All to play for as the games begin
It's time for the talking to stop and the action to begin. Alan Lee considers what the week may bring at Cheltenham
IT has been a fevered gestation, even by Cheltenham standards. The dogmatic punditry of endless preview nights, glib and willing words from strained and tortured trainers, the imaginative marketing of bookmakers -- all have reached such inflated levels that you fear this most intoxicating of festivals could suffocate from expectation.
There is no meeting like it, indeed nothing that comes remotely close for anticipation and public engagement. Every race, every nuance is dissected so intricately that hopes and opinions on a myriad of issues are entrenched in advance. This year, the possibilities are momentous.
FREAK OR FLOP?
Dunguib has excited acclaim yet aroused suspicion with his demolition of Irish inferiors. Now comes the test of whether this swaggeringly talented beast, with his unassumingly rural connections, can really be as good as he looks. He may clatter a couple of hurdles and burst the bubble. He may find little if the top British novices finally get him out of his comfort zone. But if not, if he wins in the style of which all Ireland dreams, no propaganda will be needed to extol a new superstar.
JP AND AP
It is six years since they got together, these two Irish champions with the Midas touch, and the marriage has had some tough times. McManus, a curious amalgam of punter and philanthropist, owns too many bad horses and, periodically, too few stars. McCoy has won him races that others would have lost -- witness Wichita Lineman a year ago -- but he longs to decorate this rich retainer with a landmark success. Binocular winning the Champion Hurdle could mean more to McCoy than any of his 3,000-plus victories.
WATER AND WELFARE
Punters often shriek with protest when a festival course is watered. Trainers, too, complain through self-interest. But the world has changed since nature could be allowed to take its arid course -- quick going can bring a level of risk to horses that is simply not acceptable nowadays. Simon Claisse, Cheltenham's clerk of the course, acted sensibly in watering last week but he faces a renewed dilemma now, with the tracks drying fast again but rain forecast late in the week. In these sensitive times, he deserves sympathy, not censure.
CLEAN SWEEP . . .
Only the neck by which Celestial Halo lost out to Punjabi prevented Paul Nicholls from an unprecedented monopoly of the four feature races last year. One telling measure of his training talents is that the four horses are all back this time. Three will start odds-on and there is significant confidence behind the newly blinkered Celestial Halo in the Champion Hurdle today. Not so long ago, Martin Pipe was acclaimed for unrepeatable numerical successes, but the Nicholls yard is all quality. Further history could beckon.
. . . OR NEW BROOM?
At rising 60, Nicky Henderson is no young buck, yet his training career is threatening unsuspected heights. He has the best bunch of novice hurdlers around, but a genuine title challenge next year depends on the graduation of his young staying chasers. Henderson has a stranglehold on the RSA Chase and public debate on Long Run against Punchestowns is almost as ardent -- and, now, more divided -- than that on Kauto Star and Denman. The similarities are spooky: a French-bred who can win over two miles as well as three against a traditional Irish-bred stayer. It's Punchestowns for me, but with little conviction.
Remember Henrietta Knight? Six years after the euphoria of Best Mate's third Gold Cup, she is yet to train another festival winner. But talent has not deserted her, and there will be widespread delight if Somersby ends her drought in the Arkle today. Despite two barren festivals, Philip Hobbs is in no such neglect and his 100-plus stable is the most in-form in the country. Time, surely, for a return to the winner's enclosure.
Not since Desert Orchid, more than two decades ago, has a Gold Cup captivated the public like this one. The shame is that Denman fluffed his rehearsal, or the attention might be still greater. Unless Nicholls has revived him spectacularly, we may now have to settle for the ceremonial spectacle of a third win for Kauto Star. Don't knock it if he wins by 20 lengths. He may just be the greatest most of us have seen. (© The Times, London)