Theatre of dreams set to enthrall
This time next week we will be on the verge of yet another enthralling Cheltenham Festival. The highlight of the entire four days could come early, courtesy of a Champion Hurdle to die for on Tuesday, but we can expect a full schedule of utterly compelling drama. Same as ever.
In an effort to digest some of the myriad strands, here is a breakdown of the elements that could shape it.
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We've been blessed with some vintage renewals of the Champion Hurdle of late, from Istabraq's brilliance to the Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace and Harchibald bouts and then Hurricane Fly's dogged retrieval of his crown in 2013. And we are in for another belter this time. The reigning champion, Our Conor, My Tent Or Yours or The New One would all be worthy winners.
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To many punters' surprise, Davy Russell hasn't ridden for his former Gigginstown employers for a month and the loss of Solwhit was also a blow.
However, he was never going to just disappear. Available and in-demand, he has bagged at least one win at every Festival since his first in 2006. Class is permanent.
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Bryan Cooper, Russell's successor, took Prestbury Park by storm last year, but it will be a bit different this time as he has the responsibility of leading the line for a team that expects results. It will be the same for rookie Danny Mullins. Both have serious books.
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Barry Connell, Danny Mullins' boss, has spent big money assembling a diverse team. His spree escalated last year with the €375,000 acquisition of Golantilla and then he made his audacious swoop for Our Conor after that Triumph Hurdle rout.
Connell has benched The Tullow Tank and Mossey Joe is to wait for Aintree, but, such is the depth of his battalion, he could still add to his sole Festival success with Pedrobob in 2007.
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Jane Mangan suffered one of the most ignominious jump racing exits in recent times when Oscar Delta deposited her halfway up the run-in with the Foxhunters' at their mercy last year. Not only would it have been her first Festival winner, it would also have been her first over fences, an aberration she has yet to right.
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It is 20 years since Champion Hurdle heroine Flakey Dove became the last mare to win one of the four major championship events, a year after Shuil Ar Aghaidh landed the Stayers for the Kielys. Now it's up to Annie Power to do her bit for, well, girl power. No better woman.
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In a way, Big Buck's has been overtaken by events. But for injury last term, he might have joined Golden Miller and Quevega as a five-time Festival winner.
Now, Quevega vies for her own slice of (qualified) history, while Big Buck's needs to recover from an iffy return to action to claim a fifth World Hurdle.
If both were to win, it would be hard to deny that Big Buck's' belated place alongside Golden Miller wouldn't be more laudable.
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Willie Mullins stated yesterday that the plan is for Ruby Walsh to ride Annie Power in the World Hurdle. Walsh is not yet confirmed for anything in the Gold Cup and Paul Nicholls has a few in it.
With Noel Fehily already on Silviniaco Conti, Nick Scholfield on Irving and Sam Twiston-Davies on Big Buck's for his comeback, the Daryl Jacob-Nicholls axis looks to be on borrowed time. Indeed, Fehily has been used increasingly by Nicholls of late. The prospect of Walsh on Big Buck's is gone, but there could be a few more twists in this tale.
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Speaking of Walsh, his (usually anonymous) critics like to point out that he hasn't ridden a winner over fences at the Festival since Kauto Star reclaimed the Gold Cup in 2009. Right now, I'd be of the opinion that he will redress that imbalance next week.
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The last time the great bonanza got under way with the official going described as 'soft' was 1995, when mud-larks Alderbrook and Master Oats ploughed to a famous Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double for Norman Williamson and Kim Bailey.
The ground was soft last week, with another inch of rain due up to Friday. Bring it on. The racing test will be all the more authentic for it.
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Sprinter Sacre, Solwhit, Sir Des Champs, Simonsig, Salsify, Cue Card and Alderwood have won an aggregate 13 times at the Festival, so for them all to be absent is a pity.
Sprinter Sacre, in particular, is a huge loss as he is the sort of iconic champion that makes the Cotswolds gala what it is. All of a sudden, the two-mile division has gone from the sublime to the mediocre.
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There will be a new Grade One at the Festival for a first time since 2008. The two-mile-five-furlong novices' chase, formerly the Jewson, but now the JLT, earned a promotion after being farmed by decent Irish winners Noble Prince, Sir Des Champs and Benefficient.
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In a golden age for promotional gimmicks, next up is the inaugural Prestbury Cup.
Piggybacking on the unprecedented 2013 feat by the raiders to outscore the locals 14-13, the cup is to be presented to a delegation of trainers and jockeys when either England or Ireland gets to the magic 14 mark.
Not to be unpatriotic, but last year was a proportional anomaly that we could go a long time before witnessing again.
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By the by, in my wisdom last year, I ventured that if Willie Mullins didn't have three or four winners, we might struggle to match our 2012 tally of five. We ended up with nine different successful trainers and a record yield. Still, best to keep the expectations modest again.
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If Champagne Fever wins one of the novice chases, he will join Bobs Worth and Flyingbolt as the only horses to win three different races in consecutive years. To these eyes, he has long had the cut of a future Gold Cup contender about him, so he wouldn't look out of place.
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We waited 30 years to get a repeat Gold Cup winner, then we got two in the space of a few years. Bobs Worth is poised to make it three, but he faces stiff competition from Silviniaco Conti and Last Instalment. It should be some finale. Enjoy.
GRIFFIN'S MAGGIO SCORES AT KELSO FOR FOURTH TIME
Dublin-based handler Pat Griffin was the only Irish trainer to enjoy some cross-channel pleasure on Saturday when stable star Maggio scored for a fourth time at Kelso under Brian Hughes.
The 8/1 shot's last nine starts have come in the north of England or Scotland and he is likely to return to that part of the world next for Aintree's Topham Chase.
At Doncaster, Gordon Elliott's fancied Layla Joan unseated Paul Carberry at the first in a Listed mares' hurdle that went to Nicky Henderson's Mayfair Music in the hands of Barry Geraghty. Henderson, meanwhile, has decided to let his Hennessy Gold Cup winner Triolo D'Alene tackle the Gold Cup ahead of the Grand National.
AP McCoy, who is to ride Rebecca Curtis' National hope Teaforthree in the Gold Cup, has opted for the shrewd Welsh handler's At Fisher's Cross over Jonjo O'Neill's fellow JP McManus-owned More Of That in the World Hurdle.
Meanwhile, Concordin returned to his best to continue the fine run of form being enjoyed by Robert Tyner and Philip Enright when scoring on his handicap hurdling debut at odds of 9/1 at Navan on Saturday.
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
Well Done to Bandon Point to Point for the extra effort put into the lady riders' tent!
Jane Mangan acknowledges the west Cork venue's efforts with an accompanying photo of a small table bedecked with refreshments, including some compulsory bags of Tayto.
5 – Simenon's finishing position in a Meydan Group Three on Saturday, in which Mick Halford's Certerach was third. A tilt at the Dubai Gold Cup is next for Willie Mullins' globetrotter.