The Irish won nine of the 24 races at last year’s Cheltenham Festival and for this year’s four days, caterer Letheby and Christopher is well prepared with 170,000 pints of Guinness. Plenty of champagne will also be on hand on Tuesday, along with three tonnes of smoked salmon, but maybe they should have brought in a few buckets of snails and frogs’ legs too, for this just could be the year of the French breakthrough at Cheltenham.
Trainer François Doumen has won a Gold Cup with The Fellow, two World Hurdles with that fine old warrior Baracouda, who will be trying once more at the age of 11 to wrest back his crown, and a Triumph Hurdle with Snow Drop. He tuned up L’Ami perfectly at Sandown last month for a crack at the most open Gold Cup in years, and Kasbah Bliss is well fancied for the Triumph Hurdle. after winning the same race on that Sandown card that Snow Drop did before he headed to Cheltenham. Doumen’s Moulin Riche, a Festival winner last year, is also favourite for the William Hill Handicap Chase.
But this year it is not just Doumen who threatens to interrupt the Anglo-Irish battles. Arnaud Chaille-Chaille, who trains at Royan on the Atlantic coast and has won at Cheltenham with Ambobo, is sending a five-strong raiding party, all owned by Irish property magnate Sean Mulryan, with novice hurdler Zaiyad and the unbeaten Mid Dancer apparently the pick. And Jean-Paul Gallorini, 11 times French champion jumps trainer, is sending Kario de Sormain to take on Ireland’s Moscow Flyer and Fota Island and England’s Kauto Star in what could be the race of the meeting, the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
The headstrong French mare has not been schooled over English obstacles, and before a hoofprint has been made on the Gloucestershire turf her trainer surely qualified for the quote of the meeting, declaring: “She will come to the English fences like a young girl discovering love.”
Some say it is a sub-standard Cheltenham, with Best Mate and Rooster Booster sadly deceased and the list of absent injured stars as long as the queue in the Arkle Bar: Kicking King, Trabolgan, Feathard Lady, Harchibald, Azertyuiop, Well Chief, Mephisto and Inglis Drever. But top trainers disagree.
Philip Hobbs, whose Monkerhostin has vied for favouritism with Ireland’s Beef or Salmon for the Gold Cup, says figures from the Royal Veterinary College show there are no more injuries than most years, it is just that a few high-profile horses have been affected. “I don’t think that overall it will prove substandard, but the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup probably are. There are not the outstanding horses that we often have going into those two races at short prices. In a normal year you wouldn’t think Monkerhostin would be favourite.”
Paul Nicholls, who probably only needs one big Cheltenham prize to clinch this year’s trainers championship, says of the departed stars: “Those are horses that have been there and done it. We’ve got new champions, new stars. Racing is very progressive and you need new horses coming through. I think it will be as good and as competitive as ever.”
One new star is his Kauto Star, whose whole season has been geared to Cheltenham. “He won the Tingle Creek in only his fourth run over fences,” says Nicholls. “We think he’s good but he’s obviously a little bit of a talking horse – he has to go and prove it now.”
There is renewal too for Henrietta Knight. Best Mate may be gone but her youngster Racing Demon is favourite for the Arkle, bringing all the familiar pressures. “There’s a hell of a lot of people out there who’ve put money on it and you don’t want to let them down.”
As for emptying the bookies satchels, think Ireland for the Champion Hurdle. With Tony McCoy aboard it looks like Brave Inca’s year. But while Hardy Eustace trailed in last in his preparatory race, he is a Cheltenham horse who loves the course. Look for Willie Mullins’s pick of his five runners in the Bumper. The Triumph Hurdle could be England’s with Hobbs’s Detroit City or Nicky Henderson’s Afsoun. And when it comes to the getting-out stakes, the Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle on the last day, Nicholls’s Desert Quest is tough enough to do it.