CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL 2014: setting the scene for highlight of racing year

FESTIVAL FEVER -- the crowds at Cheltenham welcome HURRICANE FLY back to the winner's enclosure after he had won last year's Champion Hurdle (PHOTO BY: Tim Ireland/PA Wire)
FESTIVAL FEVER -- the crowds at Cheltenham welcome HURRICANE FLY back to the winner's enclosure after he had won last year's Champion Hurdle (PHOTO BY: Tim Ireland/PA Wire)

“Being here for the Festival is a matter of passion and something which reaches into our very being.

“We come here as inheritors of Cheltenham’s unmatched history, woven by man and by horse.”

The words of Racing Post scribe Alastair Down were delivered at a memorial service last month that bade an emotional farewell to racing legend Terry Biddlecombe.

But they could easily have been penned to greet with open arms the events all set to envelop the sport next week.

It’s the highlight of the horse-racing year. The incomparable Cheltenham Festival.

Four days and 27 races, capturing the best jumps racing in the world.

It’s a week when a quiet corner of the Cotswolds is transformed into a cauldron of sporting theatre. And it starts next Tuesday!

The 2014 Festival has been robbed, by injury, of three of the chasing giants who illuminated last year’s action -- Sprinter Sacre, Cue Card and Simonsig.

But Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly and Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth are back to defend their titles. And Big Buck’s, brilliant four-times hero of the World Hurdle, is back after a minor knock kept him off the track last season.

Star billing, however, could go to Quevega, who is a hot favourite to create racing history in the Mares’ Hurdle by becoming the first horse ever to win at the Festival SIX times, beating a record that has been held for 78 years by the legendary Golden Miller.

Quevega’s more illustrious stablemate at Willie Mullins’s Irish yard, Hurricane Fly, has already created history by landing a world record 19 Grade One victories.

Those Grade Ones have included two Champion Hurdles, in 2011 and last year. And he is hanging on to favouritism with the bookies to complete a hat-trick next Tuesday.

Even at the age of ten, he has looked as good as ever this term. Most experts agree, though, that he faces his stiffest Cheltenham test yet in what could be a vintage renewal of the race. The New One, My Tent Or Yours, Our Conor and Jezki are challengers of the highest class.

The Gold Cup next Friday is an equally fascinating contest. Cheltenham specialist Bobs Worth is taken on by Paul Nicholls’s King George winner Silviniaco Conti and the latest star from Ireland, Last Instalment, whose rise to the top, after injuries, has been masterminded superbly by his trainer, Philip Fenton.

Nicholls is on course to retrieve his champion trainer accolade from Bobs Worth’s handler, Nicky Henderson. And he looks sure to enjoy a successful Cheltenham week. An array of big chances is headed by the likes of Ryanair Chase fancy Al Ferof, classy novice Wonderful Charm and exciting juvenile hurdler Calipto.

But Nicholls insists his best chance lies with Big Buck’s. Even though the 11-year-old surrendered his 18-race unbeaten run on his return to action in January. And even though he faces a posse of younger rivals, most notably the brilliant Mullins mare Annie Power.

The juggernaut yards of Mullins, Nicholls and Henderson are expected to underline their dominance of National Hunt racing. But one smaller stable hopeful of glory is that of Gary Moore, father of Flat racing’s top jockey, Ryan Moore.

Moore’s charge, Sire De Grugy, is a warm order to inherit Sprinter Sacre’s Champion Chase crown next Wednesday. He has improved beyond recognition this season, although he has yet to convince many that he acts around Cheltenham’s unique undulations.

A liking for Cheltenham is key to the chances of so many horses next week. It is also key to the popularity of a Festival that has grown into one of the most spectacular, not-to-be-missed sporting events and social gatherings in the UK.

More than 220,000 punters will flock to Cheltenham, many staying over for the entire week in what has become an annual pilgrimage.

But hundreds of thousands more will follow the drama on TV and revel in a multi-million pounds betting bonanza.

Good luck!