Cheltenham Festival 2017: O'Leary v Mullins, Tea for Two and Cue Card
|Cheltenham Festival on the BBC|
|Dates: 14-17 March Venue: Cheltenham|
|Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live & BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, live text coverage on the BBC Sport website and app (full coverage details)|
Welcome to the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.
In terms of quality, there are two ways in which to look at this year's four-day jump racing extravaganza, which starts on Tuesday.
On the one hand, it's been badly hit by a list of star absentees, probably unprecedented in length, but on the other it will, of course, present an opportunity for others to start their upward trajectory.
None of last season's 'Big Four' championship winners are back to defend their titles.
Champion Hurdler Annie Power is injured though she may return for Ireland's Punchestown Festival in April; Sprinter Sacre, the hugely popular Queen Mother Champion Chaser, has been retired; Thistlecrack, winner of the Stayers Hurdle - and winter Gold Cup favourite - is also hurt and misses the rest of the year, while Don Cossack's Gold Cup success turned out to be his swansong.
Faugheen, Vautour, Coneygree, Road To Riches, Don Poli, Finian's Oscar and The Storyteller are other high-profile names that won't be there.
All sorts of theories abound for the reason behind the prevalence of injury, including the likelihood that an increasingly intense level of competition takes more than ever out of these horses, though it's bad luck that remains the principal factor.
This year, the already upwardly curving profiles of Altior (Arkle Trophy) and Douvan (Queen Mother Champion Chase) are tipped to soar further.
The biggest talking point
Willie Mullins, the leading Festival trainer for five of the past six years, insists that he's put behind him September's shock split with the Gigginstown House Stud operation of Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary.
For his part, O'Leary, who removed 60 horses from Mullins' HQ apparently because of a rise in training fees, has spoken of hoping that "agreement can be reached at some time in the future … to resume buying and training more graded winners for us".
That's it, then? Well, no because these two massive National Hunt figures will, of course, be in opposition throughout the week.
And just like the footballer transferred to a rival club or the Formula 1 driver who switches teams, observers relish the opportunity to witness the potential aftershocks as the parties face up to each other.
Especially intriguing will be encounters between Mullins' horses and any Gigginstown runners he previously had under his care but which are now elsewhere.
In the Champion Hurdle, the Mullins-trained pair Footpad and Wicklow Brave must contend with ex-stablemate Petit Mouchoir, trained these days by Henry de Bromhead; elsewhere, the clash of Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag (both Mullins) and Apple's Jade (moved to Gordon Elliott) in the Mares Hurdle looks intriguing, as does the presence of Outlander (another which left for Elliott) against Djakadam for Mullins in Friday's Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Jockeying for Cheltenham fame
As only the second female jockey to ride in the Gold Cup - after Linda Sheedy who partnered Foxbury behind Burrough Hill Lad in 1984 - many eyes will be on Lizzie Kelly as she rides Tea For Two, part-owned by her mother Jane and trained by her step-father Nick Williams.
Many ears too, actually, as she's a pundit on BBC Radio 5 Live's coverage.
Kelly is expected to have four chances of big-race glory; even more in the jockey spotlight will be Mark Walsh, no relation to leading Festival jockey Ruby Walsh or his sister Katie, but an integral part of the team around owner JP McManus in Ireland.
Walsh, who's not yet ridden a Festival winner, has been propelled onto a number of high-profile McManus-owned mounts in place of the injured Barry Geraghty.
None will be higher than the Alan King-trained Yanworth, winner of races this season at Ascot, Kempton and Wincanton, and one of the principals in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday.
Walsh is highly likely to make an impression, as is Jack Kennedy, Irish racing's 17-year-old 'wonderkid', who, in only his second season race-riding, looks as polished as some of his more senior colleagues.
The name of the former champion of Ireland's fiercely competitive pony-racing circuit should be an easy one to remember, and, riding for his prolific boss, trainer Gordon Elliott, he'll have some strongly fancied mounts all through the 28-race programme at Cheltenham.
What's in a name?
From Melon and A Genie In Abottle to Unowhatimeanharry - only 18 characters and spaces are allowed, remember - to The Crafty Butcher and Djakadam, all kinds of weird and wonderful horses' names will be popping up during the Festival.
