Cheltenham Here At Last!

It's finally here - the Cheltenham Festival, now the be-all of the jump season.

It's finally here - the Cheltenham Festival, now the be-all of the jump season.

Over four days the best National Hunt horses from here, Ireland and France will go head-to-head and punters are faced with some agonizing choices.

On Tuesday they must decide whether or not the five-year-old Detroit City, last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, can end the Irish monopoly in the Champion Hurdle.

Hardy Eustace (twice) and Brave Inca last year have captured the last three renewals.

The Irish pair stand in the way again although Tony McCoy, aboard Brave Inca last time, is now required for the Fighting Fifth winner Straw Bear.

The Irish took nine races back home in 2005, the first time the Festival was stretched to four days, and a record haul of 10 last time. The ground at Prestbury Park is sure to be very testing, for the first two days at least when the Old Course is in use.

Even so I think they could struggle this time and in the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle, which they have traditionally dominated, Nicky Henderson's brilliant mare Amaretto Rose may put them in their place this time.

Last year's winner Newmill, and the proven mud-lark Nickname, head the Irish challenge in Wednesday's Two-Mile Champion Chase; but David Pipe's Well Chief came back after injury to score in fine style

at Newbury and I expect him to give Martin's son his first Festival winner.

Howard Johnson's horses have been under a cloud but with the ground in his favour, Inglis Drever can repeat his 2005 victory in Thursday's World Hurdle.

Black Jack Ketchum traded at odds-on for this but after his

flop at this track in soft ground last time, he may not even turn out for the highlight on what has been dubbed 'Ladies Day' . . .

Recognition that adding a fourth day has left Thursday's card on the weak side.

With last year's winner War Of Attrition ruled out through injury, punters either have to either throw their lot in with

Kauto Star or oppose him in Friday's Gold Cup.

Paul Nicholls' Star is hugely talented but there are doubts about both his jumping and his ability to see out the three-and-a-quarter mile trip.

He was brilliant when winning at Haydock but at both Kempton in the King George and at Newbury, he attempted to demolish the last fence. At Newbury he hung violently left under pressure, suggesting he may have a physical problem.

At 6/4 he is well worth opposing. Exotic Dancer and The Listener head the opposition but it might just be worth giving Beef Or Salmon another chance to make it fifth time lucky.

He nailed The Listener late on at Leopardstown and his new rider Andrew McNamara seems to have struck up a fine understanding with the old boy.

Sedgefield race on the opening day, Hexham - weather permitting - on Thursday and next Saturday, Newcastle celebrate St Patrick's Day itself.

Wetherby also race next Saturday with The Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter, which is sure to see a strong Irish challenge. They took the prize a year ago boosting their plentiful Cheltenham gains.

But will they be chasing their Festival losses this time?

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer