Cheltenham: 21 questions
With 21 days to go until the start of the Cheltenham Festival, we assess the potential for more record-breaking Cotswold feats and Irish domination
Three weeks from today, the waiting will be over.
A countdown that began when the aptly named Tanks For That coasted home last of the 18 finishers in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase at Prestbury Park on March 18, 2011 will cease, and the mayhem will begin. Four whole days of enthralling jump racing.
The Cheltenham Festival is the most anticipated event in the sport's calendar, so the deafening roar that sets the curtain-raising Supreme Novices' Hurdle field on its way is always welcomed by a warm collective smile. It remains one of life's simple pleasures.
As the showpiece comes into sharper focus, it's worth looking at some of the issues that will be played out in another week of pulsating Cotswold drama. One for each day of waiting that's left.
1 Will the controversial new whip rules overshadow the racing?
Hopefully not. On Friday, the British Horseracing Authority's new CEO Paul Bittar reported that he is "hopeful of a sensible resolution to the whip issue pre-Cheltenham". They need to get it right this time.
2 Can Willie Mullins retain his leading trainer's gong?
A year ago, Mullins defied fears about his string's well-being on the eve of the Festival to record an opening-day double that included Hurricane Fly's scintillating Champion Hurdle triumph, and he topped the pile with four at the end of the week. It will be fascinating to see if he can replicate that dominance.
3 Could Irish-trained horses match last year's record tally of 13 winners?
Maybe. Irish horses currently head or share favouritism in 12 of the 27 ante-post markets. A double-figure return would be another fine week's work, and 13 is certainly not inconceivable.
4 Will our two returning champions retain their crowns?
Hurricane Fly is odds-on to secure back-to-back Champion Hurdle successes, with Sizing Europe only a shade longer to do likewise in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. They are undoubtedly the ones to beat.
5 Is there a fourth mares' race in Quevega?
We don't see much of her, but that's by design, and nothing has emerged to suggest that current odds of 4/7 are unjustified. Should she pull it off, she will be the first horse since Istabraq to win at the Festival four years in a row.
6 Is there a fourth World Hurdle in Big Buck's?
No horse has won the same championship race at Cheltenham four times since Golden Miller, which clocked his fifth Gold Cup in 1936. History is against Big Buck's, but that's about all.
7 Can Minsk land the Triumph Hurdle?
In 2011, Zarkandar won the juveniles' Grade One just 20 days after making his hurdling debut. Dessie Hughes' Minsk, winner of the Irish Cesarewitch on its last start in October, will need to do the same. He is the ante-post favourite at 7/1, and gets his jumping career under way at Fairyhouse this Saturday. It's a big ask.
8 Who will be the leading owner for Irish trainers?
JP McManus no longer enjoys uncontested supremacy in this department. Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown team clocked three winners in 2011, while Alan Potts of the 'Sizing' brand bagged two. For the first time since 1993, McManus drew a blank. That could hardly happen two years in a row, right?
9 With Last Instalment out, are any other future Irish Gold Cup contenders likely to emerge?
It's improbable, but not out of the question. Flemenstar and Bog Warrior are expected to miss the meeting, but First Lieutenant came alive there last year, as did Sir Des Champs. We still don't know how good either of those are.
10 Will Ireland finally win a Ryanair Chase?
A race that came about too late for two-and-a-half-mile specialist Native Upmanship, Mossbank's second in 2008 is our best result in the newest championship event. This time, Noble Prince and Rubi Light vie for favouritism.
11 How good are our novice hurdlers?
Difficult to say at the moment. Boston Bob, Galileo's Choice and Steps To Freedom lead a contingent that has a bit of depth, but Boston Bob has to do it on good ground, Dermot Weld has rotten luck at Cheltenham and Steps To Freedom's form has taken plenty knocks. Overall, though, the collective looks a buy rather than a sell.
12 Might Dermot Weld end his Cheltenham drought?
It's 22 years since Weld saddled Rare Holiday to win the Triumph Hurdle, so he's long overdue. Apart from Galileo's Choice, Hisaabaat is Triumph-bound this time, with Merchant Royal another expected to travel with a squeak.
13 Is Sprinter Sacre really all that?
Barry Geraghty reckons so, and he should know -- he had a long association with Moscow Flyer, one of the all-time great two-mile chasers, and he believes Sprinter Sacre is in that rank. Cheltenham will reveal all.
14 Can we regain supremacy in the bumper?
Between the race's inception in 1992 and 2009, Irish horses failed to win the champion bumper on just two occasions. This year, the home team is going for three in a row. It's time to put a stop to their gallop.
15 Can we maintain supremacy in the cross-country race?
This one has been a gimme for Irish horses since its introduction in 2005. As of now, the first four in the betting, headed by Mullins' Scotsirish, are Irish-trained. It's probably a formality again.
16 Will our handicappers feel Phil Smith's wrath?
When the weights were unveiled for the handicaps last year, consensus was that Smith had been uncharacteristically lenient. Five wins in 11 handicaps confirmed as much. He'll hardly be as benevolent this time.
17 Who will be the Festival's top jockey?
Ruby Walsh, who has 32 Festival winners, is odds-on to be leading rider for a fifth time in a row. Barry Geraghty (4/1) is his main threat, with fancy prices available about the rest.
18 Will another all-time record be set?
In 2010, Walsh surpassed Pat Taaffe's tally of 25 Festival winners -- a figure AP McCoy equalled in 2011 -- to become the most successful jockey in the history of the event. Now, Nicky Henderson is just one shy of Fulke Walwyn's record of 40 for a trainer, and goes to war with a strong team. It's 2/1 he hits 41 on day one.
19 Might all four returning champions prevail?
It's rare enough that the holders of all four of the traditional championship events return to defend their crowns, let alone do so with such strong credentials. It's just 18/1 that Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe, Big Buck's and Long Run all go in again. On the other hand, you can have 25/1 about Long Run being the first of the four to do so. Imagine if that ticket was still valid come the final day.
20 How will the latest chapter in the Kauto Star-Long Run saga unfold?
Long Run conquered Kauto Star twice last term, Kauto has got his own back in emphatic style on the two occasions that they crossed swords this season. Things are fairly evenly balanced. Some reckon the dual holder is simply atoning for a below-par campaign last season, others reckon that Long Run will redress the balance come Cheltenham. It's going to be another belter.
21 Could Quel Esprit disrupt the big two?
Probably not, but you never know in this game. He is unbeaten in completed starts over fences, was still tanking when he fell in front three-out in the RSA last year, and did it the hard way in the Hennessy. Oh, and he is trained by Willie Mullins. Write that man off at your peril.