out but Twiston-Davies is a young man still learning his trade and only by being placed in these situations will he learn. The last occasion Big Buck's met Saturday's conqueror Knockara Beau was at Aintree in April 2011. Then Big Buck's beat his rival by 36 lengths.
To take a literal reading of form from one race almost three years ago would not be fair to either horse, but it was clear that regardless of the reason, Big Buck's return run was some way below his best. After such a long lay-off, perhaps he needed the run, especially in really testing ground.
Come March, he will surely be a sharper horse but whether he will be sharp enough to regain his stayers hurdle crown is far from certain. Finding a horse to lower his colours may well depend on connections of Annie Power. The daughter of Shirocco looks an exceptional mare. She has speed, stamina and all ground appears to come alike to the Willie Mullins-trained horse.
If she goes to Cheltenham, connections have a tough decision on their hands. With current Champion Hurdle favourite Hurricane Fly in his yard, would Willie Mullins and owner Rich Ricci ask jockey Ruby Walsh to choose between the wonder mare and a horse on which he has won two Champion Hurdles?
Even allowing for the presence of the brilliant Quevega, the race for mares on the Festival's opening day would appear the easiest option for Annie Power.
Two-and-half-miles may well be her optimum trip and if she is to take on a stable mate, I suspect it will be in the mares' race rather than the champion hurdle. This exceptional mare has won over two miles and five furlongs on soft ground at Cheltenham and gives the impression she will stay three miles, but nobody truly knows until she goes and does it.
And if Big Buck's runs to his best, then any chinks in her staying power would be quickly exposed.
Similarly how ironic it would be should the mare be the one to beat Big Buck's and for jockey Ruby Walsh to be the rider with a hand in the defeat of a great champion, a horse on which he has known remarkable success.
Thankfully, such great days lie ahead. So many stories yet to be told. This is Cheltenham and this is why we love it. Five weeks and counting.