Whether it is lucky or unlucky will not be known until tomorrow, but Rooster Booster will face 13 rivals in his quest to keep his Champion Hurdle crown. All the leading fancies stood their ground at yesterday's final declaration stage for the Cheltenham Festival's first-day Grade 1 feature, including three others from the field of 12 months ago, the 11-length runner-up Westender, fourth-placed Self Defense and fifth Intersky Falcon.
In addition to that quartet, the home side is represented by the likeliest pretender, Rigmarole, plus Limerick Boy, Geos, Hasty Prince and Australian import Specular. Istabraq apart, the Irish do not have a great recent record in the contest; before the triple champion the last to cross the water successfully was Dawn Run 20 years ago.
Tomorrow the Hibernian challenge is four-strong, from Davenport Milenium, Fota Island, Golden Cross and Hardy Eustace, who may wait for Wednesday's Coral Cup. The French have never won a Champion Hurdle - subsequent Arc winner Le Paillon came closest when chasing home National Spirit in 1847 - and Foreman carries le tricoleur this time.
Rooster Booster is the first of the four senior title holders to defend this week, and statistics say he has the easiest task. The Champion Hurdle has been retained 16 times, the Gold Cup 11, the Champion Chase eight and the Stayers Hurdle twice. The 10-year-old has a set of statistics to disprove, too; in 74 runnings, only two horses as old as he have won Champion Hurdles.
But, on the other hand, one, Hatton's Grace, did so as the second leg of his hat-trick and the other, Sea Pigeon, went on to a double. Terry Warner's admirable Philip Hobbs-trained grey is universal favourite to score again, the best price available being 13-8 with Blue Square.
The calm before this week's storm was purely metaphorical at Cheltenham yesterday, when the course was beset by driving rain and a lashing wind, with traces of snow still atop Cleeve Hill. The first equine arrivals - Willie Mullins' team, with Davenport Milenium among them, - braved the conditions to take the air, as did Terry Biddlecombe, walking the track on behalf of Best Mate. The ground was still described as good yesterday, with cloud and a south-west wind forecast today.
The former champion jockey, who won the Gold Cup on Woodland Venture 37 years ago, liked what he prodded. "There is a bit more cut on the Old track [which will be used tomorrow and Wednesday] than the New [reserved for Gold Cup day]," he said. "Much depends on how much more of this rain comes, but I imagine that the ground will ride better on the Gold Cup course. I always walked this course twice at the meeting when I was a jockey, before the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup. It's most important to know where to be in a race at any given time and tactics play a very big part. If you don't examine the course and know where it's best to be, you run risks."
In tomorrow's other race with an early final declaration, the National Hunt Chase, 11 have stood their ground. They include last year's runner-up Haut Cercy and top-weight Marlborough. Two horses who will miss the meeting are the Irish pair Power Elite, who was well-fancied for the Triumph Hurdle, and Watson Lake, entered in tomorrow's opener, the Supreme Novices Hurdle. Both are trained by Noel Meade, who said: "Power Elite scoped badly and Watson Lake got a fall schooling at home. He's OK but won't be risked this week."
Racing in brief: Whip ban for McCoy
Tony McCoy was suspended for three days by the stewards at Warwick yesterday for his use of the whip. McCoy will be sidelined on 25, 26 and 27 March after being found guilty of using his whip with excessive frequency on Kohinor in the final event, a NH Flat race.
Dick Whitford, who helped to establish Timeform in association with Phil Bull in 1947, has died at the age of 92. Whitford was also private handicapper to successful owner and gambler Jack Gerber, whose By Thunder! won the 1954 Ebor, in the 1950s and 1960s, and The Sporting Life ratings expert from 1970-84. Whitford's work eventually persuaded the Jockey Club to centralised their system of handicapping.
The Godolphin-owned Zafeen, winner of last year's St James's Palace Stake, will miss this Flat season following surgery for colic.
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