Racing: Cheltenham prepares for thrill of the Festival

Those hoping that the Cheltenham Festival will return today with a piece of history should brace themselves for disappointment. The nation's bookmakers, never ones to allow sentiment to cloud financial reality, appear to have decided that the Irish horse Istabraq will not rewrite the record books this afternoon by winning the Champion Hurdle.

Those hoping that the Cheltenham Festival will return today with a piece of history should brace themselves for disappointment. The nation's bookmakers, never ones to allow sentiment to cloud financial reality, appear to have decided that the Irish horse Istabraq will not rewrite the record books this afternoon by winning the Champion Hurdle.

Twelve months ago, Istabraq was odds-on to become the first horse to win the same race at the Festival four times, only to be denied by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease which forced the cancellation of the meeting. But, as this year's Festival opens today with the same horse chasing the same goal, the bookmakers, at least, believe that time is catching up with the great hurdler.

William Hill, for one, have reported a sustained flow of support for Martin Pipe's Valiramix and in response they have pushed Istabraq out to 9-4 second favourite. This is the first time in four years that Istabraq has been surpassed as the popular choice for the race and, with money steadily piling on his rivals, he may drift even further out in the betting before the race starts at 3.15 this afternoon.

A spokesman for the bookmaker said: "We just have no positive vibes for Istabraq while bundles of cash continues to pour in for Valiramix, Landing Light and Hors La Loi. We had no option but to push him out."

Istabraq's owner, J P McManus, got Cheltenham week off to a profitable start with a winner at Stratford yesterday. He walked the course at Prestbury Park with Istabraq's jockey, Charlie Swan, and will not have been disappointed by the near-perfect conditions. With rain forecast for all three days of the Festival the going, good to soft for the opening day, may well have become considerably more testing by the time Looks Like Trouble attempts to become the first horse in 30 years to win consecutive Gold Cups.

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