SHORTLY after 1.30pm next Tuesday a deafening roar from the packed stands at Prestbury Park will signal the start of the 2010 Cheltenham Festival.
This four-day bonanza of national hunt racing sets pulses racing like no other fixture on the racing calendar and next week’s meeting hosts the prospects of some intriguing clashes.
The anticipated duel between stable companions Kauto Star and Denman, first and second favourites on all bookmakers’ boards for the totesport Gold Cup, is set to be one of the races of the season.
2007 Gold Cup winner, Kauto Star, became the first horse ever to regain the crown when defeating reigning champion Denman last year and Clive Smith’s star chaser looks set to go off odds-on March 19 to land his third Gold Cup.
Ruby Walsh, who has won the leading rider award at the festival for the last two years, rides the Gold Cup market-leader and the Kildare jockey again goes into the meeting with an enviable book of rides.
Master Minded in the Champion Chase, Big Bucks (World Hurdle) and Quevega in the David Nicholson Mares’ Race are just some of Walsh’s other fancied mounts and, having ridden seven winners at last year’s meeting, the current Irish champion, who enjoys the backing of the powerful Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins yards, is again the man to follow.
While the Gold Cup can be possibly narrowed down to a match, the same cannot be said of next Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle.
Throughout the season the market for hurdling’s two-mile crown has fluctuated and the news earlier this week was that Charles Byrnes’ Solwhit, who easily won the Irish equivalent at Leopardstown in January, is now a big doubt due to a bout of coughing, will probably see Noel Meade’s Go Native go off favourite.
This son of Double Eclipse, who represents the Docado Bay Syndicate from Galway, has done little wrong this term, winning the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle back in November en-route to an impressive victory in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. The fact that last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle victor is in line for a £1 million sterling bonus if successful in the opening day’s showpiece only adds spice to the occasion.
One big concern ahead of next week’s festival is the going all winter. Horses on both sides of the Irish Sea have been competing on rain-sodden ground and, while Cheltenham did turn on the taps to water their free-draining track last Monday, by late next week, if the recent dry spell continues, ground conditions could well be good resulting in the form book being turned on its head.
As always, the Irish team heading into action looks strong with Philip Fenton’s star hurdler, Dunguib, rated by many as a good bet to strike first blood for the Irish in Tuesday’s opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
He has been a revelation since going over timber and a massive reception will await the six-year-old should last season’s Champion Bumper winner deliver the goods under his regular partner, Limerick-born Brian O’Connell.
Willie Mullins has emerged as a serious force at the festival in recent years and, given the very strong team he has listed for duty next week, it is hard to envisage the Closutton handler leaving the Cotswolds venue empty-handed.
Leading owner JP McManus is also sure to feature over the four-days. He has over 20 horses set to carry the famous green and gold hoops of his beloved South Liberties GAA club, and with the likes of Garde Champetre, Captain Cee Bee and bumper fancy Made In Time among his armoury, a visit to the winner’s enclosure at some stage during the week seems inevitable for the Limerick native.
Local challengers are thin on the ground this year, with Noel Glynn’s two St Patrick’s Day runners being joined by A New Story in Tuesday’s Cross-Country Chase. The Michael Hourigan-trained 12-year-old, who limbered-up for this event when fourth over hurdles at Naas on Saturday, carries the colours of the Storey’s Over Syndicate that includes Ennis businessmen Sean Moran and Christy Guerin. A New Story finished fourth in this contest 12 months ago and can again be expected to put up a bold showing.
Powerstation, part-owned by Clarecastle bookmaker Neil Casey, has a terrific record at the festival and the 10-year-old, who finished third to Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle a year ago, is again set to take his chance for his Tipperary trainer Eamonn O’Connell in next Thursday’s three-mile contest.
Racing to the winners circle
The winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham Racecourse has witnessed many memorable scenes of jubilation over the years but the hallowed turf of Prestbury Park is likely to be overrun should well-known local trainer Noel Glynn manage to saddle a winner next week.
Glynn, who with close on 20 horses in training at his impressive Durra House facility adjacent to the Cross Of Spancilhill, is one of this country’s most high-profile owner/trainer’s and that is reflected in the fact that he has two horses travelling to compete at next week’s prestigious meeting in the shadows of the Cotswolds.
