Can it really be 12 months since the cream of national hunt racing’s horses, jockeys and trainers gathered at Prestbury Park for last year’s Cheltenham Festival?
This spring highlight of the British sporting calendar is with us again, and promises to be as action-filled and emotion-soaked as ever.
Thousands will make the short trip across the Irish Sea as racing’s Anglo-Celtic rivalry is renewed, but all will be good-natured, with fans coming together from all corners, pints of Guinness to be shared and new friends to be made.
The beauty of the festival, and indeed the sport, is the people involved and the sheer colour of the occasion. The four days never fails to throw up an incredible story, and it’s often one that goes under the radar.
Elephant Sport provides a lowdown on four of the potential stories that could make the headlines and are worth keeping more than just half an eye on.
4) Altior vs Douvan
A duel racing fans have been waiting for since the festival 12 months ago.
Altior, the winner of the 2017 Arkle and unbeaten over fences in seven starts is trained by Nicky Henderson and represents the English.
In comparison, Irish raider Douvan won the 2016 Arkle and is trained by Willie Mullins. He has lost just once in 10 starts over timber.
His sole defeat came in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the festival last year, where he suffered a pelvic injury and hasn’t been seen since.
Both have had question marks surrounding their fitness. Douvan was expected to make his highly-anticipated seasonal reappearance in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in November, only to be withdrawn just days before.
Altior also suffered a setback, and connections were forced to give him a wind op, which would have been far from ideal to his preparations. However, he has at least had a pipe-opener where he beat Politologue by a comfortable four lengths in what was an impressive victory in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase.
As comfortable as Altior’s victory was, it’s questionable whether his first race in 10 months will have left its mark.
It’s also questionable whether the highly-anticipated clash will even take place after Willie Mullins and owner Rich Ricci suggested on Sunday that Douvan could make a late change to tackle the Ryanair Chase – that is, of course, if he runs at all.
However, there is still a possibility no matter how slim, that the contest could happen and that Douvan and Altior may both finally take their chance in the Queen Mother’s Champion Chase on Wednesday.
If they do, then racing fans could be in for one of the most iconic Anglo-Celtic battles of the festival. Punters should be sure to take a late lunch at work, and to settle down in front of the TV come 3.30pm.
3) Black Corton – Bryony Frost
Black Corton and Bryony Frost have been one of the biggest success stories of the season.
Trained by Paul Nicholls it’s been a long season for Black Corton, who started his campaign at Fontwell in June. Part-owned by Jeremy Kyle, Cheltenham wouldn’t have been on the radar back in the summer.
However, after developing an astounding partnership with Bryony Frost, the pair have won seven times in eight races together as well as winning the public’s hearts in the process.
Their rapid rise has forced the hand of Nicholls to enter them into the RSA Chase, for which bookmakers currently make them third favourites.
2) Sam Spinner – Jedd O’Keeffe/Joe Colliver
Sam Spinner will provide trainer Jedd O’Keeffe with a live chance of landing the Stayers Hurdle.
Currently one of the market leaders, punters have been keen on Sam, particularly since the ‘Beast from the East’ blew in, leaving the forecast going at the festival on the soft side, which is ground which he has proved he handles.
O’Keefe was diagnosed with cancer of the throat in 2011. His ill-health along with the financial crisis meant they were close to closing the yard, but owners Paul and Caron Chapman – who own Sam Spinner – had recently sold their business and filled half of the yard, overwhelming support which allowed business to resume.
Spinner was bought for a mere £12,600 and regular pilot Joe Colliver will keep the ride for the festival. Colliver, 26, served a three-month prison sentence after perverting the court of justice following a drink driving incident where he paid a friend to take the blame for a car crash.
Colliver described the decision as an ‘ill-judged one’ and has since been trying to rebuild his career as a jockey. A win on board Sam Spinner in the Stayers Hurdle would go a long way to doing just that.
Edwulf provided rookie trainer Joseph O’Brien with a grade 1 winner at the Dublin racing festival in the Irish Gold Cup.
But what makes the story so sensational is what took place 12 months before.
After collapsing at last year’s festival, having been pulled up in the National Hunt Chase, Edwulf was on the floor for well over 40 minutes, having a fit and at one stage appearing to be suffering from blindness.
The veterinary staff battled to save his life, but it looked like he might not make it through the night, never mind race again.
It’s also testament to the maturity shown by O’Brien at such an early stage of his training career. Aged just 24, the trainer admitted that they had to give Edwulf plenty of time and patience and he was duly rewarded with a 33/1 grade one winner.
Just a year on from his near-death experience, it’s incredible that Edwulf will even be lining up for the festival’s flagship event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Many have already labelled him as ‘the Lazarus horse’, and although he is one of the outsiders, he would be the most popular sight in the winner’s enclosure of the entire week should he perform another miracle to win.
Who would bet against him from writing one of the greatest Festival stories of all-time?