Cheltenham Festival 2012 A-Z

With 'the greatest show on turf' now only mere days away, we take an alphabetised look at the 2012 Cheltenham Festival.

In a little over 72 hours €˜the greatest show on turf€™ will begin and for four days the normally tranquil Cotswolds will be transformed in to a raucous hotbed of emotion that you will rarely see rivalled in sport. The Cheltenham festival has increasingly become the sole focus of so much of the national hunt season and this year€™s festival is shaping up to be one of the biggest and best ever. There are angles and stories galore going into a week of the year that can make or break man and beast, so allow me to take you on an alphabetised tour of what you can look forward to as the Cheltenham Festival 2012 kicks off next week. A is for Alastair Down, Channel 4€™s very own €˜Fat Owl€™ is always a highlight during Cheltenham week. His wry look back at the previous day€™s more unusual moments is a particular joy and Down himself has the incredible ability to put the seemingly indescribable emotions one experiences during the festival in to words as he has done regularly for the Racing Post over the years. Down is my favourite Racing journalist by far and although Channel 4 seem to now prefer the younger Nick Luck over old stalwarts like Down and Derek Thompson, it just wouldn€™t be Cheltenham without the Fat Owl presiding over proceedings down at Prestbury Park. B is for Big Buck€™s, staying hurdlers might not be as sexy as their more speedy counterparts in the 2-mile hurdle races or the chasers tackling the bigger obstacles but one horse has well and truly made the World Hurdle, Thursday€™s feature, a must-see attraction over the last few years. Paul Nicholls€™ Big Buck€™s has taken what the likes of Baracouda and the mighty Inglis Drever did in this division before him and run with it. Unbeaten in 15 starts since switching to smaller obstacles, he can break both a Cheltenham and hurdling record by winning the World Hurdle for a fourth time and it€™d take a very brave man to suggest he won€™t, having looked as dominant as ever so far this season. C is for Coral Cup, Wednesday€™s fifth race may seem like a bit of a come down to many following the feature race of the day on the card but the Coral Cup has become a firm favourite with punters since its inception in 1993 and is now one of the hottest betting contests of the week. The Coral Cup is usually the scene of a huge gamble on the day and has also thrown up several big priced winners over the years. The favourite for this year€™s race is Get Me Out Of Here, who must have a big chance on his second to Zarkandar in the Betfair Hurdle last month. D is for Darlan, currently favourite for the opening event of the festival, the Supreme Novices€™ Hurdle, Darlan looks to have an outstanding chance. He was cruising when falling in the Betfair Hurdle last time out and if none the worse for that quite nasty spill he should be prominent come the business end of the race. The Supreme is a wide open race most years though and this year is no exception, there are several very promising horses in there that could be anything down the line, I personally have been a big Cinders And Ashes fan for a number of months now. E is for Early Start, Cheltenham has the distinct air of Christmas about it for Horse Racing fans and much like the 25th December, each day of the Cheltenham festival will no doubt begin with an early start for eager punters as they try and get one over on the old enemy. The benefit to an early start is that you also get the chance to catch Channel 4€™s The Morning Line which airs every day of Cheltenham and this year bizarrely will feature Ronnie Corbett as a guest one day! F is for Finians Rainbow, Arkle winners have a fantastic record in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but with Captain Chris aimed at the Gold Cup this year it is down to last year€™s Arkle 2nd Finians Rainbow to mount a challenge for the second season 2-milers against the old guard of Sizing Europe and Big Zeb. Sizing Europe looks a good thing but if any horse is going to give him a race this time around I venture that it will be Finians Rainbow.

