Be warned: all golden eras come to an end
This time next week it will all be about to kick off.
Cheltenham in March is where men win glory and horses join the immortals, and over the past number of years, we have been privy to some incredible feats.
The Cotswold amphitheatre has long been the venue where true champions have had their status definitively established, but things aren't always quite as good as they have been.
Before Best Mate, no horse had won more than one Gold Cup for over 30 years. Then he bagged three and Kauto Star two, during a prolonged golden era for the game's elite chasers.
In 2000, Istabraq secured a brilliant hat-trick of Champion Hurdles, the first to bag more than one since 1987. In 2005, Hardy Eustace denied Harchibald for his second in what was a vintage spell for hurdlers.
Some 15 years passed between Galmoy landing his second Stayers' (World) Hurdle and Baracouda doing the same in 2003. Five years later, Inglis Drever had ground out a famous hat-trick, and now Big Buck's has done the same, possibly with more to come.
In the two-mile chasing division, we've had Moscow Flyer and Master Minded win a pair of Champion Chases apiece, two horses that would surely have held their own at any point since the race was established in 1959.
This time round, Sizing Europe, Hurricane Fly and Long Run are all bidding for two-in-a-row, with Big Buck's on for that four-timer.
It's just 14/1 that they all score.
Despite the prolificacy of recent years, no two horses have retained their titles in any of the four traditional championship races in the same year since Galmoy and Pearlyman did so in the Stayers' Hurdle and Champion Chase respectively in 1988. That is an alarming statistic, albeit one that has much to do with happenstance.
It also serves as a reminder of just how much of a toll winning these races exacts, something that you may have been lulled into forgetting over the past decade or so, and a detail that has come to mind watching Long Run in his last three outings.
Whether you believe Kauto Star's superiority over him at Haydock and Kempton this term was due to Long Run not being fully tuned or Kauto Star being back to his best, he was a shadow of the horse he was last year.
In Kauto Star's absence at Newbury, he was no more convincing, and I for one felt that he was ready to add his name to the list of 31 other Gold Cup winners since L'Escargot that failed to recapture the crown.
Had Kauto Star enjoyed a clear run to Prestbury Park, we had a horse capable of exploiting the situation, a worthy alternative, if you like. For all the encouraging vibes to come out of Ditcheat, his tumble last Friday week has muddied those waters. So, say Long Run proves as vulnerable as he has looked next Friday week, and Kauto Star fails to make the stage, or even does so on the back of an "awful" fall that has prompted such uncertainty about his participation.
What are we left with then? Quel Esprit? Grands Crus? Burton Port even? The end of a golden era?
Drying ground at Leopardstown yesterday greatly reduced the impact of the traditional after-racing gallops ahead of Cheltenham.
Noel Meade and Dessie Hughes were among those opting not to work their contenders, but Willie Mullins did let his string have a gentle canter, although none engaged in anything serious.
Among them were Sir Des Champs, Raptor, The Midnight Club, Blackstairmountain, Boxer Georg, Prince De Beauchene, Quiscover Fontaine and On His Own.
"We were here anyway and if we brought then home (without having a canter) we would only have had to ride then out tonight at home," Mullins said.
Trainer Paul Flynn declared himself pleased with Galway Hurdle winner Moon Dice, a contender for the Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle which went with Dermot Weld's pair Daffern Seal and Merchant Royal.
Owners looking for
a slice of the cake
In a submission to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the Association of Irish Racehorse Owners (AIRO) has applied for a slice of the media rights money -- up to €48,000 per fixture -- that racecourses receive.
Airo argues that because its members' "very significant" contributions provide "much needed employment", they are entitled to a cut, using Premier League footballers' image rights as a comparison.
Owners are a fundamentally important component of the industry, but that is a slightly skewed analogy, and many racecourses are struggling. Horse Racing Ireland opted to retain 2011 prizemoney levels for 2012, meaning that Irish racing's exceedingly generous pots, of which owners benefit most, were left untouched despite ongoing contractions in the industry.
Maybe AIRO feels there would be a trickle-down effect similar to that of prizemoney, but other stake-holders, such as trainers, jockeys and stable staff, would surely be far more deserving of a media rights take in the current climate. The revenue is substantial but, however it is spread out, the nuts and bolts of the game need it. If an owner does, then maybe they are in the wrong game.
Rain at Cheltenham
After 12mm of rain yesterday, the going at Cheltenham is now soft, good to soft in places. The cross-country course remains good to firm, with little rainfall forecast for this week.
Ride of the weekend
Andrew Leigh anchored the keen-running Steel Park at the back of the field in yesterday's handicap hurdle at Leopardstown, before creeping up the inside on the turn for home. The long-time leader The Way We Were refused to go quietly, but Leigh coaxed his mount's nose in front as they bobbed across the line.
He couldn't possibly have judged it better.
Helena Keaveney made a splash by saddling Lord Of Lords to win the bumper under Steven Crawford at Navan on Saturday.
Just her third runner and first winner, the Flemensfirth gelding was backed from fancy prices into an SP of 11/2, before landing the gamble by 23 lengths on his racecourse bow.
Keaveney, a restricted licence holder, is renting stables at Aidan O'Brien's old yard in Piltown. She is clearly putting them to good use.
Number of the week
9 The number of successive Grand National winners that have thus far failed to win again under rules. Last year's Aintree hero Ballabriggs returned to the fray on Saturday, finishing an encouraging fourth at Kelso. Montys Pass did win a charity race at Cork for Mary Mangan after his Liverpool triumph in 2003, while Silver Birch landed a Nenagh point-to-point two years after his 2007 coup.
"@motherwayc I didn't get in as much trouble in school as I got in on the Buck today #traffic" -- Barry Geraghty rues the traffic problems that arguably did for the heavily-backed Buck Magic at Newbury on Saturday. He directed his comment to Colin Motherway, who won a Kilmallock point-to-point on the horse two years ago.