It is sport's great rite of spring. There are other cherished cycles, to be sure; other places and moments of communion as winter releases its grip: the azaleas of Augusta on your telly, linseed on your cricket bat. But nowhere matches the Cheltenham Festival for its heady mix of the bucolic, the bacchanalian and the bold.
Mother Nature gives us the herds of horses, proving their pack leaders; and she gives us the escarpment of Cleeve Hill, where an early frost yesterday soon fled the gorgeous spring sunshine. And human nature, over the next four afternoons, will give us everything else: the courage of the riders; the compulsions of the betting ring, with its avarice, despair and exhilaration; and, above all, the mingling intoxications of nostalgia and anticipation.
Those who return here year after year are routinely described both as "pilgrims" and "addicts", which only goes to show how the extremes of a spectrum will eventually meet together. But others will be more like Steve Whiteley, the heating engineer who placed £2 on the Tote Jackpot at Exeter last Tuesday, more or less because he liked the names of the horses or riders. He came home with nearly £1.5m.
And the beauty of today is that we can all, with confidence and betting bank intact, still dream of pulling off something outrageous ourselves. The roar from the stands, as the starter mounts his rostrum for the first race, tells you that anything is possible. That nothing has so far happened to anticipate the sinking feeling most will share by Friday morning.
Nothing, that is, unless you are among those embattled Irish heroes who have somehow made it back for another year. Racehorses are luxury goods. And if Ireland's economy is on its knees, then its racing industry is flat on the floor. The boom years brought unprecedented success at Cheltenham. Now the place threatens to restore what Yeats identified in every compatriot as the "abiding sense of tragedy, which sustain[s] him through temporary periods of joy".
Of course, they could yet stop an English rugby union Grand Slam on Saturday. And they are fortunate to come here with a man, as their standard bearer, in whom a national affinity with horses is a very literal bequest. The team sent over from Co Carlow by Willie Mullins serves as a fitting monument to his father, Paddy, who died last October. Paddy trained Dawn Run, the only horse ever to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup. Willie has yet to win either, but that can change in the big race today through Hurricane Fly – a timely example of perseverance through adversity.
Over the past three seasons, Hurricane Fly has looked potentially the most talented Irish hurdler since Istabraq. Both in his novice campaign and last term, however, he suffered a setback that ruled him out of the Festival. On both occasions, he resurfaced at Punchestown the following month to leave the bittersweet question of what might have been. This time, he has finally made it to the Stan James Champion Hurdle and there is every chance he will prove worth the wait.
Hurricane Fly is perhaps the only one of the 11 runners who might jump the last on the bridle. Many people object to the fact that he has beaten the same animal, Solwhit, in each of his past four starts. But nobody was belittling Solwhit the day he beat Punjabi, Quevega and Sizing Europe at Punchestown, a couple of years ago. As a rule, you can set your watch by Solwhit at Grade One level, and Hurricane Fly just laughs at him every time they meet. And Hurricane Fly is perfectly willing to beat any other horse prepared to take him on. Remember when he thrashed Go Native by 10 lengths in their novice season? Go Native went on to win at the Festival, and was favourite when going amiss in this race last year.
The bottom line is that Hurricane Fly has contested eight races since entering the care of Mullins, all Grade Ones, and has ample excuses for his solitary defeat. It seems churlish to question his calibre.
Less so, perhaps, to cavil over the fact that he has never left Ireland in that time, and has shown a mild tendency to jump right. Cheltenham does have its course specialists, after all, and it may yet prove that a son of Montjeu, who tends to trade in brilliance before brute guts, may not relish a battle of attrition up the hill. But he warrants the benefit of these marginal doubts, at what looks a reasonable price – because his turn of foot, in drying conditions, could be decisive in a race lacking competition for the lead.
Those who prefer a proven Cheltenham horse will consider Menorah or Peddlers Cross, who won here as novices last year. Peddlers Cross is in the best of hands, and has yet to put a foot wrong. But the suspicion persists he may not thrive on a test of pure speed, and much will depend on the contribution of his stablemate, Overturn, the only established front-runner.
Menorah is unbeaten at Cheltenham and seemed to disclose unsuspected flair when beating Cue Card on his latest visit. But the runner-up was short of work, however, and two previous wins here implied that Menorah thrives best on an all-action test. Dunguib could still prove his superior, having circled the field before finishing a close third to him last year. His fortunes since, however, require a leap of faith.
This season has also been a non-event for Khyber Kim, runner-up to Binocular last year, but he does go well fresh. The best each-way alternative, however, could be Mille Chief. Still lightly raced, he did better than many realised to beat a rejuvenated rival last time, and is expected to improve for quicker ground today.
But he will not be the choice of the Irish; nor of anyone whose pulse quickens to see a really slick hurdler in full cry. For these, today is the day when Hurricane Fly shows that good things really do come to those who wait.
100 years and counting
* Today has been branded Centenary Day at Cheltenham, with the meeting of 1911 judged the first Festival.
* The only surviving race from that two-day meeting is the National Hunt Chase, which found a permanent home at Prestbury Park that year; it was then the second most important contest in the calendar, after the Grand National.
* There was a 12-race programme but the first Gold Cup was still 13 years away. The National Hunt Chase, in which 33-1 shot Sir Halbert beat 37 rivals, was worth £815, the equivalent of around £865,000 today. The 141st running this year has a first prize of £45,000.
Tips from the top the independent's writers predict the outcome of today's big race
Chris McGrath, Racing Correspondent
1 Hurricane Fly
2 Mille Chief
3 Peddlers Cross
Sue Montgomery, Racing writer
1 Hurricane Fly
3 Thousand Stars
James Corrigan, Sports writer
3 Oscar Whisky
1 Khyber Kim
2 Peddlers Cross