Irish champion Dunguib does battle with Goliaths

From the off this year's Cheltenham Festival revolves around odds-on 'bankers', and on day one the hopes of a nation ride on one small stable's prodigy. Chris McGrath reports
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Seldom can an animal as capricious as the thoroughbred have seemed so obedient to our own choreography. Once the curtain goes up today, admittedly, you can guarantee the sort of unaccountable twists – whether of pleasure or pain – that make four mad March days in the Cotswolds so tense an addiction, for so many. As things stand, however, this has all the makings of a vintage Cheltenham Festival.

Sport's great rite of spring opens today with the full kettledrum treatment as Dunguib – perhaps the most exciting young hurdler since the tragic Golden Cygnet, 32 years ago – offers bookmakers and punters alike a critical test of nerve in the very first race of the meeting. After that pulsating overture, the week's themes will be elaborated at a varying tempo until finally drawn together for a momentous crescendo on Friday, when Kauto Star and Denman square up for their decisive showdown in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.

For some of the great virtuosi of their sport, the carnival may just as easily lead to a career-defining moment, or a stretcher and oxygen mask. And the spectrum is scarcely less extreme for some of those in the stands. If Dunguib gets turned over, there will be Irishmen who have to swim home. If he wins, equally, they may end up just as wet on the inside.

At the very short odds, admittedly, only the most recklessly patriotic punters will sense any kind of imperative to back him. As a potential superstar, however, he can certainly set the tone for the week. After all, however intriguing the cast of characters in the Gold Cup, they have become pretty familiar by now.

Dunguib, in contrast, emerges in classic Cheltenham style from a small yard in Co Tipperary. His owners turned down fortunes for the horse after his runaway success in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at last year's Festival, and are showing touching fidelity to a greenhorn rider with a career aggregate (under Rules) of just 16 wins over jumps.

Brian O'Connell is fully aware that he will be given no quarter by his seasoned rivals. But he has so far proved admirably composed and Philip Fenton, Dunguib's trainer, himself testified in a distinguished amateur career that big names are not always needed for the big occasion. O'Connell was criticised by some at Leopardstown last time, the idea being that the horse did not focus on his jumping because he was detached at the rear of the field. Be that as it may, it required the nerve of a veteran to know Dunguib would coast past the whole field on the bridle when finally produced. Anyhow, horse and rider will not lack the competition needed to keep their minds on the job today.

Whatever happens, it will not be long before the usual suspects retrieve centre stage. Ruby Walsh, the big-race master of his generation, last year mustered an unprecedented tally of seven winners during the meeting, three of them in championship races for Paul Nicholls. Those three all return this week as odds-on favourites to retain their prizes: Master Minded tomorrow, Big Buck's on Thursday, and finally Kauto Star.

The credentials of the Gold Cup as an opportunity for the sport to reach a new audience have become somewhat strained since November, when Denman looked back to his best in the Hennessy and Kauto Star had potentially approached a plateau in scrambling home on his own reappearance, at Haydock. At that stage, it looked as though the horses famously stabled in adjacent stalls might finally settle their differences in their third Cheltenham stand-off, each having been considered below par when previously finishing second to the other. In the meantime, however, Kauto Star has produced the most awe-inspiring exhibition of his career at Kempton on Boxing Day, whereas Denman had a disastrous first date with his new partner, Tony McCoy, at Newbury last month.

With O'Connell and Dunguib in mind, some bear no malice to McCoy in viewing his crash landing there as poetic justice, Sam Thomas having been overlooked despite his success on Denman here in 2008. Regardless, even Harry Findlay admits that he may be tempted to back Kauto Star if the rain does not come to Denman's aid. The extrovert professional gambler, who co-owns Denman, likes to discover value where others assume there can be none, in short-priced favourites.

"And I've never felt Kauto Star has got the credit he deserves," he says. "People don't like the champions enough in this country. Federer, Woods, Eric Bristow, Steve Davies – take them away, and I'd be a loser. Kauto Star at 8-11 [at Kempton] was a great price. If he'd got beat, I wouldn't have had a pot to piss in. But you do get value about champions in this country. We love getting them beat. The percentage of people who can't wait to see them beat, it's amazing. And, as a gambler, I love those people."

He might well add that success for McCoy, mysteriously maligned as he has been since teaming up with Denman, would itself be a powerful rebuke to such folk. Regardless, it is precisely the charm of jump racing – again, as Dunguib and O'Connell demonstrate – that David really can beat Goliath, from time to time.

Findlay himself marvels when he looks at big spenders like J P McManus and Andy Stewart, and can fleetingly claim to have their envy. "With all due respect to my readies, I'm not wealthy enough to have horses like this again," he says. "All I can wish for is that Denman turns up, puts up a performance and is in with a chance two out. If he does that, and gets beaten three lengths by Kauto Star, I'd be thrilled. I know it sounds crazy, but I really would."

The real craziness, of course, would be to set your ambitions any higher. As Walsh has repeatedly insisted, during recent days, he would readily settle for a winner on the first afternoon – just to ease the pressure – and then to walk away in one piece on Friday.

Whether dealing with a barman or a bookmaker, the rest of us would doubtless profit from an equally conservative approach to the week. At Cheltenham, however, only the horses are unpredictable.

Champion Hurdle: All-time greats

How does this year's Champion Hurdle rank in the pantheon? The defending champion Punjabi was given a Timeform rating of 164 last season, a level of ability that is of course far, far better than your average hurdler. But compared with Champion Hurdle winners, it puts him below the mean, into the inferior bracket. The late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s were rightly dubbed hurdling's golden era. The greatest of all was the bold-jumping front-runner Night Nurse, trained by Peter Easterby. He set up a sequence of 10 wins in 1975 and 1976, which included his first Champion Hurdle. To win his second title he made most to beat Monksfield two lengths (followed in by Dramatist, Sea Pigeon and Birds Nest) and then capped that display by dead-heating with Monksfield, giving him 6lb, at Aintree, after an epic duel.

*The best

1. Night Nurse (1976-77) rated 182
2. Istabraq (1988-2000) 180
3. Persian War ((1968-70) 180
4. Monksfield (1978-79) 180
5. Comedy of Errors (1973, 1975) 178

*The worst

Seneca (1941) rated 145. He won a six-horse wartime running by a head on only his second outing over hurdles, broke down shortly afterwards and never won again. ......... Sue Montgomery

The name game Running today

*Dan Breen (Supreme Novices' Hurdle) Commandant of the Third Tipperary brigade of the IRA, later a Fianna Fail politician. Once had a £1,000 bounty on his head for murder; 10,000 attended his funeral in 1969.

*Captain Cee Bee (Arkle Trophy) Named after his trainer's grandfather, Captain Cyril B Harty, an international show jumper with the Irish Army team and trainer of the 1944 Irish National winner Knight's Crest.

*Chief Dan George (William Hill Trophy) The hereditary leader of the Salish tribe of British Columbia who became a famed author and actor.

*Garde Champetre (Cross Country Chase) A low-ranking police officer in France, assigned to the countryside under the control of the local mayor.

*Somersby (Arkle Trophy) Home town, in Lincolnshire, of owner Camilla Radford. Also the birthplace of Alfred Lord Tennyson.

*Voler La Vedette (Mares' Hurdle) French for "to steal the show".

Sue Montgomery