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Raiders get ready to rumble

Mullins leads the charge once again as ‘Team Ireland’ looks to surpass last year’s record haul

Published 11/03/2014 | 02:30

10 March 2014; The Willie Mullins string arrives at the Cheltenham gallops led by Hurricane Fly (left), with Ruby Walsh up, ahead of the opening day of the Festival which starts this afternoon
10 March 2014; The Willie Mullins string arrives at the Cheltenham gallops led by Hurricane Fly (left), with Ruby Walsh up, ahead of the opening day of the Festival which starts this afternoon

A formidable battalion of 24 Irish-trained runners will descend on Cleeve Hill today as the raiders' charge to emulate last year's heroic 14-winner haul gets under way at Cheltenham.

As was the case in 2013 when a sensational Willie Mullins treble set the ball rolling for the travelling delegation's most successful Festival ever, the

champion trainer's relentless juggernaut is again to the fore.

Hurricane Fly, Quevega and Champagne Fever, the three horses that lit up the opening salvo in such tenacious style under Ruby Walsh 12 months ago, all head their respective markets again.

If history repeats itself in the pristine setting of the world's most hallowed natural amphitheatre, then history will also start over.

Hurricane Fly is bidding to become the first horse to complete a broken treble in the showpiece Champion Hurdle, while Quevega can secure her status as the Festival's darling by surpassing Golden Miller's incredible haul of five Gold Cup wins with an elusive sixth in the mares' hurdle.

Time will judge how deserving the selectively campaigned 10-year-old might be of her place among the equine immortals given the poor quality of opposition that she has faced in one of the elite schedule's weakest contests.

To the travelling contingent, though, that will matter little if she pokes her head in front again this afternoon.

Champagne Fever, for his part, can join Gold Cup holder Bobs Worth and

Tom Dreaper's iconic steeplechaser Flyingbolt as a winner of three different races at successive Festivals if he claims the Arkle Trophy.

That is just some of the heady stuff at stake on an absorbing card that will kick off to the annual roar from the stands that greets the start of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

Unlike last year, when the meeting was in doubt until the tarpaulin covers that were laid to keep out a severe frost were removed on the morning of the opening day, conditions on the course could hardly be any better.

A week ago, the ground was officially soft, but that had changed last night to good to soft, good in places.

Combined with Prestbury Park's renowned drainage, the prospect of a few sun-filled days had even raised the possibility of the New Course that will be in use on Thursday and Friday being watered, but clerk of the course Simon Claisse hopes that won't be necessary.

Still, given the levels of saturation that have prevailed on either side of the water this winter, it is remarkable to even be addressing the issue.

"We will do whatever we can to avoid racing on good to firm, but my gut feeling is that we will get through the week without watering," Claisse said. "I don't want to say we won't, but I think it's unlikely.

"Ninety per cent of the ground which will be used over the four days has not been raced over for 12 months, which means it should take the racing really well."

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