Cheltenham hosts a galaxy of stars as Thistlecrack leads Trials Day cast
It is hard to believe Cheltenham has ever promised a better, bigger or bulkier mid-winter treat than the meeting that awaits us on Saturday. We are set for a long, thrilling and dramatic ride at Prestbury Park.
So too is Tom Scudamore, for it is to his hands that the fabulous Thistlecrack will once again be entrusted. On a festival trials card of epic proportions, one that evokes memories of the 2008 weather-affected festival when the Thursday and Friday cards housed ten and nine races, the odds-on Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite is the headline act among a galaxy of stars.
During a mammoth nine-race fixture, six of whose contests will be shown live on ITV4, we also get to enjoy the likes of Un De Sceaux, Unowhatimeanharry, Smad Place, Silviniaco Conti, Uxizandre, Many Clouds and Cole Harden.
If that was not enough, the Doncaster menu – three courses of which feature in ITV4's mammoth three-and-three-quarter-hour programme – includes an appearance by Vroum Vroum Mag, one day before her magnificent stablemate Faugheen returns at Leopardstown.
In one afternoon we are being presented with winners of three King George VI Chases, two Hennessy Gold Cups, a Grand National, a Queen Mother Champion Chase, a Ryanair Chase, an Arkle Trophy, a Scottish Grand National and a French Champion Hurdle. They, it should be pointed out, are just the extremely edited highlights.
Moreover, when the afternoon is over, still to come on At The Races will be a rematch between the world's two top Flat horses, Arrogate and California Chrome, in the Pegasus World Cup, a $12 million contest which instantly becomes the planet's richest race.
There is a fair chance the weather in Florida, host of the inaugural Pegasus World Cup, will be somewhat warmer than at Cheltenham, but even there conditions will be relatively mild compared to recent days. At any rate, by 2.15pm, the scheduled off time of the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase, the metaphorical temperature will have soared to Gulfstream Park proportions.
It was on this card 12 months ago that Thistlecrack cruised to victory in the Cleeve Hurdle. He then cruised some more to win the World Hurdle – producing a Cheltenham Festival hurdling display that has never been bettered in the history of Racing Post Ratings – before scoring with similar panache at Aintree. Connections then decided to turn Thistlecrack into a chaser. He has proved rather good at that as well.
On Boxing Day this most glorious of talents became the first novice ever to land the King George. That performance sent him to scorching hot favouritism for the Gold Cup, most of whose course and distance he encounters today in a contest that has attracted its previous two winners, Smad Place and Many Clouds.
Thistlecrack will be expected to saunter home, and he very well might, but watching him will be an edge-of-the-seat experience. In the main that is because of his exhilarating brilliance, but also because the only jumping errors the nine-year-old has made were at the ditches on Cheltenham's Old Course. This time he will encounter the New Course ditches, at one of which Dawn Run fell in this very race 31 years ago.
Some may also be concerned that trainer Colin Tizzard's team has seen better form than it is in right now, while one of its highest-profile members, Alary, gave a dirty scope after flopping at Haydock last week. That prompted his immediate movement to a new box, possibly one as far away as Loch Lomond.
Un De Sceaux, favourite for the Ryanair Chase, bids for back-to-back wins in the rescheduled Clarence House Chase. Unowhatimeanharry, favourite for the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle, is on show in a 15-runner Galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle, in which one of his opponents is wonderful wrinkly Knockara Beau, one of two 14-year-olds in action at Cheltenham, the other being cross-country stalwart Any Currency.
Before them, and at the other end of the age spectrum, JP McManus, who this season has more high-class juveniles than a Mayfair kindergarten, will run either Defi Du Seuil, the JCB Triumph Hurdle favourite, or more likely Triumph second favourite Charli Parcs in the opener.
Oh, what a show we have in store. It is a day when Rishi Persad, having a BBC day away from the horses, will surely find it hard to keep his eye on the indoor bowls in Hopton-on-Sea. This is a very special Saturday, including for Lizzie Kelly, who rides another equine golden oldie, Reve De Sivola, for the first time in the Cleeve.
"I've known this horse since he was a baby," she says. "I'll be so happy walking into the Cheltenham paddock wearing his colours. No matter how he runs, he's a legend. I am beside myself with excitement."
You are not the only one, Lizzie. You most definitely are not.
Festival Trials Day in numbers
17 individual Grade 1 winners declared at Cheltenham
9 horses rated 160 or higher
12 individual festival winners at Cheltenham and Doncaster
5 favourites for festival Grade 1s declared at the two meetings
2 14-year-olds on show at Cheltenham