It may be different but it will be no less exciting
INSIDE YOUR ULTIMATE GUIDE
THE annual pilgrimage to Prestbury Park might be on hold for thousands of festival fanatics but the on-course action remains undiluted with a galaxy of stars queuing up for the greatest show on turf. The Weekender Ultimate Guide also returns undeterred and better than ever, with all the cards, form, analysis and insight to help you navigate four action-packed days from the comfort of your sofa. With Cheltenham’s doors closed to racegoers, ITV will cover six races each day and, while it might not be the same for those who like to stand under the shadow of Cleeve Hill and take in the festival’s fireworks from ringside, there is no reason to miss out on the action. That first-race roar and that warm welcome back to the winner’s enclosure will be painfully missed but that won’t stop numerous narratives that make you weak at the knees playing out on track. Leading the way in his bid for history is Al Boum Photo, trying to become only the fifth horse to win the Gold Cup three times and a strong favourite to achieve it. Victory in the festival’s showpiece would lift him into exalted company, with only Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate – four genuine giants of jump racing – having conquered the Gold Cup on three occasions or more. He might not have connected with racegoers in the same way past festival legends have but a third straight win would be a hugely significant achievement. Willie Mullins waited 31 years for Al Boum Photo to bring him Gold Cup success in 2019 and Ireland’s champion trainer has been in no rush to hand the prize back since. Last season, Al Boum Photo ran just once before winning the race for a second time and Mullins has followed the same path again, with the nine-year-old scoring on his seasonal reappearance at Tramore on New Year’s Day and heads to Cheltenham fresher than paint for his date with destiny. Those looking to take him on will point to the fact he only scraped home from Santini last year but having twice conquered what is arguably the most demanding challenge in jump racing, he has fewer questions to answer than those closest to him in the market. Perhaps the biggest danger will come from another past Gold Cup hero, with 2018 champ Native River looking like the warrior of old at Sandown last month when he left Santini in his wake. He has to defy Father Time, as no horse older than ten has won the race since What A Myth in 1969, yet competitors as tough as Native River are few and far between. King George winner Frodon is another who has already proved his festival mettle having won the Ryanair back in 2019. His bond with Bryony Frost has never been stronger after their Kempton heroics and he looks well equipped for this test at this stage of his career. It is all about girl power in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle, with Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore favourite to overthrow last year’s queen Epatante. A rarity in jump racing, Honeysuckle still boasts an unbeaten record after ten runs under rules and, after showing Benie Des Dieux a clean pair of heels under an inspired Blackmore in the Mares’ Hurdle last year, is ready to take in the Champion this time around. Her latest victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle was deemed a career-best by the handicapper, and proved once and for all she has the speed to take on the best over two miles. Standing in her way is Epatante, who showed far too much dash for her rivals in last year’s race but has to put a below-par run at Kempton over Christmas behind her. If she can return to her best, we could be in for a thriller and, with the likes of powerful galloper Goshen in the mix as well, a tactical one at that. The market predicts a changing of the guard in the two-mile chase division, with Chacun Pour Soi odds-on to land the Queen Mother Champion Chase. A formidable sight in full flow, he was a late withdrawal from the race last year but has been imperious in three runs this season and expectations for his first outing in Britain are sky high. These things, especially at championship level, are rarely so predictable, however, and Politologue and Altior, who between them have won the last three runnings of the race, are two champions to write off at your peril. Like the majority of life over the past 12 months, this year’s Cheltenham Festival will feel different to the norm but that is not to say it has to be any less exciting. The competition has never been hotter so strap yourself into your favourite armchair and enjoy the ride.