There’s been no major plunge after sketchy reports of difficulties from a vague ‘connection in the yard’. No major drift after a horse gets a dose of the sniffles. And no trainer unconvincingly insisting “everything’s fine” in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.
So far, it’s been pretty straightforward build up to Cheltenham (surprise relapse into the Ice Age aside) for most of the leading contenders for the championship races and the defending champions, in particular. What we lack in dramatic developments splashed across the racing pages, we’ll more than make up for if the champs arrive at Prestbury Park in peak condition and their rivals primed to administer a upset.
Two of last year’s winners, Hurricane Fly and Big Buck’s, are odds-on to defend their titles, Sizing Europe is a shade over odds against (11/10) to claim another Champion Chase, whilst Long Run is apparently the least likely of the quartet to defend his title, despite still being the warm favourite.
The first day of the Festival sees Hurricane Fly attempting to land his second Champion Hurdle. Often fragile and vulnerable to picking up a knock when allowed out of his cotton wool, he has had an unusually simple build-up to Cheltenham. Willie Mullins likes to err on the side of cushy when it comes to his star, so he postponed the Champion Hurdler’s seasonal reappearance by a few weeks. It gave his backers a brief scare, but by the standards of some his previous troubles, this qualifies as blissfully perfect. “I wasn’t happy with him early in the season but he just came right recently and everything went to plan since,” Mullins explained after Hurricane Fly claimed the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. His major rivals from last year have moved on to the chasing division and he looks to have a lot in his favour. It’s hard to think of too many reasons for him not to oblige.
“That was a savage performance at the end of a proper gallop,” Henry de Bromhead said, summing up the general feeling of awe after he watched Sizing Europe win the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown earlier this month. The current champ was always well-fancied to defend his Champion Chase title, but the trouncing he gave Big Zeb gave his credentials a huge shot in the arm. Earlier in the season he was turning in encouraging if unspectacular performances, but he laid down his marker at Punchestown to elevate himself above the rabble of contenders. He handles the track, he has the speed and he’s in form – it’s his for the taking.
Big Buck’s somehow not turning up at the Festival looks like the only way he’ll be surrendering his World Hurdle crown. And his not turning up is more likely to be because of a faulty sat-nav rather than a substandard performance. He’s winning streak spans three years and 15 races back to a time when he was still considered a chaser. With his charge’s track record, Paul Nicholls has all the casual confidence you expect about his charge’s chances of landing a fourth World Hurdle. “I can afford to just freshen him a little bit. He looks fit and lean and well now which he wasn’t earlier in the season,” he admitted, which is rather surprising. Even when apparently not at full fitness ealirer this season, he still managed four wins and an average winning distance of six lengths per race. It’s all systems go as Buck’s tries to secure a place in the history books with a fourth successive winning of the World Hurdle.
According to the betting, the least certain of all the reigning champions is Long Run. Defeat in the Betfair Chase was essentially forgiven as the collateral damage from Kauto Star’s last hurrah, but when it happened again in the King George it became more of an issue. Certainly his trainer, Nicky Henderson wasn’t scrambling for the panic button at Kempton, however, choosing to look at the silver lining rather than the grey cloud on the horizon.
“We have improved seven lengths from Haydock and we’ve now got to find another one but we’ve got three months to do that,” said Henderson. Two of those months have passed and it’s time to see how that progress is going at the Denman Chase at Newbury this Friday. Henderson specialises in getting his horses just right for Cheltenham, so Long Run should be afforded some forgiveness. Another win at Cheltenham would make him the youngest horse since Golden Miller to successfully defend the Gold Cup. It’s clearly a big ask, but this horse has already given a few clues that he might be something special. Kauto will have the popular support and the experience, but Long Run has the youth and that might just be enough when push comes to shove.
Rarely have the champions looked in such shape this close to a Festival. Of course there’s still time for some drama, but hopefully it won’t and we’ll get to see the best horses, in the best condition doing battle up the Cheltenham hill. It may mean a lack of news in the short term, but it will hopefully lead to better racing. That’s a cause we can all champion.