Cheltenham Festival 2014: Sun set to shine on Ruby at ‘magical’ meeting

Jockey Walsh and trainer Mullins have pedigree to steal the show this week


On Monday morning Cleeve Hill, the last eastern outcrop of the Cotswolds that overlooks the sprawling natural amphitheatre that is Cheltenham racecourse, stood silent, a calm sentinel ahead of the storm that will erupt at its foot at 1.30 this afternoon.

The roar from the 60,000 faithful that will signal the rising of the tapes for the Supreme Novices Hurdle, marks the start of four days of sporting endeavour that will stretch every emotion, horse racing at its most powerful, most captivating.

But though the timeless backdrop, its rugged outline limned sharply by the early sun, was set in a clear sky, there are clouds gathering nonetheless. Philip Fenton, the trainer of the third favourite for Friday’s Gold Cup, is currently under criminal investigation in Ireland after forbidden steroids were found on his premises and will appear in court next week. The sport’s authorities here have, after rigorous testing, cleared the horse to run but even so – if the elephant is not quite in the room, it is certainly hanging about in the corridor.

More immediately, though, to the rite of spring. The Festival offers 27 races, 13 at Grade 1 level, four iconic senior championships, and £3.85m prize money. Two of the reigning title holders will be back for more: today Hurricane Fly will be aiming to join Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq as a three-time winner of the Champion Hurdle, and on Friday, Bobs Worth is going for back-to-back Gold Cups.

Today, too, could mark an unprecedented Festival achievement as Quevega tries to become the first horse at jump racing’s showcase occasion to win the same race six times. For the past five years, she has come home victorious in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, to take her numerically level with Golden Miller, winner of the Gold Cup from 1932-36. She owns only a fraction of that great horse’s talent, but in her own sphere, she is a legend.

A group of horses trained by Willie Mullins ride out on the gallops at Cheltenham yesterday, ahead of today’s start of the Festival which culminates with the Gold Cup on Friday A group of horses trained by Willie Mullins ride out on the gallops at Cheltenham yesterday, ahead of today’s start of the Festival which culminates with the Gold Cup on Friday  

The peerless long-distance hurdler Big Buck’s might have been trying to match her, but for being ruled out last year of the race he made his own, the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, by injury. He will be back on Thursday to try for a fifth success in the three-miler, but has lost his aura of invincibility after defeat on his comeback in January, leaving his winning streak on a mere 18. But in so precarious a calling his mere presence in the fray, at the age of 11, is remarkable.

In Hurricane Fly, Bobs Worth, Big Buck’s, there is achievement and talent far out of the ordinary. But the absence of the defending two-mile champion Sprinter Sacre from tomorrow’s Queen Mother Champion Chase means the meeting lacks a horse that brings with it the possibility of wonderment, as did Frankel on the Flat. Or does it? One of the rivals to Big Buck’s will be a horse who might just prove another of those freak performers who bring with them another dimension. Annie Power, unbeaten and unextended in 10 races, is a mare of such prodigious untapped talent that even her trainer Willie Mullins has not yet ascertained its limits.

Mullins, Ireland’s perennial champion, also has Hurricane Fly and Quevega under his care, the flag-bearers of an extraordinary raiding party of 41 from his base in Co Carlow, of whom 25 were safely encamped yesterday, with reinforcements due later in the week. Mullins is 4-9 favourite to take the week’s trainer’s title, and was as level-headed as ever in the face of suggestions that he could single-handedly surpass last year’s Irish record score of 14 at this most competitive of fixtures. “The horses travelled well,” he said, “we are happy with the ground [good to soft yesterday] and we are keeping our fingers crossed. People obviously think that we are going to have a few winners and I hope they are right. But we don’t expect, we come over here and hope.”

The sport is primarily about the horse, and at this meeting, what horses. But without the human element they could not, would not, do their job and the men on top, with their different attributes – flair, empathy, perseverance, strength, unbreakable nerve in a calling where serious injury is always only a missed stride away – are stitched into the week’s tapestry. Ruby Walsh, even more than Tony McCoy, is the meeting’s motif, the most successful of all time at the Festival with 38 winners and leading jockey for seven of the last 10.

This season, he threw his lot wholly in with Mullins in Ireland, rather than splitting his time and talents between Closutton and Manor Farm, base of Britain’s multiple champion Paul Nicholls, and this week he will be the hunter home to the hill, the gruelling climb to the finish he knows so well.

He reported Hurricane Fly in fine fettle after his morning exercise. “He’s travelled over a few times and knows what it’s all about,” Walsh said. “He’s been here and done it twice before and if we are being clinical about it, the others have got something to prove and he hasn’t. The Festival is just different to any other meeting. I don’t know if it’s the crowd, the atmosphere or the expectation, but there is something just magical about it.”

There is much for the purists to anticipate, but more venally there will be £250m wagered during the battle between those manning and queuing at the boards in the betting ring. Roughly the same again will be bet off-course.

The gamble of the build-up has been the Hennessy Gold Cup winner Triolo d’Alene, who will accompany his Nicky Henderson stablemate Bobs Worth to the Gold Cup. The gelding, as long as 40-1 for the week’s finale, is now a 12-1 shot and those who jumped on the bandwagon will not have been dismayed at yesterday’s news that he will now be ridden by McCoy, who has been allowed to jump ship from rank outsider Teaforthree.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power