Some will be memorable, some ingenious, some a bit random, others just plain bonkers.
Many deserve prizes for inventiveness, and my award goes to Might Bite, so named by members of the Knot Again Partnership not because the RSA Chase favourite is free with his gnashers nor because he's a son of the stallion Scorpion (they sting anyhow) but because of his mum, Knotted Midge.
A knotted midge is a fishing fly that gives fishermen or women as good a chance as any that a trout - for which they're particularly effective in catching - might bite.
Cueing up the Gold Cup with the Tizzards
Perhaps the Festival is a little light on stardust, but there is one very notable exception to that suggestion.
The 11-year-old Cue Card, racing for octogenarian owner Jean Bishop and trained by Colin Tizzard, will line up in a Festival race for a fifth time. He's won twice, the Weatherbys Bumper (2010) and the Ryanair Chase (2013), and was moving well until falling at the third-last fence in the 2016 Gold Cup.
Along with stablemate Native River, who was successful in this season's Hennessy Gold Cup, Welsh Grand National and Denman Chase, Cue Card, a nine-time Grade One race winner, spearheads Tizzard's strongest ever challenge at Cheltenham.
And that's despite his Thistlecrack, once Gold Cup favourite, being injured in February.
Not long ago, Tizzard was a dairy farmer based in the lush green pastures of the Dorset-Somerset borders, who trained a few racehorses, mainly ridden by jockey-son Joe.
Today, assisted by wife Pauline, the now retired-from-the-saddle Joe and daughter Kim, he runs one of the most successful stables in these islands - with quite a few cows on the side.
National Hunt racing is famously proud of its roots in rural Britain and Ireland, so the Tizzards are seen as typifying what it's all about, and the sport loves them all for it.
Especially Cue Card, who's the one horse this year that could raise the roof as he attempts to become the first Gold Cup winner aged over 10 since the late 1960s.
Though considerable momentum has built up behind the Jonjo O'Neill-trained More Of That, the 2014 champion staying hurdler, most of the perceived main challengers against the Tizzard pair are Irish raiders: two-time runner-up Djakadam, Sizing John, Outlander and maybe Empire Of Dirt.
Time please (for four drinks only)
The Cheltenham Festival media guide is essential reading for media folk though, as a veteran of about thirty, I've noticed one difference this time.
The 'In Figures' pages includes a flurry of must-have stats, like the fixture's £100m boost to the Gloucestershire economy or the record seven wins by a jockey at a single Festival (Ruby Walsh, 2009 and 2016) or the nine tons of potatoes whose boiling and frying is overseen in 34 temporary kitchens by 350 chefs.
Some 8,000 gallons of tea and coffee made get big mentions too, as do 45,000 bread rolls, but the amounts of champagne and Guinness consumed - once a staple diet of promotional material - are gone. (For the record, it was 20,000 bottles of fizz and 265,000 pints of stout).
This change of emphasis follows the embarrassment caused by pictures of intoxicated footballers and other racegoers being published around the world in 2016.
Now, there's a chance that the Jockey Club, the owner of Cheltenham and custodian of British horseracing since the 18th century, is being a tiny bit po-faced about all this - it was hardly an epidemic - but they've launched a crackdown.
Consequently, a limit of four alcoholic drinks at a time will be imposed on those among the 260,000 visitors buying a round of drinks, while complimentary hospitality bars will close earlier and more water will be made available.
Tips, tips, tips
Champion Hurdle: Festival regulars The New One and My Tent Or Yours are guaranteed to run solid races. 'My Tent', along with Buveur D'Air and Brain Power, is trying to give trainer Nicky Henderson a record sixth win. Yanworth is a danger to all though front-running Petit Mouchoir could run them all into the ground.
Queen Mother Champion Chase: The brilliant Douvan is unbeaten since joining Willie Mullins, and barring something extraordinary is expected to extend his sequence.
Stayers Hurdle: Unowhatimeanharry is all the rage, but Festival regular Jezki is the most solid of performers who will relish the challenge ahead.
Gold Cup: The Tizzard pair, Cue Card and Native River, and Djakadam all have strong credentials, but so does Irish Gold Cup winner Sizing John, who has a bit of something about him. The one concern is his stamina lasting out the three-and-a-quarter-mile distance, but he gives the impression he'll be OK.