Cheltenham Festival

'Film star' Sacre could kick off week with scene-stealing run

This year's meeting is dominated by short-priced established stars and precocious talent, writes our award-winning tipster Chris McGrath

The human dimension of the Cheltenham Festival that begins today is so rich that you can sometimes forget it is all supposed to be about the horse. This time round, however, the tapestry woven by horsemen – with their different biographical strands of flair, cunning or sheer, bloody-minded perseverance –is unmistakably stitched around a central motif of equine champions.

On each of the next four afternoons the feature race will be defended, at very short odds, by last year's winner. In so precarious a calling, for Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe, Big Buck's and Long Run simply to return in one piece is itself quite remarkable. For them to do so with their reputations so undiminished is perhaps unprecedented.

True, Long Run has in the meantime been beaten twice by a rejuvenated Kauto Star. As a result, the ageless veteran himself bestrides all four reigning champions as the week's towering presence – win, lose or draw. It turns out that his shocking fall in a recent schooling session was just another melodramatic flourish in his captivating career. Yesterday he thrilled Paul Nicholls in an equivalent school and, barring some fresh crisis, the 2007 and 2009 winner will definitely line up against Long Run in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday. "Kauto was awesome," Nicholls said in his Betfair blog. "He jumped six fences – the plain fence and the open ditch three times each – and was foot-perfect. He looked magnificent."

The news doubtless contributed to David Pipe's confirmation that Grands Crus will instead keep to novice company in the RSA Chase tomorrow. That looks a wise call, as he will only be eligible for the race this once, and an "easier" option at the Festival often proves plenty hard enough. Nonetheless, as yet another hot favourite, the grey will now extend an unusually long list of death-or-glory bets at the meeting this year.

For while the purists have much to anticipate, many who renew this rural rite of spring will as usual be confining themselves to those twin dens of dissipation: the betting ring by day, the tavern by night. And it will be these Festival-goers who will decide the tenor of the first day. In Hurricane Fly, Sprinter Sacre and Quevega, they have three opening salvoes that threaten to hole the bookmakers below the waterline even in the preliminary bombardment.

Over the past couple of years, the punters have been reminded how perilous it can be to discover a "banker" in the opener. Twelve months ago, Cue Card was fourth at 7-4; a year before, Dunguib only third at 4-5. The William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle is once again contested by a big field of improvers, and it is hard to put a ceiling on any individual's progress. But the very next race, this time round, will be contested by a small field and dominated by an outstanding talent. And, in the ring at any rate, it may well prove that the Racing Post Arkle Chase sets the tone for the whole week.

That is a rare state of affairs, novice chasers being typically viewed as the most hazardous of all betting conveyances. But the fact is that no novice in recent memory has taken to fences with greater exuberance than Sprinter Sacre. Barry Geraghty, once the rider of Moscow Flyer, is saying quite freely that he may never have ridden a better chaser. There seems to be something contagious about Sprinter Sacre's own, palpable excitement in his new vocation, and the punters are certainly not proving immune. Electrified by his freewheeling humiliation of all comers this season, they have made him hot favourite. To many, in fact, there is no more exciting horse running all week.

As a trainer on the brink of Festival history – with 39 winners to date, he remains just one short of Fulke Walwyn's all-time record – Nicky Henderson has seen it all before. But even he seems astounded by Sprinter Sacre. "He scares the daylights out of us," Henderson admits. "He's the most gorgeous horse, and he knows it. He's a bit of a film star. That's not to say he's a poseur, because he's a serious talent. But he is a show-off, and doesn't do things by halves. That makes him great to watch, albeit pretty frightening. We just have to keep his eye on the ball, keep him as accurate as he is spectacular. Certainly, there'll be no complacency."

Sprinter Sacre was beaten by one of his rivals today, Al Ferof, in the Supreme last year. Some have perceived an Achilles' heel in the way he flattened out on the climb to the line that day, but Henderson does not buy that. For one thing, Sprinter Sacre's physique always guaranteed that he would be better over fences. Henderson says the horse has strengthened with maturity. Moreover, Sprinter Sacre had a wind operation after his jockey reported him "a bit noisy" on the hill.

Henderson accepts that today will provide a much stiffer test of stamina, jumping and opposition than Sprinter Sacre has encountered since switching to fences. "But the times he has been setting are absurd," he said. "Every single one of them has been quite staggering – and he has been setting them more or less on his own, on the bridle. At Newbury last time I actually went to ask if anything had been changed about the course. I didn't see how he could possibly have beaten a 30-year-old track record when Barry was easing down for the last two fences." But Henderson does have one caveat. "His jumping is so exuberant," he said. "If he's going to make three lengths at every fence, he's got to bank it. There's no point doing it, if you have to give it all back."

With Hurricane Fly and Quevega also in their first-day arsenal, punters might be well advised to take that counsel to heart. However these opening skirmishes go, plenty of attrition remains guaranteed over the days still to come.

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015