Racing: Best Mate to upstage glorious return of the grand champions

Frailty, thy name is horse. During the First World War the grandstands at Cheltenham were used as a troop hospital, which is not entirely inappropriate given that a fair proportion of the main protagonists at the first Festival for two years have been struggling with an assortment of ailments, physical and mental. Looks Like Trouble, Marlborough, Flagship Uberalles, Tiutchev, Istabraq. Their case notes would keep a convention of vets happy for days.

Frailty, thy name is horse. During the First World War the grandstands at Cheltenham were used as a troop hospital, which is not entirely inappropriate given that a fair proportion of the main protagonists at the first Festival for two years have been struggling with an assortment of ailments, physical and mental. Looks Like Trouble, Marlborough, Flagship Uberalles, Tiutchev, Istabraq. Their case notes would keep a convention of vets happy for days.

But this is not a week for old crocks. These are top-notch achievers and their presence is a tribute to the skill of their trainers and will be a tonic for the tens of thousands who will flock to the Cotswolds on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for an overdue fix of high-class sport. The roar from the stands when the tape goes up for the opener, the Supreme Novices Hurdle, will truly be from the heart.

The 74th renewal of the Gold Cup, the week's blue riband, promises to be one of the most open and competitive of recent years with 10 individual Grade One scorers in the field, including the last two winners Looks Like Trouble and See More Business. The contest's origin as a Grand National trial means that its three and a quarter miles, combined with the stiff uphill finish, puts a premium on stamina and does not invariably identify the divisional best. But assuming the ground does not deteriorate in favour of high-class plodders, Thursday's race has a proper championship ring to it.

Looks Like Trouble already has the T-shirt. He broke down after trouncing Dorans Pride at Down Royal in November of his title year. His trainer Noel Chance counts patience among his virtues and the 10-year-old has not put a hoof wrong since his comeback in January. There must remain a doubt about how he will fare in a big, competitive field. And no horse has won successive Gold Cups since L'Escargot in 1970-71.

Florida Pearl, runner-up to Looks Like Trouble two years ago and third behind See More Business in 1999, will be trying to emulate Red Rower (1945) and Mandarin (1962), in succeeding at the third attempt. Plenty worse have won but despite his apparently revitalised demeanour, a question mark remains over the ability of the Willie Mullins-trained 10-year-old to last up the stiff climb.

Adrian Maguire adopted forcing tactics on him to win the King George VI Chase; in contrast that day Tony McCoy, on three-quarter length runner-up Best Mate, rode one of his less tactically sound races. He admitted he should have been more positive but this week's pilot Jim Culloty, who knows the imposing seven-year-old better than any, has no doubts about stamina reserves. Best Mate, one of last season's best novices, has a high cruising speed and a telling turn of foot and will have learned a lot about the sharp end of senior company at Kempton.

Bacchanal is another of last term's top first-season chasers but is considerably more battle-hardened. The eight-year-old, winner of the Stayers' Hurdle two years ago, chased home Florida Pearl and Best Mate in the King George and then saw off Shotgun Willy and his Nicky Henderson stablemate Marlborough at Newbury last month. He jumped alarmingly right that day but his homework since has convinced Mick Fitzgerald that he is the one. Bacchanal has had a breathing problem corrected in the past and Marlborough's return after winning the ersatz championship at Sandown last year was delayed by a trapped epiglottis.

Neither the Festival's leading active trainer Martin Pipe, on 25 wins, nor his immediate pursuer Henderson, on 24, has won a Gold Cup and Pipe counts the fatal fall in the race of potentially brilliant Gloria Victis two years ago as his worst day professionally. His best chance must be with Shooting Light, unbeaten and impressive in his three outings over fences this term, including twice at Cheltenham.

Looks Like Trouble has been there, done that, but may have to defer to the youth and potential of Best Mate, chased home by Behrajan, another former smart hurdler who is growing into his huge frame, and Shooting Light.

Three-time Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq has already proved himself one of the greats, the best hurdler since the golden era of the 70s. The loss of an almost-certain unprecedented fourth title was the cruellest blow from last year's abandonment and if the real Istabraq turns up this week then look no further, but his increasingly fragile temperament and creaky limbs are suspect.

Pipe has already won two Champion Hurdles and Valiramix, a tall grey who has made marked physical progress, could be the one to step into Istabraq's shoes.

The second of the senior titles, the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase, can go to Flagship Uberalles, sweetened in body and mind under Philip Hobbs. The eight-year-old has the beating of crowd-pleasing Edredon Bleu at their best and can repel Henderson's candidate Tiutchev, who looked a serious athlete when he won at Sandown in February but whose mere presence in the field, after a bout of colic less than a month ago, will be something of a miracle. Horses, at once brittle as glass and tough as leather, never cease to surprise and delight.

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