The countdown to the 2014 Cheltenham Festival continues and the excitement is building ahead of the 'Greatest Show on Turf.'
With the likes of Hurricane Fly, Sprinter Sacre, Bobs Worth and Big Buck's all heading to the meeting, we look sure to be treated to a vintage renewal of the showpiece and race fans will be preparing to sink their teeth into one of the most daunting punting puzzles of the year.
The 27 races that make up the Cheltenham Festival are the most hotly contested of the entire racing calendar, with around 500 horses competing for over £3.4 million of win and place prize money which compete only with the Grand National in terms of prestige in the jump racing calendar.
Over the four days, we will witness the world's best horses compete at the home of jump racing and you won't want to miss a beat of the action.
The Cheltenham Festival is the world's most famous meeting. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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2014 Cheltenham Festival championship races
This year’s Champion Hurdle looks set to be one of the finest renewals of the race for some time and the market is dominated by a host of sensational horses.
The legendary Hurricane Fly will return to Prestbury Park in search of a third Champion Hurdle and Willie Mullins’ stable star will be out to confirm that he is the best hurdler either side of the Irish Sea. With a record breaking number of Grade One victories to his name, the French recruit is the best since the mighty Istabraq and it will take a brave man to take on the reigning champion this March.
Hurricane Fly on his way to 2012 Champion Hurdle glory. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Victories in the race in 2011 and 2013 were enough to send his army of supporters wild at Cheltenham and his followers will be looking for another scintillating display at the world’s most exciting race meeting.
If Hurricane Fly is going to defend his title then he is going to have to do it against a number of ultra-talented horses and 2013 Neptune Investment Hurdle hero The New One looks one of the more interesting of his rivals.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ classy operator has been in imperious form this season and it has been no surprise to see the money coming for the youngster in recent months. He will be bidding for a second consecutive success at the Festival and connections will be confident that he has what it takes to serve it up to Hurricane Fly.
Equally, 2013 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle second My Tent Or Yours will be back at Cheltenham and the Fighting Fifth Hurdle winner will be looking to go one better on the opening day of the Festival. Nicky Henderson’s superstar was a heavily backed favourite at last year’s meeting and there is no reason to suggest he won’t be in the mix again this March.
My Tent Or Yours wins the Fighting Fifth Hurdle
Joining Hurricane Fly on the trip over from Ireland will be the exciting 2013 Triumph Hurdle winner Our Conor who looks to be getting better with every race this season. His demolition job over a top quality field at last year’s Festival lives long in the memory and Dessie Hughes’ charge will be a formidable nut to crack in the feature.
Elsewhere, Supreme Novices’ Hurdle third and multiple Grade One winner Jezki will be back at Prestbury Park and the likes of Melodic Rendezvous and Mullins’ Un De Sceaux will also line up for a vintage renewal of the 2014 Champion Hurdle.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
This year’s Champion Chase looks set to provide racing fans with one of the showdowns of the entire meeting as Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy prepare to do battle at Prestbury Park.
This year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase was thrown wide open when Sprinter Sacre was pulled up in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over the Christmas period and it was a result that brought an end up to the superstar’s ten-race unbeaten streak.
Officially the highest rated chaser in training, Sprinter Sacre had never lost over the larger obstacles and his jaw-dropping performances over the last two seasons have been a joy to behold. Victories in the 2012 Arkle Chase and the 2013 Champion Chase confirmed Nicky Henderson’s stable flagbearer as one of the greatest of all time and it looked like a third consecutive Cheltenham success would be a procession for the eight-year-old.
Sprinter Sacre will take his chance in the Champion Chase, all being well. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
However, since he was pulled up at Kempton there have been some doubts surrounding the wellbeing of the multiple Grade One-winner and a new superstar has emerged in the two mile chase division.
Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy has capitalised on the absence of Sprinter Sacre and gone on to win three on the bounce, including the Tingle Creek at Sandown and the Clarence House Chase at Ascot. He has won both contests with consummate ease and there are now some experts who believe that the talented jumper could be a genuine threat to Sprinter Sacre’s Champion Chase crown.
Sire De Grugy wins the Clarence House Stakes
If, as expected, Sprinter Sacre does line up at Cheltenham, the his clash with Sire De Grugy is sure to get the pulses racing at HQ and we’re sure to be treated to a memorable battle up the Cheltenham hill.
There will also be a number of other horses looking to spoil the showdown and Irish raider Arvika Ligeonniere looks likely to be Willie Mullins’ charge in the highlight. He bounced back to form with a sensational display on home turf last time out and his trainer will be hoping that he has what it takes to serve it up to the big two.
Time waits for no man, or horse for that matter, but Big Buck's will be looking to turn back the clock in this year's Ladbrokes World Hurdle after being denied the chance to make it five straight Cheltenham Festival wins through injury last term.
Not since Muhammad Ali returned from exile after opposing the Vietnam War has a comeback been so eagerly awaited, but Paul Nicholls' popular gelding gave more than just a passing glimpse of his old sparkle in the Cleeve Hurdle at Prestbury Park in January.
