But all that went a year ago today when Mighty Mogul injured himself fatally in the Wyko Power Transmission Hurdle, and there is still little sign of a replacement emerging. This year's championship over timber is currently dominated by an Irish aspirant, Fortune And Fame, and the best Britain can offer is the unconvincing Granville Again, who failed to win a race in the campaign before his success at Prestbury Park last year and who has failed to take any event since.
It is perhaps no surprise then that a leading player for the Festival trial race that took Mighty Mogul's life, now called the Cleeve Hurdle, is the venerable 12-year-old, Mole Board.
Had it not been for the gelding's brittle forelegs, Jim Old, Mole Board's trainer, believes his horse would now be chasing a third win in the Champion Hurdle.
'He's been fourth in the Champion (in 1991) and sixth (in 1989), but with the sixth he finished closer and on neither occasion was the ground in his favour,' the trainer said. 'He needs give.'
Old, in fact, had only had Mole Board (2.20) in his yard for a matter of weeks before the 1989 Champion, and lack of familiarity meant that contentment was difficult to find at Cheltenham. 'If we'd known anything about him, he'd have won that year,' Old said. 'We'd had him for three months and we didn't know how to ride him, and leading at the last was the exact opposite to how he should have been ridden. It only later became apparent that you have to switch him right off and then produce him. Conserve everything for that surge he has.'
Mole Board now appears in good fettle, but this can only be gleaned from a general appraisal as his work on the gallops has never been a reliable barometer. 'He's so slow I could beat him and that's saying something,' reported Old. 'But he's bouncing around, making a big show, sweating a lot and generally feeling good.'
Cheltenham's first race this afternoon should go to the consistent NAWAR (nap 1.10), while the remaining televised event at Prestbury Park requires a process of elimination. Sibton Abbey took this contest 12 months ago after landing the Hennessy Gold Cup, but, like one of his rivals, Another Coral, this season's results have been poor. They appear to be resting on their laurels and running like Hardy.
With that pair out of form, Young Hustler should give a good account, but this must surely go to Run For Free (1.45) after his encouraging comeback at Haydock last weekend. Run For Free almost did not come back at all after an accident in his off-season.
'He was badly injured in an accident backing off the lorry when we took him to pick up an award in the summer,' Martin Pipe, the gelding's trainer says. 'He got a very nasty cut on his near-hind, so bad that if it had gone another half an inch he would probably have had to be put down.'
In the big race at Doncaster, the Great Yorkshire Chase, Pipe's representative Fragrant Dawn faces a formidable opponent in Carbisdale (next best 2.40), who now has ground conditions back in his favour. Mary Reveley, may also squeeze a first-time success out of Viardot (3.10), who, unusually, is a National Hunt runner sired by the world's leading Flat stallion, Sadler's Wells.
Elsewhere on the card there should be victories for Howe Street (2.05), Howard Johnson's front-running grey, and a horse that epitomises the attitude of all punters when they push the betting shop door open this morning, Seekin Cash (1.35).
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