G is for Guinness, with half of Ireland descending on the Cotswolds for Cheltenham it is no surprise that the black stuff is in high demand but it is estimated that a staggering 2 million pints of Guinness will be sunk during Cheltenham week and that€™s with St. Patrick€™s Day not even falling during the festival this year! H is for Harry The Viking, currently favourite for Wednesday€™s opening race, the National Hunt Chase Harry The Viking is part-owned by one Sir Alex Ferguson which will no doubt give pundits something to seize on and make lame football puns about in the build-up to the race; I of course would never stoop to that level and I just hope Harry stays on as strongly as he did last time out at Doncaster and we don€™t get a game of two halves and see him fading after looking like the winner early on. I is for Invictus, a horse who I was all set to say hand a very good shot at landing the €˜Novice Gold Cup€™ the RSA Chase, that was until trainer Alan King declared he€™d had a problem and was no doubtful for the festival. If Invictus does make Cheltenham, which now looks unlikely, and he€™s at his best then he is a big danger in the RSA on the strength of his win in the Reynoldstown last time out in which he accounted for Bobs Worth who bizarrely is more than half Invictus€™s price and was even before this set-back. Of course if Grands Crus ends up contesting the RSA rather than the Gold Cup then this will all surely be irrelevant because he should make mince-meat of this lot. J is for James Nesbitt, Cold Feet star James Nesbitt is the owner of Ryanair Chase favourite Riverside Theatre and will undoubtedly be a hugely prominent figure on the Thursday of festival week, including an appearance on The Morning Line I believe. Named after the theatre in Northern Ireland at which Nesbitt performed during his teens, the horse has already given Nesbitt some great days as an owner but having missed Cheltenham last year through injury, a festival win would surely be the pinnacle for both owner and horse, and he stands a great chance. K is for Kauto Star, of course K is for Kauto Star, the greatest chaser of modern times, King Kauto has been resurgent this year and handed young pretender Long Run two beatings to land his fourth Betfair Chase and an historic fifth King George. With the score currently 2-2 between the two mercurial chasers the Gold Cup looks like being the deciding, and possibly last, bout between the two. Even away from the track Kauto can create headlines though and a fall at home during his prep looked like putting an end to arguably his greatest season to date, but the 12 year old looks to have bounced back and the showdown seems set to go ahead. Win, lose or even no show at Cheltenham this year there€™ll no denying that Kauto Star is one of the greats. L is for Lucy Alexander, with poor Graham Lee out injured, exceptional conditional jockey Lucy Alexander looks set to find fortune in Lee€™s misfortune by landing some plum Cheltenham rides for trainer Ferdy Murphy. The festival has seen some great moments for female jockeys in the last couple of years through the exploits of Nina Carberry & Katie Walsh for Ireland but in Alexander the UK now has their very own National Hunt heroine who at just 21 has the opportunity to write her name in to the Cheltenham history books. M is for Michael O€™Leary, love or loathe outspoken Ryanair boss Michael O€™Leary, there€™s no denying what he€™s done for Racing and for the Cheltenham festival over the last few years. 2012 will be no different with his company€™s sponsored race being a major focal point of Thursday and his Gigginstown Stud team of horses looking to make their presence felt throughout the week. Even with the absence of Weapons Amnesty, Quito De La Roque & Last Instalment, Gigginstown still have an enviable hand for the festival with the likes of Trifolium, Sir Des Champs, First Lieutenant & Carlito Brigante all not without a chance in their respective races. N is for Nicky Henderson, alongside Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson is a dominant force in National Hunt racing and has enjoyed great success at the Cheltenham festival over the last few decades, so much so that he is just one win away from equalling the record set by the legendary Fulke Walwyn of 40 festival winners; and with Darlan and Sprinter Sacre in the first two races of this year€™s festival, Henderson may surpass Walwyn€™s record after about an hour of Cheltenham 2012. Even if he doesn€™t get there that quickly, with a stable of horses that also includes reigning Gold Cup champion Long Run it€™d take a brave person to bet against Henderson becoming the festival€™s most winning trainer this year. O is for Odds, there is almost always a massively priced winner during the Cheltenham festival and with basically the best horses all taking each other on that€™s always going to be the case. Beating the odds and getting one over on the bookies will be the main aim of punters during the festival and with most bookies offering concessions a plenty it€™s the best time of year to be waging war with the old enemy. Hopefully there€™ll be a big-priced winner out there for you during this year€™s Cheltenham festival. P is for Paul Bittar, it had to come sooner or later. We€™re over half way through this feature and yet to mention the dreaded whip. Since taking over at the helm of the BHA (British Horseracing Authority) Aussie Paul Bittar has done exactly what he promised and shaken things up, spearheading a further set of revisions to the controversial new whip rules brought in late last year. His thinking being that we didn€™t want Cheltenham overshadowing by whip controversies as Champions Day was on the flat back in October. The new rules are now in effect and seem, touch wood, to be keeping this thorny subject out of the spotlight, hopefully that€™ll still be the case come the finish of the Grand Annual, Friday€™s last race at the festival. Q is for Queen, we€™ve already had a football manager and an actor with horses running at Cheltenham this year and with all due respect to Fergie & Jimmy Nesbitt, there€™s one owner who will certainly be stealing the headlines if her horse was to win at Cheltenham next week. Step forward Her Majesty The Queen, whose Barbers Shop runs in Friday€™s Foxhunters Chase. It was only a couple of years ago that Barbers Shop was well backed for the race that precedes the Foxhunters, the Gold Cup, but having lost his way quite spectacularly he is now on the comeback trail and would be a very famous winner were he to make it 3 out of 3 in hunter chases by landing the spoils at Cheltenham. R is for Ruby Walsh, the Cheltenham festival€™s most