The sceptics will make much of the way unheralded outsider Knockara Beau rallied up the hill to claim victory that day, while At Fishers Cross also forged past the former champion on the run-in after previously being out of sorts this season.
Big Buck's will be looking to regain his Champion Hurdle crown. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
However, the way Big Buck's travelled so smoothly under new jockey Sam Twiston-Davies for most of that contest caught the eye of many pundits and punters alike, while Nicholls insisted afterwards his valiant veteran will strip much fitter at the Festival.
With the promise of better ground and young Sam more aware of just what an engine he has under him, there is sure to be strong support for the 11-year-old to regain the crown he wore with such majesty between 2009 and 2012, securing an amazing 18 straight victories during that dominance.
Of course, there are always two sides to every coin and there was also enough in the way Big Buck's faltered in the closing stages for value hawks to line up other alternatives, especially as those with proven stamina will no doubt seek to again expose any chinks in the favourite's armour.
Irish mare Annie Power has looked awesome in racking up 10 straight wins and there will be no fears of travel sickness should she return to England for this race following clinical triumphs at Ascot, Cheltenham and Doncaster already this term.
Annie Power wins the Coral Hurdle
The opposition may not have been right out of the top drawer, but Zarkandar is definitely no mug and has been brushed aside twice, while a 12 length defeat of stablemate Glens Melody at Fairyhouse last March is another solid piece of form to boost her claims.
Willie Mullins faces a tough dilemma, with Hurricane Fly his Champion Hurdle hero and Quevega queen of the mares' race and seeking a historic six-timer in that event, so Annie Power may well make a step up in trip to fill a void in the World Hurdle - and Ruby Walsh almost certainly had his poker face on when saying he'd always prefer to back a horse with proven stamina here.
At Fishers Cross recaptured some of the sparkle he showed as a novice when second in that Cleeve Hurdle, the unbeaten More Of That is another contender with huge potential and Mouse Morris has always thought Rule The World has a touch of class.
But the burning question ahead of this year's Ladbrokes World Hurdle remains whether Big Buck's can defy the doubters and Father Time with a vintage reminder of what a superstar he was - or still is!
Cheltenham Gold Cup
Nowhere more than Cheltenham does the phrase 'horses for courses' ring so true and Bobs Worth will be strongly fancied to back up that view by claiming a second straight Betfred Gold Cup at this year's Festival.
Nicky Henderson's tough-as-teak nine-year-old is a perfect five from five on past trips to Prestbury Park, culminating in last season's demolition of Sir Des Champs and Long Run up the hill.
Much has been made of Silviniaco Conti's fall three out when travelling well enough in that contest, but Bobs Worth suffered a momentary loss of momentum sidestepping that rival - just after commentator Mike Cattermole had anxiously remarked on how much leeway he had to make up on the front pair.
Silviniaco Conti on his way to King George glory. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
"But Bobs Worth is eating up the ground," Cattermole cried as they approached the penultimate obstacle and after touching down just in front following the final fence, Barry Geraghty's little battler piled on the pressure as the other two placed horses cried enough.
The 2012 RSA Chase, the previous year's Neptune Novices' Hurdle and a win over Rock On Ruby over timber were other examples of just how much Nicky Henderson's gutsy gelding loves it round here and after quickly erasing the memories of a poor seasonal return at Haydock with a fast-finishing victory in the Lexus at Leopardstown over Christmas he remains very much the one to beat at this unique venue.
Bobs Worth wins the Lexus Chase
Silviniaco Conti will return for the rematch in equally good heart, however, having stayed on strongly to pass Cue card in the King George at Kempton, with Paul Nicholls insisting after that race that his eight-year-old is maturing mentally and physically all the time.
That result would suggest that Cue Card will have problems seeing out an extended 3m 2f trip, but he is another with strong Cheltenham credentials, having won a Champion Bumper and a Ryanair Chase at past Festivals, while jockey Joe Tizzard feels his charge may get more of a chance to catch his breath in a steadily-run Gold Cup rather than the all-out assault we often see on Boxing Day.
Last Instalment put in a spectacular round of jumping to land the Irish Hennessy at Leopardstown and could well make his presence felt if in similar form, while Harry Topper and The Giant Bolster are relentless gallopers who may plod on for a place if things go their way.
Last Instalment wins the Lexus Chase
However, Bobs Worth sets the standard as he bids to become the seventh back-to-back Cheltenham Gold Cup victor and Silviniaco Conti will push him all the way if safely negotiating all the obstacles this time around.
