BIG-RACE CREATES PRESS PRESSURE
Champion Day opens the best four days of racing on the planet, although the first-up feature captures the open-natured element of the Cheltenham Festival.
Having made it to the greatest Jump racing stage, each runner has shown a level of ability that makes backing winners additionally difficult. The Stan James Champion Hurdle is a case in point, with 11 evenly-matched contenders.
The Sun's racing coverage conveys the conundrum for punters, with Templegate siding with Yanworth, and Tom Pepper picking Buveur D'Air, also the selection of the I's Michael Cooper. Brain Power is the choice of Newsboy of the Daily Mirror, but Yanworth is 'Well worth a punt', according to the Daily Express, a view shared by Rob Wright of The Times and the Daily Star's Patrick Weaver. 'Yan's the man' for the Racing Post's Richard Birch.
Melissa Jones of the Gloucestershire Echo keeps faith with the Cotswolds-trained The New One, while Marcus Armytage, writing in The Daily Telegraph, believes Nicky Henderson will win the big race for the sixth time with Brain Power, adding that stablemate Altior is the week's first 'banker' in the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy. Nick Robson, Value Plus of the Racing Plus, swerves the Stan James Champion Hurdle (probably wise) and names Apple's Jade in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle as the "best bet of the opening day".
When it comes to observation of sport The Daily Telegraph's Paul Hayward is Gold Cup and Grand National in one, and his musings on this week's meeting are another wonderful journey through the mind of a great writer - he calls The Festival, "an addiction, with no known cure". The Racing Post's Alastair Down, similarly endowed with thoughtful phrases, describes the occasion as "our great annual uplift".
'It's England v Ireland part one', according to The Times, which adds, 'The rugby [on Saturday between the two nations] can wait'. However, the photo montage that depicts The Festival encounter suggests the Emerald Isle has the heavier pack. It shows Ireland's Petit Mouchoir leaping alongside the trained-in-Britain Yanworth, owned and ridden by Irishmen.
On the day Sir A P McCoy was immortalised in bronze at Cheltenham Racecourse, The Times quotes reigning champion Jump jockey Richard Johnson under the headline, 'I miss riding against A P - but it's great for me that he retired'.
Local paper the Western Daily Press courts disaster with a headline that reads, 'Met Office says it is a good bet that it will stay dry'. Its West Country Times pullout is dominated by a photo of Arkle and Mill House - they don't make 'em like that too often.
Lizzie Kelly has pushed her way into top-10 racing personalities this week by virtue of a Timico Gold Cup ride on Tea For Two, and the Daily Mail has snapped her up for daily comment - she makes a memorable entrance in a photo that shows her floating across the paper's racing pullout in ball gown and green wellies. She is the paper's frock star, who tips Brain Power for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, but she has also found her way into the centre of the Daily Mirror's coverage, where she tells David Yates, "I've had big successes and not very much from it." A Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup victory might make the difference.
The Guardian's coverage includes an excellent interview with jockey Paddy Brennan, almost 12 months on from the most valuable fall in Jump history. Brennan was riding Cue Card in last year's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, when the pair fell three out, a £1m bonus that looked theirs for the taking crumpling to the turf in unison. Donald McRae's article unfurls Brennan's thoughts, quoting the straight talker, saying, "I wanted to die," and "Broken bones get fixed, but the scar of the emotional side is always there." Redemption awaits in four days' time.
The paper's racing correspondent, Greg Wood, interviews ITV Racing's Ed Chamberlin, who is clearly feeling the pressure as the broadcaster makes its Festival debut, although the same presenter tells David Yates of the Daily Mirror, "I've found my vocation - I absolutely love it."
WALSH 'EXCITED' FOR FESTIVAL
Ruby Walsh, the most successful jockey ever at The Festival with 52 victories, is looking forward to partnering an array of well-fancied runners at this year's four-day meeting which begins today at Cheltenham.
Walsh, stable jockey to Ireland's champion Jump trainer Willie Mullins, has taken the Boodles Leading Jockey Award at The Festival 10 times in the last 13 years and his rides today are headed today by Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (1.30pm) fancy Melon and OLBG Mares' Hurdle (4.10pm) favourite Limini.
Walsh, speaking on ITV's The Opening Show, said: "The track looks in great nick and fingers crossed, it will be a good week. At this stage of my career, I'm excited more than nervous. We have a lot of horses this year and I can't wait to ride them.