winning jockey ever is nothing short of a master in the saddle and he will be bidding to add to his record number of wins at the festival this year with another book of rides that you can barely believe. As stable jockey to both Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, Walsh has the pick of the best horses from both sides of the Irish Sea and with the exception of the Champion Chase could quite feasibly ride the winners of the other three feature races. He rode seven winners at the 2009 festival and with the likes of Boston Bob, Al Ferof, Quevega, Pearl Swan and Join Together also ready for him to take the leg up on he might just eclipse that incredible figure this year. S is for Sprinter Sacre, no horse has more hype surrounding it going in to this year€™s Cheltenham festival than Nicky Henderson€™s monster Sprinter Sacre. He punched his ticket to Cheltenham with a highly impressive thrashing of Peddlers Cross at Kempton over Christmas and the hype has built slowly ever since, justifiably too if his win in the rearranged Game Spirit last time out is anything to go by. He€™s odds on to win the Arkle and is so well fancied you can not only bet on his winning distance but also at what price he will start at. Paddy Power are also offering punters their money back on any losing bets for the race if Sprinter Sacre wins the Arkle and although that sort of money back offer has worked for the Irish bookie in the past, Sprinter Sacre looks worthy of the moniker €˜festival banker€™ this time around. T is for Twitter, I often find it a little surprising just how much influence Horse Racing can have on social networking sites, especially Twitter. During Cheltenham in particular most of the trending topics in the UK will be Racing-related and anyone who wants to avoid the festival will do well to stay clear of Twitter that week, because you can bank on celebrations and commiserations making their way on to the site well in to the night before doing the whole thing again for the next day! U is for Unaccompanied, the form of last year€™s Triumph Hurdle has worked out exceptionally well and the horse who finished second in that race Dermot Weld€™s smart dual-purpose performer Unaccompanied has the opportunity this year to actually give wonder-mare Quevega a race in the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle or the Quevega Cake Walk Hurdle as it should really have been renamed after the fragile but brilliant Willie Mullins horse won the race three years on the spin. This year she looks to make it 4 in a row and at odds on you€™d struggle to make much of a case against her doing it again but in Unaccompanied she could face a horse with very strong form in the bag who not many months back was being touted as a potential Champion Hurdle winner, that€™s if connections allow Unaccompanied to take her chance, with a return to the flat now rumoured to be her preferred option. V is for Vendor, according to trainer Alan King Vendor is as good as Grumeti, his stable mate who is currently disputing favouritism for the Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle, yet Vendor is running in the Grade 3 Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle and according to many well-respected sources is the best-handicapped horse running at the festival. As such the best price you can get on Vendor for one of the week€™s most competitive races is 7/2, there€™s always one handicap where something is backed in to a ridiculous price and the way things are going that could well be Vendor, if you subscribe to the notion that he is as well treated as has been suggested get on now! W is for Waley-Cohen, win or lose on Long Run in the Gold Cup on Friday, amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen will be making headlines, the question is whether it will be for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. Owned by his father Robert, who incidentally is also the chairman of Cheltenham, Long Run has brought the Waley-Cohens the sort of joy most of us may never know but with it has also come a great deal of criticism from bitter punters lamenting the ride the amateur gave the horse when he has tasted defeat. That€™s a school of thought I don€™t buy in to though, you know what you€™re getting when you back Long Run and if you€™d prefer to see Barry Geraghty on your horse then you need to be backing something else. No one understands Long Run better than Sam Waley-Cohen and as much as the heart wants it the head suggests he€™ll turn the tables on Kauto Star this time around, I€™m just hoping that Grands Crus is storming up the hill in front of both of them! X is for X-Country Chase, a bit of a cheat I know but you try finding something beginning with X relating to this year€™s Cheltenham festival. The Cross Country Chase which follows the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday sees the competitors jumping a series of obstacles more akin to the Chelsea Flower show than a race course and is never without incident. Old-timer Garde Champetre, the horse Clive Smith famously went to buy when he ended up taking Kauto Star home, has been a stalwart of these races for years, but this time around the Cross Country looks at the mercy of the Scotsirish who looks far too good for a race like this to me. Y is for Yards, 550 of them to be precise, as that is how much further Long Run & Kauto Star will have to travel in the Gold Cup as opposed to the Betfair Chase & the King George and it is widely expected that those extra couple of furlongs coupled with the gruelling Cheltenham hill might just find out the older legs of Kauto Star this time allowing the younger Long Run to make up the few lengths Kauto has had on him thus far this campaign. That said, it also opens the race up to strong-staying horses such as Burton Port & Weird Al who will no doubt have plenty left coming home up the hill. Z is for Zarkandar, last year€™s Triumph Hurdle winner had not been seen for almost a year before returning at Newbury to stay on strongly and land the Betfair Hurdle giving weight to most of his opponents that day. On the back of that performance the half-brother to Arc winner Zarkava made the Champion Hurdle look a little more like a contest having previously looked more like a parade for Hurricane Fly, who returned in the sort of sparkling form last month that he ended last season in. Throw a seemingly rejuvenated Binocular in to the mix and although it is still The Fly€™s to lose, the Champion Hurdle looks like being a lot more interesting than it was shaping up to be and Zarkandar should at least be filling a place when it€™s all said and done.
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