Brave heroes epitomise all that is great about Festival
Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30
The stage is set for Hurricane Fly to carve his own little piece of Cheltenham Festival history with his name featuring among a final field of nine for tomorrow's Stan James Champion Hurdle.
Our Conor, My Tent Or Yours, The New One, Jezki and Melodic Rendezvous have also been declared for hurdling's marquee Grade One, so it should be epic.
A year ago, Hurricane Fly gained revenge on his 2012 conqueror Rock On Ruby with a brilliantly tenacious performance.
Aided by a Ruby Walsh steer of rare beauty, it was a mesmerising display of courage and quality combined, and, in defeating a former winner, Hurricane Fly's legacy gained some vital context.
The 2011 edition lacked that sort of tangible barometer due to the absence of Binocular.
By reclaiming his crown in 2013, Willie Mullins' diminutive equine colossus confirmed his 2012 loss to be an anomaly that did no justice to his ability, and the stain on his glorious legacy has since been erased with an unbroken sequence of nine victories that brings his Grade One haul to 19.
Last year, despite labouring up the hill out of the back, Hurricane Fly became the first since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to reclaim the title.
If he wins tomorrow, not only would he emulate Sea Pigeon by triumphing at 10 years of age, he would achieve an unprecedented interrupted treble. That really would be something, especially when you factor in that he missed out on two initial Festival appointments due to injury.
This time, Hurricane Fly is the only previous winner on duty, so, if he comes up short, it will surely be the youth in the legs of others that will be his undoing.
Our Conor came alive here for Dessie Hughes 12 months ago, and many envisage that might happen again. He was a devastating Triumph Hurdle hero, The New One was equally imperious in the Neptune and My Tent Or Yours lost little in defeat to Champagne Fever in the Supreme.
Notwithstanding that Champagne Fever was always more of an embryonic chaser, you couldn't argue that the cream of last season's novices haven't deservedly graduated to this elite level.
How they fare now against the old maestro should provide the sort of utterly pulsating Cotswolds bout that makes the unique Prestbury Park Festival the almost unquantifiable occasion that it is.
Still, as we contemplate the prospect of Hurricane Fly enhancing his illustrious status among the pantheon of all-time greats, how the insatiable Mullins juggernaut skews the Anglo-Irish rivalry or how a shared cacophony of euphoria unites us all for four days, it's well to remember what spurred Barry Connell to commit Our Conor's earnings for the season to the Jockeys Emergency Fund.
A year ago, JT McNamara got a fall in the Kim Muir that left him paralysed from the neck down, just weeks after Jonjo Bright suffered similar paralysis when he was hurled into the turf at Tyrella. McNamara (38) is a giant of the game whose legacy is assured.
Bright is half his age without a solitary point-to-point win to his name, though we have quickly come to know what an inspiring individual he is through a variety of engaging interviews that have captured his unquenchable spirit.
As with other riders – such as Shane Broderick – who have survived catastrophic falls, fate dealt them an unbearable destiny that they bear with inconceivable stoicism.
That is born of the same brand of bravery that ensures weeks like this are such extraordinary, breathtaking spectacles.
The risk is part of what makes it all so enthralling. Amid all the exhilarating escapism in Cheltenham this week, it is important to acknowledge and appreciate that.
JACOB LOSES HINTERLAND
MOUNT TO IN-FORM FEHILY
Second to Theatre Guide, Captain Conan and Simonsig in three runs over fences last season, Hinterland has won both his starts at Sandown this term, latterly seeing off Grandouet to secure the Grade One Henry VIII Novices' Chase for Jacob in December.
He would have been one of Jacob's best rides of the week, but Chris Giles, who also owns part of the King George winner Silviniaco Conti – Fehily's mount for Nicholls in the Gold Cup – requested the change.
Fehily, whose decision to turn down Warren Greatrex's Baby Mix has paved the way for Davy Russell to come in for a plum spare in tomorrow's finale, is being used increasingly by Nicholls these days.
If there is a bit of value to be had in the market for the leading rider of the Festival, it might be him.
The west Cork native has been riding brilliantly, and a treble at Market Rasen yesterday brought his running tally for the season to a whopping 115.
Harry Fry's decision to swerve Cheltenham in favour of Aintree with live Triumph Hurdle hope Activial weakens his hand, but he still has some serious rides.
Silviniaco Conti and Hinterland apart, his book includes Rock On Ruby (Arkle), Vukovar (JLT), Zarkandar (World Hurdle) and Highland Retreat, a potential threat to Quevega in the mares' race.
Fehily is in form, in demand and has all the necessary experience, so he may be overpriced in that market at 33/1.
ON HIS OWN ADDED
TO GOLD CUP LINE-UP
Willie Mullins has added to the Irish hand in Friday's Gold Cup by opting to supplement his 10-year-old dual Thyestes Chase victor On His Own at a cost of £27,500 to owner Graham Wylie.
Wylie's Boston Bob is likely to be rerouted to the Ryanair Chase instead, after some pleasing homework by On His Own, which won the At The Races Chase at Fairyhouse last time, left Mullins compelled to "take the bull by the horns". Last Instalment's Gold Cup participation remains dependent on the ground being deemed sufficiently soft, according to his trainer Philip Fenton. At the moment, it is being given as good to soft.
Simon Claisse, the clerk of the course, anticipates a dry week, and hasn't ruled out watering the new course that will be in use on Thursday and Friday.
"We'll see how the ground is riding and walk the course a couple of times," Fenton said. "We'll be making a decision as late as possible. The horse is in good shape, so we'll see what happens."
BALTIMORE ROCK SAILS TO IMPERIAL VICTORY FOR PIPE
After winning with a touch of style on Saturday, he is eligible for a £100,000 bonus if he can follow up at Cheltenham, a double that David Pipe pulled off with Gaspara (2007 Fred Winter), emulating his father Martin's feats with Olympian (1993 Coral Cup) and Blowing Wind (1993 County).
There was also an Irish-trained winner at Sandown, as Gaillimh A Chroi (9/2) knuckled down gamely for Noel Fehily to fend off Tara Mist for the shrewd Dungarvan-based handler John Queally.
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
March, Festival fever, Ferdy saddles a winner. Nothing changes! Albeit it was in France!
– James Griffin, assistant to his Dublin-based brother Pat – "he gets the glory and I do the training" – tips his hat to Ferdy Murphy, who saddled his first winner since relocating to France when Kauto
D'Aloes won at Strasbourg yesterday.
50 – Years since Arkle's conquest of Mill House, the first of his three Gold Cup triumphs. On Wednesday at 9.30pm, TG4 will screen a documentary on Tom Dreaper's iconic chaser that has been made by Touchline Media, producers of the excellent 'Jump Boys' programme. It will also be shown on Channel 4 on Thursday at 11.0pm before being repeated on TG4 on Saturday at 8.45pm.
4– Irish-trained winners at Ayr on Saturday. Ronan McNally trained and rode See Double You (11/8 favourite) to victory, Mikey Fogarty won on Romantic Fashion (11/4 joint-favourite) for Prunella Dobbs, Craig Nichol got Mister Philson home for Stuart Crawford at odds of 7/2 and Gordon Elliott and Davy Condon combined to take the bumper with the impressive The Unsub (evens favourite).