Danoli and Fortune And Fame came through their racecourse exercises safely yesterday and it is starting to look as though the main Festival races, the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup, will be contested, for once, by the season's outstanding performers rather than just by the least accident- prone. That, of course, is a hope as fragile as a thoroughbred and it is necessary only to think back 12 months to recall afflictions that affected Barton Bank and Fortune And Fame in the final days before the Festival.
But if, just if, the big horses line up then what a prospect. Not necessarily in the Champion, in which the speedy Flat horse Alderbrook might show up the specialist jumpers and wreck the ethos of the National Hunt Festival.
No, the Gold Cup is the race. This is an outstanding renewal of an event first staged in 1924. The quality in depth is staggering, the potential quite frightening. Master Oats, undefeated in eight of his last 10 starts has developed into a colossus and is a worthy favourite whose presence will ensure that talented horses will start at long odds.
It takes a great horse to keep Jodami, a chaser that has finished first and second in the last two Gold Cups, on odds as long as 6-1; to allow a horse like Barton Bank that was one stumble away from winning his second King George VI Chase by a street length to be offered at 8-1 and to push second-season chasers of the promise of Merry Gale, Monsieur Le Cure and One Man to odds of 10-1, 12-1 and 14-1 respectively.
In many years, any of those mentioned would be capable of heading the market. Think of a really moderate Gold Cup, like Garrison Savannah's in 1991. The starting prices that year were 5-2 Celtic Shot, 4-1 Desert Orchid (whose limitations at Cheltenham had already been exposed by Norton's Coin), 7-1 Cool Ground, 10-1 Arctic Call, 11-1 Carrick Hill Lad and Twin Oaks, 12-1 bar (including the 16-1 winner). Where would Jodami and Barton Bank be placed in that list? Right at the top.
And should any of the main contenders prove fallible there are plenty of others ready to provide a stern test. There are 29 possibles left in the race and with a line-up of around 20 likely, the field could be the largest since Silver Buck beat 21 others in 1982. Just eight went to post when Carvill's Hill flopped in 1992 leaving the race to Cool Ground.
Some of this year's outsiders are pretty useful too. Miinnehoma is certainly capable of becoming only the second horse, after Golden Miller, to win a Gold Cup after victory in the Grand National; Algan is, after all, a King George winner; Young Hustler was third last March and yet is 40-1 now.
That this eulogy sounds like the delirious ravings of someone who looks forward to Cheltenham for 51 weeks is undeniable. But those are just the daytime musings. When night falls it gets really bad.
Thinking about how a race will be run as you rest your head on the pillow, hoping that the winner will appear in a dream, is a well known method for arriving at selections. If nothing else, it helps awareness of why certain horses cannot succeed.
The script this year has Merry Gale in his customary role, taking the field along from flag-fall. Jumping fluently -Yogi Breisner has been putting him through his paces -he is still looking comfortable, narrowly ahead, as the horses sweep past the stands after a circuit.
Running down to the water and Monsieur Le Cure is jumping alongsides, pressurising the leader as he did so successfully in the Sun Alliance Chase a year ago. Barton Bank is with them too, jumping low, attacking his fences as he did at Kempton. One Man is just behind, going easily, just as he has in all his races this season and Deep Bramble is up there too, his rider anxious that the pacier horses do not get away.
At the open ditch, six out, Master Oats is still in mid-division, Norman Williamson sitting motionless. Only Richard Dunwoody, keeping Miinnehoma covered up, is sitting as quietly.
Five out, Jodami, slightly outpaced, has to be rousted along by Mark Dwyer to move up at the same point as in the last two years. Master Oats has the leaders in his sights and is creeping closer along with Val D'Alene, who looks strong. Dubacilla, who has run in snatches, is taking hold of her bit at last.
Three out and there are only half a dozen close enough to win, every jockey is pushing now, whatever wins will have been in a real race.
Two fences to go and only eight days to complete the course. After a year of anticipation, the dream still does not quite get the trip.Reuse content