Cheltenham Festival latest betting
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Supreme Novices Hurdle
2m, Cheltenham Festival, Tuesday 11 March
6 Vautour, 8 The Tullow Tank, 8 Irving, 12 Josses Hill, 12 Wicklow Brave, 14 Valseur Lido, 16 West Wizard, 16 Western Boy, 20 The Liquidator, 20 First Mohican, 20 Minella Foru, 20 Vieux Lion Rouge, 25 Garde La Victoire, 25 Moyle Park, 33 bar (1/4 odds 1,2,3)
2m, Cheltenham Festival, Tuesday 11 March
4 Champagne Fever, 6 Dodging Bullets, 6 Trifolium, 8 Rock On Ruby, 10 Hinterland, 8 Valdez, 14 Grandouet, 14 Felix Yonger, 16 Balder Succes, 20 Djakadam, 25 bar, (1/4 odds 1,2,3)
Champion Hurdle NON-RUNNER NO BET
2m, Cheltenham Festival, Tuesday 11 March
3 The New One, 3 Hurricane Fly, 7/2 My Tent Or Yours, 5 Our Conor, 6 Annie Power, 10 Un De Sceaux, 12 Jezki, 20 Melodic Rendezvous, 33 Grandouet, 50 Ptit Zig, 50 Cinders And Ashes, 50 Cotton Mill, 50 Grumeti, 50 Rolling Star, (1/4 odds 1,2,3)
Neptune Novices Hurdle
2m 5f, Cheltenham Festival, Wednesday 12 March
7/2 Faugheen, 6 Red Sherlock, 8 The Tullow Tank, 8 Vautour, 12 Briar Hill, 12 Captain Cutter, 12 Royal Boy, 12 Deputy Dan, 14 Apache Stronghold, 14 The Liquidator, 14 Sure Reef, 16 Clondaw Court, 20 bar (1/4 odds 1,2,3)
3m, Cheltenham Festival, Wednesday 12 March
5 Ballycasey, 7 Smad Place, 8 Morning Assembly, 10 Champagne Fever, 10 Corrin Wood, 12 Don Cossack, 12 Sam Winner, 14 Wonderful Charm, 14 Carlingford Lough, 14 Taquin De Seuil, 16 Djakadan, 16 Le Bec, 16 Many Clouds, 16 Mendip Express, 20 Foxrock, 20 Black Thunder, 20 Benvolio, (1/4 odds 1,2,3)
Champion Chase NON RUNNER NO BET
2m, Cheltenham Festival, Wednesday 12 March
1/2 Sprinter Sacre, 5/2 Sire De Grugy, 10 Arvika Ligeonniere, 10 Benefficient, 10 Captain Conan, 14 Baily Green, 14 Sizing Europe, 16 Kid Cassidy, 16 Alderwood, 16 Hidden Cyclone, 16 Al Ferof, 16 Hinterland, 16 Somersby, 16 Dodging Bullets, 20 Module, 25 bar (1/5 odds 1,2,3)
JLT Novices Chase
2m 4f, Cheltenham Festival, Thursday 13 March
6 Wonderful Charm, 7 Taquin De Seuil, 7 Champagne Fever, 8 Felix Yonger, 8 Vukovar, 10 Oscar Whisky, 10 Djakadan, 14 Don Cossack, 16 Ballycasey, 16 Bright New Dawn, 16 Uxizandre, 20 bar (1/4 odds 1,2,3)
2m 5f, Cheltenham Festival, Thursday 13 March
3 Cue Card, 4 Benefficient, 5 First Lieutenant, 7 Al Ferof, 10 Arvika Ligeonniere, 12 Dynaste, 12 Marito, 12 Riverside Theatre, 14 Captain Conan, 14 Module, 16 Champion Court, 16 Sizing Europe, 16 Cantlow, 16 Last Instalment, 16 Menorah, 16 Rolling Aces, 16 Wonderful Charm, 20 bar (1/4 odds 1,2,3)
Ladbrokes World Hurdle NON RUNNER NO BET
3m, Cheltenham Festival, Thursday 13 March
5/4 Big Buck's, 5/2 Annie Power, 5 At Fishers Cross, 6 More Of That, 8 Rule The World, 8 Quevega, 10 Zarkandar, 12 Salubrious, 16 Monksland, 16 Celestial Halo, 20 Reve De Sivola, 20 Boston Bob, 33 bar, (1/4 odds 1,2,3)
2m, Cheltenham Festival, Friday 14 March
8 Le Rocher, 8 Calipto, 10 Guitar Pete, 14 Ivan Grozny, 14 Broughton, 16 Plinth, 16 Fox Norton, 16 Dawalan, 16 Pearl Castle, 20 Baradari, 20 Rutherglen, 20 Vicenzo Mio, 25 Aurore Destruval, 33 bar(1/4 odds 1,2,3)
Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle
3m, Cheltenham Festival, Friday 14 March
3 Kings Palace, 5 Briar Hill, 6 Faugheen, 16 Urban Hymn, (1/4 odds 1,2,3)
Gold Cup NON RUNNER NO BET
3m 2f, Cheltenham Festival, Friday 14 March
2 Bobs Worth, 7/2 Silviniaco Conti, 7 Cue Card, 10 First Lieutenant, 14 Last Instalment, 16 Al Ferof, 20 Dynaste, 20 Harry Topper, 25 Boston Bob, 25 The Giant Bolster, 33 Lord Windermere, 33 Long Run, 33 Captain Chris, 33 Triolo D'Alene, 40 bar (1/4 odds 1,2,3)