PAPERS PONDER THE MIGHTY TREBLE
Cheltenham Festivals have intriguing stories and fairytale possibilities leading up to the event, and those that unfold as the racing takes place.
Hence the 'triple crown', which has come into consciousness since trainer Nicky Henderson won the Unibet Champion Hurdle with Buveur D'Air, and the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase with Altior. Can he now win the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, a feat no trainer has achieved at one Festival?
The Daily Telegraph's Paul Hayward ponders the question, concluding: "Cheltenham's 'triple crown' does not officially exist. No one has ever won it, so there was no point attaching a label." Hayward discovers even Henderson had not given the matter a thought, quoting him saying: ". . . it was too outlandish to consider." The Times' Mark Souster refers to what would be, "an astonishing trinity of victories", and quotes Sir Anthony McCoy comparing it to Manchester United's 1999 treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
The intriguing treble possibility is enhanced by Henderson's runner, Might Bite, a horse who combines model looks with admirable physique and Machiavellian tendencies. Simon Philip, one of his joint-owners, writes in The Times: "Might Bite has talent and is a soap opera in his own right. He is the sort of character people love to see."
Henderson has at least bagged two big prizes. Greg Wood of The Guardian quotes the trainer remembering the 1973 Festival when he was assistant to trainer Fred Winter, who saddled the favourite in all three races. Henderson recalls: "We came out with zilch."
Might Bite might be the only horse who can beat himself, but rival trainers will be hoping to land the race on merit. Writing in the Racing Post, Willie Mullins admits Killultagh Vic's inexperience is a worry, but says: "He will relish the testing ground and have no problem getting the trip." Mullins adds of Djakadam: "He's fitter than at any time in the campaign and is capable of a big run."
Tipsters are divided in their opinions about Might Bite's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup chances, although The Guardian's Chris Cook and The Scout of the Daily Express believe he will win. Paul Kealy, tipping in the Racing Post, sides with the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly, Patrick Weaver tips Native River in his Daily Star column, as does Templegate in The Sun, Newsboy of the Daily Mirror and Sam Turner of the Daily Mail, side with Road To Respect, while The Daily Telegraph's Marcus Armytage opts for Our Duke, as does Rob Wright of The Times.
Yesterday's action was dominated by Irish stables, although 'stables' can be defined as two - Mullins and Gordon Elliott - who won five of the seven races between them. The Racing Post's Tom Kerr suggests the rules of the Betbright Cup competition between British and Irish stables, currently standing at 15 - 6 to the raiders, be changed so that Mullins and Elliott take on the rest. "The score at the end of day three would read 13 - 8," writes Kerr.
While British local newspaper reporters wait patiently for a story, The Irish Independent's team have too many. 'Mullins is crowned king of the Cotswolds on great day for the Irish,' is the paper's page 3 headline above Ryan Nugent's summary. The headline 'Green day' is the paper's headline on the front of its racing pullout. Even the Western Daily Press, a local paper that usually finds a winner or two from Gloucestershire and surrounding counties, gives up the search, headlining it's racing special, 'Dream day for Ireland'. The i's summary is 'Irish enjoy day of glory as Festival rout continues'. David Yates' column in the Daily Mirror refers to the sole win for Britain - Missed Approach's Fulke Walwn Kim Muir Chase win for Lambourn's Warren Greatrex.
Englishman Tony Bloom, best known to fans of football as chairman of Brighton, was a British winner, although his horse, Penhill, who took the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle, was trained in Ireland by Mullins. 'Bloomin' brilliant', is The Sun's racing special headline, alongside a photo of Bloom and winning jockey Paul Townend, waving a Brighton scarf.
The weather this week has swayed around, but colourful racegoers and a smattering of 'celebrities' have carried photographs taken at The Festival onto newspaper news and features pages. It's been an occasion for a variety of colours, but green is the theme - green with envy if you are British.
'BRILLIANT WEEK' FOR TRADESTANDS
The development of The Festival's Shopping Village in recent years has proved extremely popular with racegoers, and stall holders are enjoying a bumper week.
There are 70 tradestands in the Shopping Village, selling a variety of products ranging from luxury clothing to jewellery, art and bespoke leather goods.
Zoe Gibson owns Peachy Belts, which offer Italian leather belts with detachable buckles, said: "We've had a brilliant week. Thursday was our best trading day so far, but all have been good. We love coming to The Festival and to The November Meeting and always do very well here."
The sporting artist Daniel Crane's tradestand played host to the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup this morning.
"Some people did mistake it for an award for best tradestand!" said Crane.
"As ever, we have had a great week. A lot of our clients come to The Festival and enjoy coming to see us on the stand, and the whole meeting is terrific craic and an important shop window for us."
Clothing company Holland Cooper is sponsoring the Leading Jockey Award at The Festival for the first time this year, and its stand in the Shopping Village has been among the busiest all week.
"This has been the best Cheltenham race week we've ever had. It is always such a great chance to meet our customers in person, and incredible to see so many people around the course wearing the product," said a spokesman for the Cotswolds-based company.
GERAGHTY'S LIPS DON'T LIE OVER SHAKIRA
Barry Geraghty, retained by leading owner J P McManus, is confident of a big run from the well-supported Apple's Shakira, in the first race on day four of the Cheltenham Festival, the G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle (1.30pm).
