Annie Power fit for battle of sexes at Cheltenham Festival
Willie Mullins' massive chestnut challenges Big Buck's at Cheltenham while Quevega aims for six in a row in Mares' Hurdle
Sunday 09 March 2014
Meaning no disrespect to the unbreakable nerve and intensity of desire of the men in the saddle, it is the horses who are at the heart of it all. Not merely in their majority physical contribution to the athletic partnership but in the hold and fascination they exert. The presence of even Tony McCoy would not add to the gate of a routine midweek meeting, but hear those turnstiles click should a Gold Cup winner turn up for a run-out.
At the Cheltenham Festival, where the best of the best collide, there is regularly the possibility to stand amazed at a feat out of the ordinary and, even without the sublime, preening presence of the electric two-mile chaser Sprinter Sacre, horizons will not feel diminished this week. Ireland's idol Hurricane Fly, his fight and aggression still intact at the age of 10, will be aiming to win a third Champion Hurdle; tough, unassuming Bobs Worth goes for a second Gold Cup; and the best long-distance hurdler there has even been, Big Buck's, has a fifth World Hurdle in his sights.
But this year, unusually, it may be the females of the species providing some of the warmest memories. On Tuesday, Quevega will try to become the first horse to win the same race at the Festival for the sixth time. The 10-year-old will contest the OLBG Mares' Hurdle. And on Thursday, her hugely exciting stablemate Annie Power takes on Big Buck's in the World Hurdle in what could not just be the showdown of the week, but the revelation.
Both mares are trained by Willie Mullins in Co Carlow. They are, however, chalk and cheese. Quevega is small, delicate and moody, a spoilt princess who expects to be treated like one. Annie Power, though pretty enough in the face, is physically a gelding in disguise, and a strong-headed one at that.
Like for like at championship level, racing mares are not as good as their male counterparts; even the best would not break into an all-time top fifty. But on a given occasion they can beat the boys, even if they need the slight weight allowance they get to do it. After all, the only horse to have joined the immortals by winning both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup is a mare, Dawn Run.
Quevega currently shares the Cheltenham numerical record with Golden Miller, hero of the Gold Cup from 1932-36, and though prize money is important even for a multi-millions operation like Mullins's (there will be some £3.8 million on offer in 27 contests this week), for the Irishman a place in history, and the skill involved to take it, is too.
"When you're reading those old books about Golden Miller's five in a row," he said, "as a trainer I find it as satisfying as anything to produce a horse to go back there every year. This one has the ability, and that's the key. We mind that ability, and produce it on the days that count."
Over the years Quevega has been campaigned sparingly – Tuesday's contest will be the little bay's first race of the season, as it has been for the past four years – but thoroughly effectively; the last time she lost was nearly four years ago. But though she is a legend, on strict ratings she is no champion.
Nor is Annie Power, at least not yet. But there's the thrilling anticipation; the massive chestnut is in only her second season, and not only has she never been beaten, she has barely been extended, with an aggregate winning distance of 140 lengths in her 10 runs. The extent of her breathtaking talent remains undefined, even to her trainer, and she just could be, like Dawn Run, a bit of a freak. "She's always had the size and scope to be anything," said Mullins. "And she's just growing into herself all the time. I don't know how good she is."
Her innate power is such that on her first visit to Cheltenham, in January this year, she was still virtually running away with Ruby Walsh as he tried to pull her up after two-and-a-half miles and that gruelling uphill finish on soft ground. She had three options at the Festival, but the first two would have meant taking on Hurricane Fly, also one of Mullins's powerful string, or Quevega.
She will be trying as far as three miles for the first time in the World Hurdle, and her clash with Big Buck's, trained by Paul Nicholls, has all the elements: Ireland and Britain, the champ and the contender, male and female. The added twist is that, until he threw his lot wholly in with Mullins this season, Walsh rode Big Buck's. But in the end, it is the extraordinary horses who matter.
Gilgamboa (1.30) is one of the longer-priced Irish raiders but looks sure to give a good account. Baby Mix (5.15) has taken well to fences and though he has not run since December, goes well fresh.
Sizing Europe (3.20) has not been out of the first two at the past four Festivals. and has an each-way chance in a race he won in 2011. Red Sherlock (1.30) may find the solution to the Novices' Hurdle.
Vics Canvas (2.05) could outrun his long odds if the sun keeps shining. Taquin Du Seuil (1.30), a smart novice hurdler, is even better over fences.
Caid Du Berlais (4.40) has been novice chasing but form puts him right in the mix over hurdles. Next Sensation (5.15) has climbed ratings but may still be ahead of his mark.
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