CHELTENHAM – TRAVEL – So many heart-warming stories came out of Prestbury Park last year, with Sprinter Sacre’s fairy-tale victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase shining like a glistening cherry atop a glorious Cheltenham Festival cake. Whilst there has been plenty success to shout about during the 2016/17 season, newspaper headlines have been dominated by controversies, injuries and tragedies.
The heart-breaking passing of reigning three-time Cheltenham Festival champion Vautour, who lost his life in a freak training ground accident, set the tone for a season that would be littered with sport-shaking calamities.
Nicky Henderson endured a devastating Open Meeting at Cheltenham in November. Simonsig’s fatal fall in the Cheltenham Chase came just days after the injury-stricken Sprinter Sacre was forced into retirement. Mark Bradstock’s stable star, Coneygree was ruled out of the Festival for a second successive season and still hasn’t had the opportunity to defend the Gold Cup crown he so valiantly captured in 2015.
Willie Mullins – who has claimed Top Trainer honours at the Festival five times in the last six years – has suffered through a turbulent season, which began with many of his horses being sent out to rival yards, following his much publicised fall-out with Gigginstown Stud. The Irish Champion Trainer’s fortunes plummeted once again when defending Champion Hurdler, Annie Power was joined on the treatment table by Arkle challenger, Min and “The Machine” Faugheen, who hasn’t set foot on a racetrack since January of 2016.
Thistlecrack has hogging the headlines for most of the campaign. His stunning victory in the King George VI Chase, when he became the first novice chaser to land this historic prize, was one of the stand-out moments of the season. His winning streak was brought to an abrupt end when the courageous Many Clouds shocked the world and out-stayed the Gold Cup favourite up the Cheltenham hill to claim the Cotswold Chase title. Oliver Sherwood’s joy was replaced with despair in a matter of moments, as his Grand National champion collapsed soon after defeating Thistlecrack and the medical team failed to help him regain consciousness.
The Festival was dealt another significant blow earlier this week when Colin Tizzard revealed Thistlecrack himself would also be side-lined with injury for the rest of the season. Most events would have fallen to their knees after receiving such punishment – but not the Cheltenham Festival. Not the greatest show on turf.
If you haven’t purchased your Cheltenham tickets yet, you better act quickly – as once the Supreme Novice hopefuls hit the track on Tuesday afternoon, all feelings of negativity will be forgotten, as the lucky attendees are treated to four days of top quality entertainment and sporting drama.
Altior will draw many admiring glances as he aims for a second Festival title in a row, before the tightly-bunched field of Champion Hurdle challengers battle it out for a place in the history books. Watching Douvan attack the Champion Chase fences will be worth the admission fee alone on day two of the Festival, with Un De Sceaux’s bid for Ryanair glory and Unowhatimeanharry’s tilt at the Stayers’ Hurdle title the feature races on Ladies Day at Cheltenham.
Despite Thistlecrack’s withdrawal, Colin Tizzard will have his sights firmly set on claiming the Gold Cup crown. Native River and Cue Card will head the field, as they look to capture racing’s most prestigious prize for the Dorset-based trainer – but a battalion of Irish raiders, including Outlander, Djakadam, Sizing John and Don Poli will fancy their chance of causing an upset and ensuring the Gold Cup trophy stays on the Emerald Isle for the foreseeable future.