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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 6 December, 2019

4 things to look out for on Day 1 of the Cheltenham Festival

Willie Mullins is on the brink of history as the action gets underway at Prestbury Park tomorrow.

TUESDAY, 12 MARCH was the first date racing fans stuck the 2019 office annual leave calendar.

Unless the boss is a racing fan and brings a TV into the office, a day off is the only option.

Most Tuesdays are not really ‘high stool’ days but when Cheltenham is on, societal norms can be put on hold. Day one of this year’s Festival doesn’t have the traditional line up of “bankers” like many previous years, but there is no shortage of intrigue.

Supreme Beings

Noel Fehily onboard Summerville Boy celebrates winning Noel Fehily onboard Summerville Boy celebrates winning the Supreme Novices last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The roar that greets the tapes going up for the Supreme Novices Hurdle on Tuesday signals the start of a welcome four-day suspension of reality. The winner of this race will be expected to go on to great things.

This was the first win at the Festival for many champions. Recently Altior, Douvan and Vautour have announced themselves on the world by winning this race. While in the past subsequent Champion Hurdle winners Hor La Loi III and Brave Inca won this.

The stars of the future are not just amongst the winners though as Champion Hurdlers Binocular and Buveur D’Air tasted defeat here as did grade one winners Min, Supasundae, Gold Cup winner Sizing John and superstar chaser Sprinter Sacre. This year’s renewal is wide open but will still produce plenty of future stars.

Disputed Champ

This year’s Champion Hurdle sees as unheralded an attempt at genuine history as one is likely to witness in horseracing. As a sport, racing isn’t really renowned for under-hyping horses (Samcro anyone).

Buveur D’air is looking to win a third consecutive Champion Hurdle. Were he to oblige, he will join a thoroughly elite band of champions. Only five horses have ever, like ever, ever, achieved this remarkable feat; the last being Istabraq in 2000.

Nicky Henderson’s champ carries the same colours as Istabraq but none of the same affection. Buveur faces arguably his toughest challenge this year, when he attempts to concede weight allowances to a pair of phenomenal females in Laurina and Apple’s Jade.

Willie Mullins’ Laurina had a stunted preparation but takes the same route here as Annie Power did successfully in 2016. While Apple’s Jade has carried all before her this season. The challenge has been laid down to Buveur D’Air, should he return victorious on Tuesday, the vociferous doubters should be silenced.

Emotional Rollercoaster

Katie Walsh celebrates with Relegate after winning Katie Walsh celebrates after winning with Relegate last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Cheltenham Festival invariably throws up poignant stories. Last year Katie Walsh’s tears flowed after she guided Relegate to victory in the Champion Bumper. She was overcome with emotion given the highs of the win, combined with the relief that her brother Ruby was okay (okay by jockey standards – he still had a broken leg) after an earlier fall.

And of course, the audience was unaware, but Walsh surely knew it would be her last Cheltenham as a rider. She retired only weeks later at the Punchestown festival. Attempting to predict the falling of tears can be mawkish and a bit Hollywood. However, should Kayley Woollacott and her #smalltrainer (her three-year old daughter Bella) win the Arkle with the gentle giant Lawlor (BFF of the aforementioned #smalltrainer), even the most cynical, battle-hardened punter will be claiming to have something in their eye.


Willie Mullins Willie Mullins: could break record on Tuesday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The domination of the superstar trainers at recent renewals of the festival has become more and more pronounced. In 2018 Messers Mullins, Elliot, Nicholls and Henderson accounted for nineteen of the 28 winners.

In reality it was Mullins and Elliot who dominated with fifteen winners between them. There are more races now so records are somewhat less difficult to break, but should Willie Mullins win the Mares’ Hurdle on Tuesday he will become the first trainer to win 10 renewals of a festival race. Technically Vincent O’Brien won 10 Supremes, but those races were often divided so in 1955, 1956 & 1958 he won six in three years.

In the run-up to the festival, both Mullins and stable jockey Ruby Walsh nominated Benie des Dieux in the Mares Hurdle as their best chance of the week. For context, there have been 14 mares only races run at The Festival, Willie Mullins has won twelve of them. Trainer and jockey know what they are talking about here. Benie des Dieux is odds on to be a record breaker for the Closutton maestro. Still, should the almost unthinkable happen and Willie not win the mares’ race, he won’t have to wait long to get another chance to make break the record. He has won the Champion Bumper on Wednesday nine times too.

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