Sun ready to shine on Ruby at 'magical meeting'
Festival's leading rider says rivals have 'something to prove' to stop Hurricane
Yesterday morning Cleeve Hill, the last eastern outcrop of the Cotswolds that overlooks the sprawling natural amphitheatre that is Cheltenham racecourse, stood silent, a calm sentinel ahead of the storm that will erupt at its foot at 1.30 this afternoon.
The roar from the 60,000 faithful that will signal the rising of the tapes for the Supreme Novices Hurdle marks the start of four days of sporting endeavour that will stretch every emotion, horse racing at its most powerful, most captivating.
The Festival offers 27 races, 13 at Grade One level, four iconic senior championships, and £3.85m in prize money.
Two of the reigning title holders will be back for more. Today, Hurricane Fly will be aiming to join Hatton's Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq as a three-time winner of the Champion Hurdle, and on Friday Bobs Worth will be going for back-to-back Gold Cup triumphs.
Today, too, could mark an unprecedented Festival achievement as Quevega tries to become the first horse at jump racing's showcase occasion to win the same race six times.
For the past five years, she has come home victorious in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle, to take her numerically level with Golden Miller, winner of the Gold Cup from 1932-36.
She owns only a fraction of that great horse's talent, but in her own sphere, she is a legend.
The peerless long-distance hurdler Big Buck's might have been trying to match her but for being ruled out last year of the race he made his own, the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, by injury.
He will be back on Thursday to try for a fifth success in the three-miler, but has lost his aura of invincibility after defeat on his comeback in January, leaving his winning streak on a mere 18.
But in so precarious a calling his mere presence in the fray, at the age of 11, is remarkable.
In Hurricane Fly, Bobs Worth and Big Buck's, there is achievement and talent far out of the ordinary.
However, the absence of the defending two-mile champion Sprinter Sacre from tomorrow's Queen Mother Champion Chase means the meeting lacks a horse that brings with it the possibility of wonderment, as did Frankel on the Flat.
Or does it? One of the rivals to Big Buck's will be a horse which might just prove another of those freak performers who bring with them another dimension.
Annie Power, unbeaten and unextended in 10 races, is a mare of such prodigious untapped talent that even her trainer Willie Mullins has not yet ascertained her limits.
Mullins, Ireland's perennial champion, also has Hurricane Fly and Quevega under his care, the flag-bearers of an extraordinary raiding party of 41 from his base in Co Carlow, of whom 25 were safely encamped yesterday, with reinforcements due later in the week.
Mullins is 4/9 favourite to take the week's trainer’s title, and was as level-headed as ever in the face of suggestions that he could single-handedly surpass last year’s Irish record score of 14 at this most competitive of fixtures.
"The horses travelled well," he said. "We are happy with the ground (good to soft yesterday) and we are keeping our fingers crossed. People obviously think that we are going to have a few winners and I hope they are right. But we don’t expect, we come over here and hope."
The sport is primarily about the horse, and at this meeting, what horses.
But without the human element they could not, would not, do their job and the men on top, with their different attributes – flair, empathy, perseverance, strength, unbreakable nerve in a calling where serious injury is always only a missed stride away – are stitched into the week's tapestry.
Ruby Walsh, even more than Tony McCoy, is the meeting's motif, the most successful of all time at the Festival with 38 winners and leading jockey for seven of the last 10.
This season, he threw his lot wholly in with Mullins in Ireland rather than splitting his time and talents between Closutton and Manor Farm, base of Britain's multiple champion Paul Nicholls.
This week he will be the hunter home to the hill, the gruelling climb to the finish he knows so well.
Walsh reported Hurricane Fly in fine fettle after his morning exercise.
"He has travelled over a few times and knows what it’s all about," he said.
"He's been here and done it twice before and if we are being clinical about it, the others have got something to prove and he hasn't.
"The Festival is just different to any other meeting. I don’t know if it's the crowd, the atmosphere or the expectation, but there is something just magical about it."
There is much for the purists to anticipate, but more venally there will be £250m wagered during the battle between those manning and queuing at the boards in the betting ring. (© Independent News Service)