"If you get one winner on the board it takes the pressure off. Whatever happens after that is a bonus but, if I ride a winner, that'll do for me. All the jockeys are excited. There is a good atmosphere in the weighing room today as everyone is optimistic. Cheltenham is full-on, it is high-tempo racing every step of the way and generally the best horse wins."
Regarding Melon, a winner of his first start for Mullins in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown in January, Walsh commented: "He is in great form. He has taken to the surroundings really well. He lacks a bit of experience but we are hoping he can overcome that and we have to ask is he good enough? We hope he is; we're taking in on trust from his homework. His form on the racecourse wouldn't set the world alight. His first race was run at a decent tempo. He clipped the top bar at the final hurdle that day but I was impressed with the way he went to the line and how long it took me to pull him up. Willie kept talking about Melon and the way he was talking as well as the fact I'd seen him do things in the autumn and last spring which always had him in my mind so that's what swung me."
Melon bids to emulate Flowing who in 1992, was the last horse to win the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle having had just one start over hurdles. However, Walsh believes the son of Medicean is capable of landing the spoils, remarking: "You'd love to have more runs but he has had a lot of schooling done. It's been done before and it will be done again, I hope Melon is the first horse to do that since 1992."
Walsh also had a difficult choice to make in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle, in which Mullins saddles the first and second favourites, Limini and the 2016 winner (Walsh on board) Vroum Vroum Mag, with Walsh partnering the former. Reflecting on the decision, the Irish rider said: "I don't know why I've sided with Limini ever since I made the decision. I suppose I went for form, her last run was the best one of her career.
"Her form is red-hot and I liked the way she picked up last time, whereas Vroum Vroum Mag's last run was probably one of her worst runs. I could be wrong. The obvious choice was Vroum Vroum Mag and the brave choice was Limini. I think she is improving at six and Vroum Vroum Mag might have stagnated. Limini is in great form but these are tough decisions and if I can walk out of here on Friday, having got most of those big decisions right, I'd be doing well."
Walsh also attempts to become the most successful jockey of all time in the Stan James Champion Hurdle (3.30pm). He currently has four wins to his name in the two-mile hurdling showpiece and rides Footpad in this year's renewal of the hurdling championship.
He said: "Footpad has to improve in the Champion Hurdle but you have to be in it to win it. People say it's a weak Champion Hurdle, but I don't agree. I think it's a good race. There are a lot of improving horses in the race this year."
HENDERSON CONFIDENT IN CHAMPION HURDLE TRIO
Seven Barrows maestro Nicky Henderson launches a three-pronged attack on today's Stan James Champion Hurdle (3.30pm), as he attempts to become the championship race's most successful trainer.
Boasting five Champion Hurdle victories to his name (the same as Peter Easterby) among his record total of 55 winners at The Festival, Henderson saddles Buveur D'Air, Brain Power and My Tent Or Yours in this year's renewal of the two-mile hurdling showpiece.
Buveur D'Air (Noel Fehily), third in the 2016 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, originally started the season with two victories over fences but reverted back to hurdles with an easy success in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown in February.
Henderson would prefer softer ground for the J P McManus-owned gelding but still thinks his charge has a good chance, commenting: "It's not a weak Champion Hurdle but a very open one. I don't think the ground is necessarily too dry for Buveur D'Air. I was pleasantly surprised for him that the ground, when I walked round on Sunday morning, was quite slow in places.
"In very soft ground, he has an advantage. He can handle that ground very well and that gives him an edge. On this sort of ground, he can handle it but he does lose that edge you have as a lot of horses can't go in that softer ground. Buveur D'Air is a very solid horse - there are no chinks in him."
Stablemate Brain Power (Danny Mullins), another six-year-old, has improved with every start this season and has taken the spoils in two valuable handicap hurdles at Sandown and Ascot in December.
The Lambourn handler has been impressed with the son of Kalanisi's improvement this year and said: "Brain Power has been a little bit of a revelation. He was a very immature, naïve horse last season. His jumping wasn't very clever and he was getting beaten because of it - it was disappointing.
"This year has been a different ball game. His work has been absolutely excellent. We were going chasing but he didn't know enough about the game to be honest with you to go down that route. He has been working so well."
Henderson's trio are completed by My Tent Or Yours (Aidan Coleman). The J P McManus-owned gelding was second in the Grade One event in 2014 and 2016 with Henderson expecting another good performance from the 10-year-old.
He said: "My Tent Or Yours has been there and done it. He was second in two Champion Hurdles and his form is good enough. He used to pull very hard but he has learnt to settle much better this year."