Will We See Greatness at Cheltenham?
The Cheltenham Festival will be underway in little more than a week’s time, and with it the most exciting stretch of British horse racing will begin. As always, we’ll see four extraordinary days of racing packed with festivity around the grounds and breathtaking action on the tracks. The Sun’s sports page has already posted a video preview of the racing action, so in this post I’d like to discuss a broader topic related to the event: the question of whether or not a great champion will rise.
At any horse racing event it’s true that the most compelling races are those with tight or unpredictable finishes. We all love the thrill of seeing a close race or a surprise winner, and the possibility of such things is what keeps the sport interesting. But horse racing fans also love their great, dominant champions. At Cheltenham, as with some other major festivals, there are some names that have become legends over time. And the presence of these kinds of horses has a lot to do with the tradition at events such as the Cheltenham Festival.
Alongside a number of articles looking ahead to this year’s action, Betfair’s horse racing section recently started a discussion about which horse might be the “King Of Cheltenham,” or the greatest competitor to ever run the races at this particular festival. Asking fans to respond with the #KingOfCheltenham hashtag, the article suggested past greats like The Fly, Arkle, and Kauto Star as possible answers. But could any of the leading competitors this year ultimately wind up in the same kind of conversation? Let’s take a look at a few candidates to enter the all-time great discussion with strong showings this year.
Trained by Willie Mullins and mentioned frequently as a top competitor in recent years, Annie Power is the strong favourite to headline day one at Cheltenham with a win in the Champion Hurdle. Such a win would not make this chestnut thoroughbred a legend by any stretch of the imagination, but it would put her on an interesting path moving forward. Annie Power probably has a couple more trips to Cheltenham left in her, and a win here would put a huge spotlight on her in 2017. Not to mention she’s among the favourites for the Gold Cup this time around as well.
Un De Sceaux
Another Willie Mullins horse, Un De Sceaux is also seeking his first win in one of the four main event races at Cheltenham. But he’s the favourite in the Champion Chase, and there are massive expectations. The Telegraph’s write-up on the horse two years ago called him “something special” and perhaps the most exciting chaser to be seen in Ireland in some time. Having won the Arkle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham last year, Un De Sceaux is finally a focus in one of the main events, and a win could plant the seeds for a legend.
Sprinter Sacre’s dominant win in the 2013 Champion Chase looked like the beginning of a spectacular run. Unfortunately, the horse began experiencing some heart problems not too long afterward, and has since been largely sidelined and restrained from competition. This year it looks as though the Nicky Henderson product will be back in action on day two, however, and should he defeat Un De Sceaux and the rest of the field, he’ll become an immediate legend. These are really the only names involved at this year’s festival that seem to have a chance to enter the conversation about the “King Of Cheltenham”. In the case of Annie Power or Un De Sceaux, a strong showing in 2016 would mean matching expectations with a chance to make a strong run moving forward. But should Sprinter Sacre win the Champion Chase, we’ll certainly have an active great on our hands.