Mark Souster on The Festival™
Think of the Olympic Games and you get some idea of the scale of its equine equivalent, the Festival™ - the most prestigious Jumps festival in the world with prize money each day worth at least £1m.
It is the summit of National Hunt racing. The action-packed four days showcases 28 races - half of them grade ones - which will be watched by an estimated 260,000 race-goers.
It is a smorgasbord of the very best the sport has to offer, which will enthral aficionados, experts, socialites and once a year fans alike, all swept up in the magic and heady atmosphere of this unique event which transcends racing.
It is made even more special by the Anglo-Irish rivalry and an influx of tens of thousands of supporters who make the annual pilgrimage from Ireland.
For weeks social media has been swamped with the thoughts, predictions and previews from the great and the good spreading hope and hyperbole in equal measure.
The Festival™, which in many ways is career defining, has a reassuring look to it with many of last year’s winners coming back.
Many questions will be asked. For instance, will Willie Mullins land his first Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup or will Colin Tizzard’s three pronged attack thwart him?
Can the great Irish trainer cement his place as the most successful ever at Cheltenham ahead of great rival Nicky Henderson?
Will Gordon Elliot match last year’s incredible haul of eight winners? Will Altior enhance his already glorious reputation? And will Paul Nicholls’ most powerful squad for years translate into success?
We are about to find out.
The highlight of what could be a wet day one is the Unibet Champion Hurdle where Buveur D’Air will attempt make history by matching the feats of the legendary Istabraq 20 years ago in winning for a third year in succession.
Henderson’s charge has been usurped at the top of the market by Elliott’s Apple’s Jade, the winner of her four races this year by a combined total of 73 lengths.
Ten go to post, among them another top class mare in Laurina - one who won’t be inconvenienced by soft ground.
The action kicks off to the familiar roar which will send off the runners in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. And there won’t be a dry eye in the house if Lalor, for Kayley Woollacott, takes the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy.
Day two is Ladies’ Day with the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase the feature. All eyes will be on Altior, unbeaten in three years and winner of the 2016 Supreme. He has won his 17 starts over hurdles and fences.
A second Champion Chase would equal the record of 18 consecutive victories held by Big Buck’s. Randox Health Grand National winner Tiger Roll, and a three-time Festival winner, returns for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase.
The third day sees two championship races. Paisley Park and Faugheen lock horns in the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle.
Paisley Park is trained by Emma Lavelle and owned by Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth but who finds solace in listening to the race course commentaries from his favourite position down by the rails.
It is the sort of background story, the like of which only Jump racing can produce. The 11-year-old Faugheen who won the Champion Hurdle in 2015 would be a popular winner too. Jessica Harrington’s Supersundae could also be a live contender.
The other big race is the Ryanair Chase with Footpad and Monalee likely to be vying for the honours.
And so to the finale. The Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup is the feature race of the entire Festival with £625,000 in prize money. Native River returns to defend his crown after a thrilling race last year which saw him triumph over the favourite Might Bite, who also returns.
The Irish will be pinning their hopes on the favourite, Presenting Percy, owned by Philip Reynolds, son of the former Taoiseach.
He is trained by Pat Kelly, who has only 20 horses in his yard at Athenry and who steadfastly refuses to talk to the media. He prefers to let his horses speak for him.
With winners at each of the past three Festivals proves he knows what he is doing. Nicholls is setting his sights on a fifth Gold Cup win with Clan des Obeaux.
Frodon, the mount of the effervescent Bryony Frost, is entered for both the Ryanair and the Gold Cup but will probably line up in the former. Besides Native River, Colin Tizzard has Thistlecrack and Elegant Escape in the running.
Stand by for the madness and the magic of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.