Unbeaten in three starts for trainer Nicky Henderson at Prestbury Park, the four-year-old daughter of Saddler Maker scored by eight lengths at the track on her latest start in G2 company on January 27.
Geraghty, who registered his 35th winner overall at The Festival this week following Buveur D'Air's success in the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle, believes ground conditions will suit the French-bred filly.
He said: "Apple's Shakira has done what she's been asked to. She's won on soft ground and all three times at Cheltenham so she has good experience at the track.
"She's a lovely filly who ticks a lot of boxes. It's a good competitive race with a lot of the field having good form. It will be soft ground and a proper test in a small field with lots of quality. She was relaxed and very professional at Cheltenham in January.
"Redicean was impressive at Kempton last time, Farclas is improving and so is Mr Adjudicator. You would hope Apple's Shakira would go and win, but I wouldn't be dismissing anything."
"Bleu Et Rouge (top weight in the Randox Health County Hurdle 2.10pm) ran well in the Betfair Hurdle in desperate ground. Kalashnikov has franked the form since when finishing second in the Supreme, but Bleu Et Rouge does have a lot of weight to carry in this event. It's an ultra-competitive race, but he is the right type.
"OK Corral (Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle, 2.50pm) won well at Kempton last time. It wasn't an amazing race and he was workmanlike, but I think that might suit this race over three miles on testing ground.
"Nicky Henderson has had an interrupted time with him. His career's been very stop-start and he's had problem, but he's had a clear run recently. This will be an ultra-test but it is a race where experience and age can play a part and OK Corral (eight-year-old) has age on his side."
Geraghty partners the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly in today's Blue Riband event, the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (3.30pm). The eight-year-old fell last time in the Irish Gold Cup, having previously won a competitive handicap chase at Leopardstown in December over an extended three miles.
Geraghty continued: "I think conditions will suit and he has been none the worse for his fall last time where he always seemed to be on the back-foot. I think the soft conditions will help him get into a rhythm and hopefully jump better.
"He is a good horse and whilst he has to step up, I think he has an outside chance.
"Derek O'Connor was always likely to stay on Edwulf. It was a great result and a great ride. He has every chance and his form ties in with horses in the race including Outlander, Killultagh Vic and Our Duke."
Geraghty's final ride of The Festival is aboard the Paul Nicholls-trained Le Prezien in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual (5.30pm). He commented: "I think Le Prezien would have preferred better ground, but he has form on this ground, so he has a chance in this."
Reflecting on the week, Geraghty added: "It was great to win on Buveur D'Air. The Champion Hurdle has so much history and it was a nice one to have. He had a tough race but I believe he's well and I think Nicky will have him well tuned for Aintree."
BOOKIES FEARING 'INEVITABLE' SUPPORT FOR SHAKIRA
Punters head into the fourth and final day of the Cheltenham with the upper hand, despite a spirited fightback from bookmakers yesterday.
The defeat of 8/11 favourite Un De Sceaux in the G1 Ryanair Chase was a bitter pill to swallow for racegoers, but Shattered Love (4/1 JLT Novices' Chase), Delta Work (6/1 Pertemps Final Network Handicap Hurdle) and Laurina (4/7 Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle, were all well-supported on day three.
With Nicky Henderson holding a strong hand on today's card, bookmakers are fearing further losses.
In the opening race, the G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle (1.30pm), Henderson's Apple's Shakira is "the best-backed horse of the week" with Bet365 and she is into 11/10 from 11/8. Unbeaten in three starts for Henderson at Cheltenham, punters are keen to get off to a good start on day four.
An ultra-competitive renewal of the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (3.30pm) sees Henderson's Might Bite, winner of the RSA Chase at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival and the King George Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day heads the betting with Sky Bet at 4/1 from 9/2. Definitly Red, winner of the BetBright Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January, is 12/1 from 14/1 with Sky Bet, whilst the firm has also seen each-way support for Joseph O'Brien's Edwulf, who is 16/1 from 20/1.
Seven Barrows maestro Henderson also holds a strong hand in the G1 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle with Santini and stable companion Chef Des Obeaux. Santini, successful over an extended two miles and four furlongs at Cheltenham in January is one of the best-backed horses of the day and has constricted into 3/1 from 9/2 with Sky Bet and Bet365.
Elsewhere on the card, the Nick Williams-trained Flying Tiger has been popular in the Randox Health County Hurdle (2.10pm), dropping in price to 10/1 from 12/1 with Sky Bet.
In the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (4.50pm), another Henderson runner, Diese Des Bieffes has attracted each-way support into 7/1 from 8/1 for Bet365.
Reflecting on the week, Sky Bet representative Michael Shinners commented: "Day one and day two definitely went to the punters with a number of well-backed favourites winning such as Buveur D'Air [Unibet Champion Hurdle], Altior [Betway Queen Mother Champion] and Samcro [Ballymore Novices' Hurdle], but Thursday was a different story with Un De Sceaux getting beat being a decent result."
Bet365's Pat Cooney said: "We lost on the first three days, but traditionally we always seem to fight back on the final day, but we need to get through Apple's Shakira first as she has been the biggest gamble of the entire 28 races at The Festival. If we get through her, we might just be OK."