Racing fans across the UK and Ireland are preparing themselves for the biggest four days on the National Hunt calendar with the 2014 Cheltenham Festival set to get underway on Tuesday, 11th March. The meeting seems to be becoming bigger and bigger with every passing year and once again, that seems to be the case in 2014, with the biggest names in the equine world descending on the Gloucestershire venue to contest the most important races of the jumps season. The big races come thick and fast over the four days and with the weather set to improve, we can expect the card on Tuesday to get underway on decent ground.
The first day of the Cheltenham Festival is considered by many to be the highlight of the week and it is easy to see why. As always, the Supreme Novices Hurdle will kicks off proceedings and we can expect the usual Cheltenham roar when the tapes go up for the first race of the week. Favourites don’t have a great record in the Supreme but that could change this year with two well backed horses set to going head-to-head over the two mile distance. The Paul Nicholls trained Irving will be the leading contender for the UK, while Vautour represents Ireland with both carrying massive reputations. The pair are both unbeaten this season and are currently fighting for favouritism around the 3/1 mark for the now traditional curtain-raiser which should get the Festival off with a bang.
The highlight of day one though is the Champion Hurdle as the best two mile hurdlers in the business clash on the biggest stage. All eyes will be on Hurricane Fly who is looking to join an elite group to have won the race three times but he faces his toughest task to date up against a number of excellent younger rivals. The New One won the Neptune at Cheltenham last season and is a class act, while Our Conor is another previous Festival winner, having stormed to victory in the Triumph Hurdle twelve months ago for Dessie Hughes. My Tent Or Yours should also be considered a threat to the reign of Hurricane Fly, who could write his name into the record books with another success on Tuesday and the leading quartet cannot be spilt in the betting between odds of 11/4 and 4/1.
The feature race on day two is always the Queen Mother Champion Chase and this one too is shaping up to be a fascinating renewal. Defending champion Sprinter Sacre will miss the race through injury which has left Sire De Grugy as the 9/4 market leader. He has swept all before him this season and deserves the favourite tag but his record around Cheltenham is far from impressive, which would be a worry for his supporters and opens the door for the others in the race. Other contenders include Captain Conan who will go for Nicky Henderson and Arvika Ligeonniere, who is a class act when he puts his best hoof forward for Willie Mullins and rates a 6/1 chance. The race may well lack a superstar this season but it could just be one of the most competitive spectacles of the week.
Attention will turn to the World Hurdle on Thursday and potentially it could be a classic renewal of the famous race. Big Buck’s is back at Prestbury Park after missing the Festival through injury last year but he faces a massive test if he is to win the race for a remarkable fifth time. The Paul Nicholls trained 11-year-old returned from a long lay-off to finish third in the Cleeve Hurdle in January although connections are convinced he will improve massively for that run next time out. He will certainly need to do that as he takes on Annie Power who is widely considered to be one of the most exciting young horses in training. The Willie Mullins mare remains unbeaten during her career and with a 7lb mares allowance in her favour, many believe that she is the one to beat in the World Hurdle and is the pre-race favourite at odds of 15/8 whilst Big Buck’s is a 9/4 chance. At Fishers Cross is also a contender having won the Albert Bartlett last year, while More Of That is a highly progressive horse who could still be anything for Jonjo O’Neill.
The final day of the Cheltenham Festival is always dominated by the Gold Cup. The Blue Ribbon race is for the staying chasers and we have a warm favourite in the form of Bobs Worth, who is bidding to become the first back-to-back winner since Best Mate in the early 2003. The Nicky Henderson trained runner bounded up the hill twelve months ago to claim the race and after winning the Lexus Chase over Christmas in good style, the nine-year-old looks to be the one to beat once again, which is reflected in the 15/8 quote. Great horses like Kauto star and Denman were unable to win the race in successive years though, which could open up the race this season for the likes of Silviniaco Conti and Last Instalment who are both class acts on their day and present a big danger to the favourite.
The 2014 Cheltenham Festival runs from 11th – 14th March, for more information, visit www.cheltenham-festival.co.uk