The Cheltenham Festival is firmly pencilled in every jump racing fan’s diary. The Mecca of National Hunt Racing, held this year from March 10-13, is where legends are made and drama always ensues, and will be a highly emotional one this year due to the impending retirement of the 19–times champion jockey AP McCoy.
The 2010 Sports Personality of the Year revealed in February – after riding his 200th winner of the season – that he would be retiring by the end of the season. McCoy will ride Carlingford Lough in the Gold Cup and is fourth favourite for the race. He is certain to receive a deafening standing ovation if he manages to win the greatest prize in jump racing for the third and final time. This is certainly a combination to watch on the last day of the Festival, particularly if the John Kiely trained gelding is on song and jumping fluently.
The Gold Cup
McCoy and Carlingford Lough will face stiff opposition in the form of the double King George VI winner Silviniaco Conti ridden by Noel Fehily. Trained by Paul Nicholls, whose Gold Cup winners include the incomparable Kauto Star (2007 and 2009) and Denman (2008), Conti was found to be suffering from severe stomach ulcers after finishing a disappointing fourth in the race last year.
After rounds of treatment Conti came back to win comfortably at both Haydock and Kempton – both Grade One (top level) races – in strong company. Last December in the King George at Kempton, Conti showed why he is the undoubted favourite to win at Cheltenham this year, winning from the front with a flawless round of jumping ahead of the 2014 Ryanair Chase winner Dynaste.
Another potential challenger is last year’s winner Lord Windermere ridden by Davy Russell and trained by Jim Culloty, who rode Best Mate to three Gold Cup victories from 2002-2004. Culloty is the fourth person in history to ride and train a Gold Cup winner and has trained three winners at the Festival so far. Arguably the 2014 Gold Cup was the most open in years but Lord Windermere is a tough stayer and well suited to Cheltenham’s track.
With over 27 races to watch over the four days, including 12 Grade Ones, you can expect to see all the experienced top-class horses, as well as the up and coming novices who may spring a surprise in races such as the Champion Hurdle and the Champion Chase.
‘Steeplechaser from the gods’
Intense anticipation and excitement is building for the return of the “steeplechaser from the gods” Sprinter Sacre. The 2013 winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase (the championship race for two mile steeplechasers), is aiming to regain his title from last year’s winner Sire De Grugy. The nine year old gelding is considered by most to be the greatest two-mile chaser of all time but a serious health scare caused by a heart condition has cast doubt over his previously all-conquering form. On his return to Cheltenham the question is whether his physical problems have left a mental scar.
For Sire it has also not been plain sailing as he has been side-lined by a hip injury in November.
This season both horses have had rather underwhelming runs. In January Sprinter finished second to the improving Dodging Bullets at Ascot – his first run since December 2013, and Sire de Grugy unseated jockey Jamie Moore at Newbury on the home straight after inconsistent jumping. The latter made amends by winning impressively at Chepstow on February 21 with a polished round of jumping despite carrying top weight.
However Sprinter remains favourite with the majority of the bookies ahead of Sire for the Champion Chase but it is a race where anyone could win. Once you have added the Paul Nicholls–trained Dodging Bullets and Willie Mullins’ Champagne Fever to the fray, the Champion Chase is likely be one of the most open and exciting races of the Festival.
Faugheen ‘The Machine’ or ‘The Fly’?
The Champion Hurdle is considered to be the race of the Festival with highly experienced superstars and up-and-coming talented youngsters entered.
Ruby Walsh is currently the most successful jockey at the Festival – with an incredible 41 wins so far – and in this year’s Champion Hurdle (run over two miles with eight hurdles to jump) he faces an enviable but nonetheless difficult choice of which horse to ride: the brilliant young horse Faugheen or the tried and tested Hurricane Fly. Walsh has confirmed that he will not make a decision on who he rides for the Champion Hurdle until the Sunday (March 8) before Cheltenham but it has been speculated that he will choose the 2014 Neptune Novices’ Hurdle winner Faugheen.
Faugheen, often referred to as “Faugheen the Machine”, is the young pretender and the favourite for the title. The precocious seven-year-old gelding has put up several impressive victories, including at Kempton in December, and has generally cruised to wins. However he has yet to face the highly fancied The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies and ridden by his son Sam.
Despite winning his last outing in Haydock, which he won on very heavy ground, there were questions about The New One’s jumping technique. He will need to sharpen up his jumping in order to challenge Faugheen whose jumping is usually very sharp.
It would be a perilous mistake to disregard Hurricane Fly if he, at the grand old age of 11, turns up at Cheltenham. A winner of 22 Grade One races, the veteran gelding has a huge fan club and Willie Mullins admitted that it would be a “dream result” if the horse won his third Champion Hurdle title.
After beating the 2014 Champion Hurdle winner Jezki on his way to winning his fifth Irish Champion Hurdle title he will arrive at Cheltenham in formidable form if Ruby chooses him as his mount. At 11 there will not be many more Festivals for him on the agenda, and he disappointed in last year’s race finishing in fifth place, but as the saying goes, “form is temporary, class is permanent”.
Both the above horses are trained by Willie Mullins, who has a powerful team aiming for the Festival including favorites for the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle and the Arkle Challenge in Annie Power and Un De Sceaux. With a number of highly competitive rides, whoever Ruby chooses as his ride for the Champion Hurdle you can be sure that he will be right up there in the finishing stages.