Sense of history gathers pace for Cup showdown

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The Independent Online

So, which is going to be greater? The storm that flayed the crags of Cleeve Hill yesterday? Or the one that has been gathering in the racing firmament ever since they last assembled here, the restless tribes of the great punting diaspora?

Happily, the gale on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival did not cause any mischief to the track itself. Indeed, in view of the hysteria infecting the forecasts, the management considered that they had "got away lightly" with one flattened hospitality tent and a capsized starter's rostrum.

But the winds were rising again as the Cotswolds faded into dusk last night and it is plainly crucial that they have abated, as anticipated, this morning. High winds cause an occasional abandonment of jump meetings – indeed, it happened at Catterick just a fortnight ago – but much the most vulnerable aspect of the carnival today is the morale of 55,000 racegoers.

Still, on the eve of a Festival still more momentous than usual, environmental melodrama somehow felt right. Simply raising the curtain would be too sedate a way to introduce theatre of this magnitude. Far better to have it ripped asunder by the wild, restless forces of nature.

For the Beaufort Scale has seldom measured a tempest like the one plotted across the past 12 months, by men old and wise enough to remember with sobriety the primal power nowadays preserved only in the flickering, ghostly newsreels of Arkle.

In the four decades since, no Festival has promised a crescendo as overpowering as the showdown between Kauto Star and Denman in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday. For once, the roar that acclaims the first race this afternoon will be expressive not only of relief, but of impatience. Even if his rostrum has been nailed to the ground by then, the starter had better hang on to his hat.

Last night, as Britons and Celts huddled round pub firesides in the surrounding hills, even the possible advent of a new hurdling star, Sizing Europe, in the big race today will not have deferred the week's defining debate for too long.

Kauto Star has proved himself, beyond question, one of the best chasers of modern times. But he may not be even the best horse in the care of his trainer, Paul Nicholls. Denman is housed in the very next box to his own, and his success in the novice championship here last year represented an impudent abrogation from the general duty of homage to Kauto Star.

The stand-off has stimulated the curiosity of many who have never previously paid any heed to Cheltenham, and the stakes for racing are proportionately nerve-racking. After all, there is no guarantee that the perfect symmetry of their journey here – champion and pretender gaining in authority and insolence throughout the season – will yield a corresponding denouement. How like racing it would be, if one of them were to unseat his rider at the first or second fence. It has happened before, after all, to Kauto Star himself, when he was favourite for a race over a shorter distance two years ago.

Certainly Festival regulars will know better than to assume the remotest jurisdiction over the epic narrative that will unfold over the next four afternoons. Some, admittedly – the trainers – have scrupulously supervised their horses' every movement for the last hundred dawns, with only this week in mind. Most, unable to influence destiny, will instead hope to sense its merest frisson when they fight their way into the betting ring. The only certainty, for either, is that the thoroughbred – essentially as elemental, as ungovernable as any gale – will never conform meekly to the script.

And that, in turn, is the whole secret, the beauty of Cheltenham. Nobody knows whether our expectations will be disappointed, or surpassed. But anyone whose work-life balance is best expressed between wallet and liver will have reached a critical impasse if he is not here to find out.

To many eyes, it looks as though the meeting will start with a Henry, and end with a Harry. Henry de Bromhead has a name that would not look out of place in Shakespeare; and a horse, in Sizing Europe, that he – and any other young trainer – would gladly set above a mere kingdom. Hot favourite for the Champion Hurdle today, Sizing Europe is perhaps the most exciting young hurdler to emerge since Istabraq himself. As part-owner of Denman, meanwhile, Harry Findlay has become a conduit of public fascination in the challenge to Kauto Star.

Between Henry and Harry, of course, there will crowd numberless Falstaffs. In fact, there will be every flavour of humanity. There will be much laughter. There may be villainy. There will be courage. And, no less certainly, there will be recklessness. Sometimes on a grand, public scale; more often, in anguished privacy. But seldom have so many people come here with the same question. By Friday night, we should know. It is so close now, the answer might almost be blowing in the wind.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Ponmeoath (Cheltenham 4.00)

NB: Wonderkid (Cheltenham 4.40)