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It seems no coincidence that St Patrick’s Day and the Cheltenham Festival rub up against each other. The vociferous influx from the Emerald Isle is an essential ingredient in jump racing’s Olympics and in recent years the Irish, buttressed by a roaring economy that has kept the best horses at home rather than sold abroad, have dominated.
Last year they won 10 of the 24 races. Irish-trained horses took the first three places in War of Attrition’s Gold Cup and the first four in Brave Inca’s Champion Hurdle. Ireland’s Newmill, too, took the speed-chasing crown in the Champion Chase. But has the luck of the Irish run out?
Kicking King, the 2005 Gold Cup winner, and War of Attrition both miss this year’s race with injuries. Setbacks have forced talented hurdler Feathard Lady into retirement and the cruel luck that dogged Adrian Maguire as a festival jockey has continued into his training career with the mare Celestial Wave, the best staying hurdler in Ireland, hurting herself in her box this week.
Irish punters will not be so confident this year. English trainers handle the first five in the betting for the Gold Cup. England’s best hope, Kauto Star, has a remarkable cruising speed but he fell at Cheltenham last year and has acquired the habit of clouting the last fence. He survived mistakes in the King George VI Chase at Kempton and the Aon at Newbury. But would he do so at Gold Cup pace?
Kauto Star has the class but will remain a potential cause of cardiac arrest for his backers. Trainer Paul Nicholls says: “His only danger is himself.”
Fancied rivals include Hennessy Gold Cup winner State of Play, the hope of young Welsh trainer Evan Williams, the much-improved Exotic Dancer, who is trained by Cheltenham hero Jonjo O’Neill, and The Listener, a bold-jumping grey.
Those with shamrocks on their lapels will be cheering for Beef or Salmon, the horse Michael Hourigan bought for £4,000 to win 10 Grade One races and over £950,000 in prize money. He has, though, never scored at Cheltenham, a habit he is unlikely to change in his fifth Gold Cup.
The Irish have won six of the past eight Champion Hurdles. Their former champions Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace go again. But England’s Detroit City is favourite to repeat the success his popular owner Terry Warner had with another grey, Rooster Booster. Trainer Philip Hobbs is not boastful but he insists that Detroit City deserves to be the top choice.
Five-year-olds have a poor record in the race – none has won since See You Then in 1985 – but Hobbs says: “Statistics are there to be beaten. I’m sure he is the best Triumph Hurdle winner we’ve seen for some time. He was a good horse last spring but he’s done everything better this autumn.”
Brave Inca lives up to his name and Hardy Eustace’s four previous Cheltenham contests comprise victories in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle and two Champion hurdles followed by a third in last year’s race after an interrupted preparation. Irish horses generally cope with the soft going expected this year but so will the big, strong Detroit City.
The home crowd will cheer if Well Chief wins the Queen Mother Champion Chase to help David Pipe set off after the total of festival winners achieved by his retired father Martin. The younger Pipe has already trained more than 100 winners in his first season and one of his feats was to bring back the injured Well Chief from a 658-day lay-off to win Newbury’s Game Spirit Chase.
Well Chief won the Arkle Trophy at the 2004 Festival. That day he was 9/1 and won his connections more than £500,000, owner David Johnson declaring: “We backed him from 33/1 to 12/1 and then we ran out of money.”
Well Chief’s 2005 victory as a six-year-old in the Victor Chandler Chase under 11st 10lb was one of the finest weight-carrying performances ever and if he stays sound he should win.
All will hope this year for an injury-free Cheltenham. Nine horses died over the four days last year, a terrible price paid for our pleasure. Every safety factor has been examined since, but the Festival pits the best against the best, all doing things a little bit faster than they have done them before, and jump racing is a sport from which risk can never be wholly removed.