The colourful Ennis-born handler is heading there in confident mood as he believes his Becauseicouldntsee and Old McDonald, who are both in action on St Patrick’s Day, are serious contenders.
“I think both horses have a good chance and it is brilliant for a small trainer like me to have runners at this meeting,” says Glynn. “This is the Olympics of racing, however, and you have to be realistic and take into consideration that the best horses and the best jockeys are in action there, which makes it a very hard place to succeed.”
Glynn had hoped to have one of the best riders in the world on his side when booking six-time British Flat champion jockey Kieren Fallon for the mount aboard Old McDonald in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, but, unfortunately, Fallon has had cry off and will now be replaced by Meath jockey Paul Carberry, while his sister, leading lady rider Nina Carberry, will partner Becauseicouldntsee in Wednesday’s opener, the four-mile National Hunt Chase.
“Old McDonald won his bumper at Ludlow before Christmas in great style and has improved every day since. He has really thrived in the last few weeks and it is fantastic to be going there with a real live chance. We have always thought an awful lot of this horse.
“I bought him in France at a three-year-old, where he topped the sale, and since he’s come here he has always shown serious ability. His first run was in a bumper at Punchestown where he finished seventh to a good horse of Nicky Henderson’s called Quantativeasing, which was a fair effort. He then went to Fairyhouse where he was second to Tavern Times (who also run in Wednesday’s bumper) and then won next time out at Ludlow.”
“It is a pity Kieren wasn’t able to ride, but Paul is a brilliant jockey and, having won this race back in 2006 aboard Hairy Molly, he knows what it takes.”
Glynn, who’s only other festival runner was the unplaced Swing West in the Triumph Hurdle back in 1998, also has high hopes for Killaloe point-to-point winner, Becauseicouldntsee, who booked his trip to next week’s meeting with a facile success over fences at Fairyhouse last time out.
“Becauseicouldntsee is a fine, athletic type of a horse and he will love the track. He tends to jump to the left a bit so going left-handed will really suit him. It will be his first time tacking the four-mile trip, but I believe that will not be a problem. He jumps for fun and Nina is a top-class pilot who will give every bit as good as she gets.”
Should Glynn hit the jackpot with one, or both, of his runners next week, it will mark the realisation of lifelong ambition, something that is likely to be celebrated in style by the ebullient Glynn.
“All we can do is hope for the best. It is a very competitive place and one where everyone is doing their utmost to win. It would be fantastic to have a Festival winner and I suppose we wouldn’t be home for a month!”
Tips from the trackside
Cheltenham hasn’t been the happiest of hunting grounds in the past for six-time point-to-point champion Derek O’Connor but the Tubber rider, who, by his own admission, has had ‘had no luck at all there”, hopes to put that right next week. The 27-year-old, who has ridden four seconds to-date at the festival, has three rides during the week and here he gives his assessment on their chances.
Any Currency – National Hunt Chase
“I was booked for this ride a good while ago and he appears to have a very solid chance. His trainer Martin Keighley trains quite near to the course and his horses have been doing very well of late. He is one of the favourites for the race and has very decent form in good handicap chases this term. I know it is always a very competitive race and a bit of luck in running is always needed but I’m very hopeful of a good showing.”
Lochan Lacha – Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase
“Tony Martin asked me to go to Leopardstown to sit on this horse last Monday week and he seemed very well in himself. We jumped six fences and he gave me a great feel which was encouraging. Obviously given his big-race record, Martin is a genius at preparing a horse for a major race and I’m sure this fellow will be tuned to the minute. He was fourth to Jimmy Mangan’s Whinstone Boy in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran last time which was a good run and he is definitely not without a chance.”
On The Net – Christie’s Foxhunter Chase
This fellow has some good runs for his Cork trainer Eoghan O’Grady and I was delighted to get the ride on him. He was a very good chaser inside the rails, winning six races, and appears to have still retained plenty of ability. He’s done well this season and landed a competitive open lightweight last time out at Kildorrery. He’s as good as any of the Irish horses travelling over and I’m really looking forward to a decent spin.”