Cheltenham Festival 2018: Essential guide to jump racing's big week
|Venue: Cheltenham Racecourse Date: 13-16 March|
|Coverage: Full coverage on BBC Radio 5 live; continued on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra; live text updates on BBC Sport website|
It's upon us: the Cheltenham Festival, the most important week of the jump racing year when most of the best national hunt horses do battle for championship honours.
These days, however, the Festival is no longer just a major horse racing occasion; it has secured its own increasingly significant position in the British sporting calendar as a whole.
One illustration: I am celebrating my 35th anniversary of working there. Back in 1983 trainer Michael Dickinson pulled off what was considered a barely credible 1-2-3-4-5 in the Gold Cup - the order's a good one for certain pub quizzes, so here goes: Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House - and, that year, the average attendance was only about 24,000 per afternoon over three days.
In 2018, the 14th Festival scheduled to be staged over four days, that average will be more than 60,000 people. Additionally, the amount of airtime given over by radio and TV, plus the space for editorial and promotions on-line and in newspapers, has grown out of all recognition.
Perhaps the biggest single change from 1983 is the amount of success for Irish stables. Then it was five wins from 18 races, although that figure wasn't equalled for 10 years, and in 1989 the visitors endured 'nil points'. Today, hopes of an improvement on 2017's success in the BetBright Anglo-Irish challenge, with a record 19 wins from 28 races, is considered realistic.
- 2017 winner Sizing John out of Gold Cup
- Podcast: 5 live Cheltenham preview
- Cheltenham race schedule & BBC coverage
Here's my guide to the week ahead…
First things first: the weather
It is often said that because of its position nestling in the foothills of the Cotswold Hills, the spa town of Cheltenham has its own micro climate.
That may sometimes be the case, but it didn't apply when the 'Beast from the East' and Storm Emma had their recent encounter in Britain; as elsewhere, snow drifts gathered, some five-feet deep around the fences and hurdles, and temperatures at one point plunged to -17C.
It's estimated 500 tonnes of snow had to be cleared from the track and public areas combined, and the effects of that precipitation, plus further rain, means the Festival is set to start on the softest racing surface seen for day one in more than 25 years.
The storm from Ireland: Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott look stronger than ever
Willie Mullins is the champion trainer of Irish jump racing, while his arch-rival Gordon Elliott was the titleholder at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival for the first time, with six of his home country's successes. Between them, the pair have 15 of the 19 Irish-trained likely favourites this time.
The Elliott team - many with jockeys wearing the maroon and white silks of the Gigginstown House Stud operation, owned by airline tycoon Michael O'Leary - includes Gigginstown's Samcro, who appears at arrivals with the thickest cloud of hype.
The horse was deliberately called Samcro by his breeder - after the Sons Of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original from the US television series Sons of Anarchy - in an attempt to attract O'Leary, who is said to like names with powerful connotations.
Unbeaten in seven races, including a point-to-point, Samcro is an Irish 'banker' in day two's Ballymore Novices Hurdle as he heads the list of Elliott runners along with Apple's Jade - trained by Mullins prior to a high-profile fallout with O'Leary in 2016 - who goes for a repeat in the OLGB Mares Hurdle (day one).
Meanwhile, Mullins has something of a 'banker' of his own in Getabird, all the rage for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle, the opening race of the whole week, the moment when that famous 'Cheltenham roar' goes up from the crowd as months of anticipation finally comes to an end.
Like a majority of the stable's biggest hopes, Getabird will be the mount of Ruby Walsh, the Festival's most successful jockey with 56 wins, and leading rider for 11 of the last 14 years; he's just back from an absence of more than three months because of a broken right leg.
The Mullins challenge also includes three high-profile runners looking to regain their mojos: Faugheen, Yorkhill (both Unibet Champion Hurdle) and Douvan (Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase).
Faugheen, the injury-ravaged Champion Hurdler of 2015, has suffered two recent defeats and will wear cheek pieces to aid concentration; Yorkhill, last season's JLT Chase winner, has rather lost his way; while Douvan, twice a Festival winner, will be racing for the first time since flopping in the 2017 Champion Chase, when clashing with Altior in the race this time or lining up in the Ryanair Chase.
