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Traditional hunting may have gone, but what many see as the National Hunt Olympics lives on at the Cheltenham Festival and the usual roar when the field sets off for the first race on Tuesday will still rattle the champagne bottles in the picnic hampers and blow the froth off a thousand glasses of Guinness. The first four-day Festival, now extended into Friday, will be a formidable test for livers, wallets and heart pacemakers.
The racing will be Hamlet without the prince perhaps, now that a burst blood vessel has robbed Best Mate, the triple Gold Cup winner, of the chance to defend his crown. But pretenders had been queuing up even before Best Mate's setback, among them Ireland's Beef Or Salmon, who beat the champion at Leopardstown in December, and the Robert Alner-trained Sir Rembrandt, whom Henrietta Knight's champion held off only by half a length in last year's Gold Cup.
Stable jockey Andrew Thornton has stepped off Sir Rembrandt and opted to ride Alner's other entry Kingscliff, who has twice won round the Cheltenham course. The new Gold Cup favourite finished an impressive second in the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day after a long lay-off, with Thornton declaring: "I can't wait for him to race with an uphill finish."
Kicking King, who won the King George despite a horrific blunder at the last fence, takes him on again.
Grey Abbey, the burly front-running grey which turned January's Pillar Property Chase at Cheltenham into a procession, has since been suffering from a joint injury, but if he is fully fit again he will make them all go.
Yet the biggest danger to Kingscliff could be Strong Flow, the 2003 Hennessy Gold Cup winner which has been brought back steadily after fracturing a bone in his knee. Trainer Paul Nicholls believes he is cherry ripe again and that should be enough to cope with Irish hero Beef Or Salmon, whose sometimes lacklustre jumping may limit his chances.
No Irish limit, though, in the Champion Hurdle where a "greenwash" is threatened. With England's former champion Rooster Booster seeming to have lost the winning habit, the top seven in the Champion Hurdle betting are all Irish-trained. But which is the best?
Jessica Harrington's Mac's Joy has twice come home ahead of Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace in Irish preparatory races. Earlier, Harchibald comfortably beat Mac's Joy at Punchestown with Back in Front second. But Harchibald worked terribly in a trial the other day and Back in Front is a spring horse which loves Cheltenham. Also among the Irish contingent are impressive handicap winners Accordion Etoile, who has never been beaten on good ground, and Essex.
I go with Hardy Eustace, which won the Sun Alliance in 2003 and the Champion Hurdle last year. A two out of two record at Cheltenham cannot be ignored.
The thriller of the meeting is Wednesday's two-mile Champion Chase. The speedy Moscow Flyer, winner of every race in which he has stood up, will carry a mass of Irish euros as well as jockey Barry Geraghty. Last year, Azertyuiop, described by trainer Paul Nicholls as less of a speedster, more a staying two-miler, put Moscow Flyer under pressure with his precision fencing and the Irish contender fell.
But it is not just a duel. Also in the field is Martin Pipe's six-year-old Well Chief. He was beaten at Newbury by Azertyuiop but had earlier put up an amazing weight-carrying performance in Cheltenham's Victor Chandler Chase, winning despite giving 15lb and upwards to classy rivals.
With the Gold Cup moved to Friday, Thursday's treat will be the reappearance of the tough French horse Baracouda, twice a winner of the Stayers Hurdle, reborn as the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. Trainer François Doumen says Baracouda, which is no looker, lacks personality. But since the old battler has stuffed his connections' bank accounts with £700,000 already they are not going to worry about that. Trainer Alan King, who should have a cracking Festival, runs a revitalised Crystal d'Ainay against Baracouda but Monsieur Doumen has not been quaking in his loafers. If Baracouda wins again, expect the world's most sporting crowd to raise the roof.
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