Having watched Devon, the gorgeous Westie, win Best in Show at Crufts, I moved straight on to the pedi- grees of the horse world competing at the Cheltenham Festival. By the time you read this, I will be immersed in the best jump race meeting on the planet, and enjoying every second of an atmosphere that is unique to that golden patch of Gloucestershire.
Ireland’s Willie Mullins is hot favourite to be the leading trainer for the fifth time in six years, having broken the record last year for numbers of wins over the week with eight.
For all his domination of Irish racing, Mullins remains the most approachable and affable of men. He is detailed in his approach, quietly spoken, and hugely respectful of his rivals and of the history of racing. The one major contest at Cheltenham he has yet to win is the Gold Cup. His father, Paddy, won it in 1986 with the great mare Dawn Run (still the only horse to have won the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup), and there will be plenty of support for Willie, who has come so close in recent years.
Mullins will be mob-handed in the Gold Cup, but Dorset trainer Colin Tizzard will have just the one runner – Cue Card. Having won the Betfair Chase at Haydock and the King George at Kempton (in a photo-finish), Cue Card is in line for a £1 million bonus if he can take the victory at Cheltenham. Every trainer without a runner is rooting for the Tizzards, for the horse’s owner Jean Bishop – whose husband Bob died just days after his Boxing Day win – and for his jockey Paddy Brennan.
I recently spent the day with Brennan, who won the Gold Cup on Imperial Commander in 2010. He is a deep man who has worried over the years about every race in which he’s been beaten – and plenty of those he’s won. He says he is more settled now, less of a stress ball, mainly thanks to his wife Lindsey and son Jack, who show him there is a world outside racing. The more relaxed approach is paying off in his riding, with winners coming more regularly, but the Festival is where it matters, and Brennan is praying that Cue Card can come up trumps on Friday afternoon. There will be a roar from the stands and all across the south of England should they get up the famous hill in front.
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