Altior just one star in Henderson challenge
Just as Messrs Elliott and Mullins dominate the Irish assault, the stable of Nicky Henderson, based at Lambourn in Berkshire, has a majority of the foot soldiers manning the home defences.
Henderson, who's won more Festival races than any other trainer - 58 - has the major players in three of the week's four principal features, and is fancied to complete what would be an unprecedented treble.
Buveur D'Air, owned by JP McManus, looks outstanding as he defends his Champion Hurdle title, although Henderson and McManus are also represented by serial runner-up in the race My Tent Or Yours; Altior and jockey Nico de Boinville seek their third Festival successes together in the Queen Mother Champion Chase; while Might Bite and de Boinville attempt to join an elite band who've won jumping's King George VI Chase and Timico-sponsored Gold Cup in the same season.
To mix metaphors, Might Bite, owned by the Knot Again Partnership headed by Kent County Cricket Club chairman Simon Philip, is a terrific all-rounder, although is prone to near run-outs.
The nine-year-old has twice nearly grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory when veering off a straight line late on at Cheltenham, notably in the RSA Chase of 2017; were these antics guaranteed not to be repeated, his big-race odds would be considerably shorter as he takes on Native River, Our Duke and co. - although not last year's winner Sizing John, who is injured.
Talking of the Gold Cup, here's a stat for you: Willie Mullins, who is due to run last year's fourth Djakadam, Total Recall and the well-touted Killultagh Vic, has never won the race, and has - pretty extraordinarily - had horses finish runner-up six times including Djakadam twice.
Day three: move over St Patrick, the people's horses are in town
They call it St Patrick's Thursday, but, not least because it's on 15 March, day three could almost be re-named 'old heroes' Thursday this year as Cue Card and The New One strut their stuff at their seventh Festival.
For Cue Card, a two-time Festival winner - although perhaps best-known for falling at the third-last fence in the last two Gold Cups - his appearance in the Ryanair Chase is likely to be his swansong at the fixture.
The jump racing public has taken the 12-year-old to their hearts for his success in landing a total of 16 races, of course, but also for his capacity to bounce back in the face of adversity, like the falls.
Success for the veteran, trained by Colin Tizzard for octogenarian owner Jean Bishop, and the mount of jockey Paddy Brennan, against defending champion Un Des Sceaux and the rest would, as they say, raise the roof.
Unlike Cue Card, who missed a couple of years, the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained The New One, who lines up with the trainer's jockey son Sam in the Sunbets Stayers Hurdle, has not missed a Festival since taking in his first in 2012; his CV includes a novices' hurdle success and form figures of 3-5-4-5 in successive Champion Hurdles.
Any other business
Britain's youngest trainer Amy Murphy, 26, doesn't have ammunition to equal some of her rivals, but she does have up-and-coming hurdler Kalashnikov, one of the favourites for the Supreme Novices Hurdle (day one).
Rising-star jockey Bryony Frost is due to renew her prolific partnership with Black Corton in the RSA Chase (day two).
Some bookmakers' estimates of how much will be bet during the Festival seem a bit wild, and £350m is probably a reasonable call: the bookies seem to most fear Footpad, well-backed for the Racing Post Arkle Trophy (day one).
Champion racehorse-turned-stallion Frankel has his first runner at the Cheltenham Festival when the Dan Skelton-trained Solo Saxophone lines up in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle (day two).
In a year dominated by the bigger names, owners Caron and Paul Chapman, trainer Jedd O'Keeffe and jockey Joe Colliver fly the flag for those with a lower-profile, with Sam Spinner in the Stayers Hurdle (day three).
Sam Spinner and Gold Cup hope Definitly Red (named by a bad speller, apparently), both Yorkshire-trained, seek to continue the recent resurgence of jump racing's northern circuit.
And finally...109-year-old racing fan Ralph Hoare finally gets the chance to tick the Cheltenham Festival off his bucket list of things to do when he attends Gold Cup day.