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

Cheltenham

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?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Financial Trading Training Advisor - OTE £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's leading CV writing com...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an intermediate help de...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Injury Fee Earners

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist personal injury...

Recruitment Genius: New Business Sales Executive / Business Development

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing, UK based I...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen