Rather like Brad Dexter and Roger Hunt, today's Grade One feature is the one that tends to be forgotten. Staying hurdlers simply do not have the sexy profile of either their quicker cousins over the smaller obstacles or of chasers of any stripe. The Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Gold Cup are regarded as the three glittering points of the Cheltenham crown. The fourth, the World Hurdle, does not twinkle so brightly.
Yet these marathon operators deserve all the plaudits, for they are the true iron men of the sport. The have a mile further to go than Brave Inca and his mates; the gruelling climb to the winning post comes at the end of three, and though the élite chasers must cover another quarter tomorrow, they get much more respite over their obstacles than do hurdlers, who must take each flight almost at an extended gallop stride, with barely time for a breath.
Today's contenders for the long-distance crown have, between them, run 1,115 miles in anger in 507 races, mustering 155 victories and earning £3,672,840 in prize-money. Chief among them is the horse who has done more than any to raise the profile of his division in recent years, Baracouda. This is the fifth successive year the mighty French gelding has turned out for the title race, having won in 2002 and 2003 and finished second in the past two years.
In his pomp, his quality was such that he was the highest-rated of any hurdler, but he is now 11 and, like Moscow Flyer, finding there are now younger legs on the park. He was beaten fair and square by Iris's Gift two years ago, and even more decisively last time round by the reigning champion Inglis Drever, who proved his master again at Haydock in November.
Baracouda is likely to head the market for the fifth time and his devoted trainer, François Doumen, remains bullish. But by the end of the day Crimson Embers may remain the only horse to regain a stayers' championship as a three-year plan comes to fruition.
In 2003, Golden Cross (3.15) started favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and came third to Spectroscope and Well Chief. A year later Michael Halford's charge had a go at the Champion Hurdle and finished seventh to Hardy Eustace, but hurt himself in the process, and needed more than a year off.
"Charlie Swan, who rode him in the novices' race, told me straight away he was a stayer in the making," said the Curragh-based trainer, "and although he's been mostly running over shorter, it was always the plan to turn up in this race one day. It would have been sooner, but for his injury, but that may have been in our favour in the long run as he's had time to strengthen. The race will take a lot of winning, it always does. But our fellow is in grand form and I'm sure he'll give a good account of himself."
Golden Cross returned in November and cemented his partnership with Johnny Murtagh by winning two Flat handicaps. He lost his first two hurdles outings, but his defeats were in company of the highest order - second to Solerina, third to the Champion Hurdle 1-2 Brave Inca and Macs Joy - and at Navan last month he regained winning ways on his first try beyond two and a half miles. He had to work hard, but he is lazy and the further he went, the better. Cheekpieces are redeployed today and he can enable Murtagh to join a club so exclusive that it has just one member. Lester Piggott is the only man successful in both the Derby and over hurdles at Cheltenham, on Mull Sack in the now-defunct seller in 1954.