Cheltenham Festival: Odds stacked more than ever in favour of the Goliaths of jump racing

Top trainers Henderson and Mullins set to rule Festival as bookies fear opening-day disaster

Cheltenham

And so the rite of spring is renewed, even as winter makes a spiteful last stand. In most years, after toiling through heavy ground for months, horses are typically rewarded at Cheltenham in early spring with a more fitting platform for the measurement of excellence. This time, however, they must gallop through a bitter wind – the wind chill at the track yesterday registered minus 10 – over a track likely to have congealed malignly beneath its frost blankets.

But then when has this ever been a place for faint hearts? Professionals and punters alike convene knowing that Cheltenham will dispense its benedictions and curses no more equitably than in years past. And that is precisely the terrible enchantment of the Festival. Deep down, every optimist knows to fear the worst. But those tutored by experience into bleak expectations, equally, will nourish a secret conviction that this could finally be their time.

As ever, however, the luck of some has been so cruelly rationed that it did not extend even as far as the starting tapes. Two of the smallest stables in legitimate contention for glory have had their hopes extinguished even before leaving home. In a sport increasingly dominated by wealthy patrons of the very biggest yards, Peter Casey and Jeremy Scott had promised a rearguard action on behalf of romantics. Casey, a throwback to the days when smallholders and horse dealers emerged from nowhere to win the very biggest races, had to abandon plans to bring Flemenstar over from his tiny yard near Dublin after the horse contracted a lung infection. Scott had, meanwhile, produced two of the most exciting young prospects in Britain on his former dairy farm, high on Exmoor. Empiracle suffered an injury over the weekend, however, and yesterday Melodic Rendezvous also had to be scratched after a medical test.

So the odds seem loaded ever more heavily in favour of the Goliaths. Having saddled a record seven winners last year, Nicky Henderson appears to have assembled an even stronger team this time round. In Ireland, Willie Mullins has lent fresh distinction to one of the sport's most celebrated surnames. Even Paul Nicholls, champion trainer in Britain for the past seven seasons, finds himself obliged to rebuild urgently and expensively to remain competitive, having lost the bedrock of his stable to injury or retirement. Kauto Star, who ran at seven consecutive Festivals, is now experimenting with a new career in dressage; the record-breaking hurdler Big Buck's will remain sidelined for the next 12 months.

On Friday, that sense of regrouping will extend to the whole sport for the climax of the week. The three horses at the top of the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup market were all novices last season. Perhaps one will make a breakthrough, stamping his authority on the field. But the race could just as soon prove a slugfest, over three and quarter miles in tiring conditions, and the Festival for now vests its marquee status in another rising star.

Sprinter Sacre, who instead operates in the freewheeling two-mile division, was also a novice last year. But he proved as exuberant a jumper as has animated the Cheltenham crowd in recent years, simply pulverising his rivals for the novice championship. He has reduced each of his three races since to little more than laps of honour, and is duly at microscopic odds for formal coronation tomorrow in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Sprinter Sacre bears the standard not just for Henderson's formidable team, but arguably for a sport seeking to repeat the inroads made by Frankel, on the Flat, into a broader public awareness. He has that Hollywood touch, in his physique and his approach to racing. "He's the most dreadful show-off," Henderson says affectionately. "A phenomenal athlete, and as gorgeous a horse as you'll ever see. It's all just terribly easy for him. But we won't be complacent – and he has to learn not to be, either."

The bigger Sprinter Sacre's reputation becomes, the more his trainer watches with heart in mouth. "With him, anything but flawless and people won't be satisfied," Henderson says. Though he faces his toughest rival yet in Sizing Europe, Sprinter Sacre is as short as 1-4 favourite. "He will start the hottest favourite at this meeting since the days of Arkle," said David Stevens, spokesman for Coral bookmakers. "It would have to be counted the biggest Festival shock of modern times if he does not win."

In the Gold Cup, Henderson will not only saddle the likely favourite in Bobs Worth, but also an estimable past winner, Long Run. Moreover, he has the red-hot favourite for each of the first two races today, My Tent Or Yours in the opener and then Simonsig. With two equivalent "bankers" in their slipstream for followers of Mullins – Hurricane Fly is favourite for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, while Quevega seeks a fifth consecutive Festival success in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle – the opening skirmishes have the potential to determine the course of their entire meeting.

"This is always the biggest week of our year," Stevens said. "Lots of people will be linking those hotpots tomorrow in combination bets, and if all four were to go in it would have to qualify as the worst day we have ever had at Cheltenham."

On the track or off it, it seems that few prisoners will be taken.

The £100 challenge

Chris McGrath

Merry King (2.40) £40 win

Arabella Boy (4.0) £40 win

Shangani (5.15) £20 win

James Lawton

My Tent or Yours (1.30) £40 win

Zarkandar (3.20) £40 win

Swing Bowler (4.40) £20 win

Sue Montgomery

Hurricane Fly (3.20) £50 win

Un Atout (1.30) £15 each-way

Cloudy Too (2.40) £10 each-way

Jon Freeman

Knockara Beau (2.40) £20 each-way

Arabella Boy (4.00) £30 win

The Druids Nephew (5.15) £30 win

John Cobb (Of the 'Racing Post')

Champagne Fever (1.30) £20 each-way

Poole Master (2.40) £10 each-way

Rock On Ruby (3.20) £20 each-way

Charity bet

Coral have kindly donated a £100 bet for each day of the Festival, any proceeds going to charity.

DAY ONE: John Francome, former champion jockey

ZARKANDAR (3.20)

It's going to be a slog out there but this one will see it out really well – and Paul Nicholls will be desperate to retain his place at the head of the trainers' table.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...