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Friday, 14 December, 2018

Six reasons to get excited about the festival

Cheltenham Festival: two weeks to go and so many reasons to get excited
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With the cold snap cancelling turf racing in Britain until at least Friday it is almost impossible not to think wistfully of mid-March, the first bloom of spring and the start of the Cheltenham Festival. 

However, it's much more than just the prospect of warmer weather and the resumption of jumps racing that makes us relish the festival. Here are just a few of the reasons we can't wait for Cheltenham . . .

1. The monastic meets the hedonistic

The Guinness Village: a guaranteed source of festival atmosphere

Many of us have a Cheltenham week ritual, which is not repeated for the rest of the year. There's good reason for that: sodden afternoons and rapier thinking, the Christopher Hitchens mix, will stretch most minds and bodies after four days.

Social lives are paused (unless you are there, where they are resumed with strangers in place of friends), gym memberships briefly lapse.

Those watching from afar – most of us – will throw popcorn at the TV in the afternoon and in the evening treat ourselves to a nice glass of something, convinced it will sharpen our minds as we attempt solve some of the hardest races of the year.

What's not to like about that plan?

2. Celebrations of the big guy

Sprinter Sacre knows all eyes are on him after reclaiming his Champion Chase crown in 2016

There doesn't have to be a story. The mixture of relief from those connected and awe from everyone else that greets a championship performance instantly worthy of the name is hugely powerful. 

Yet there is nothing to quite match the reception given when a star of the sport delivers a defining performance at Cheltenham.

Who can forget when Sprinter Sacre won his second Champion Chase in 2016 after receiving treatment for an irregular heartbeat? His welcome back into the winner's enclosure was tumultuous even by Cheltenham's uproarious standards. 

3. . . . and the little guy 

Gina Andrews celebrates aboard Domesday Book last year

With the festival an ever-sharper focal point of the jumps season, a win for a small or emerging yard carries greater and greater stock. There are a few obvious contenders to be cast as this year's David against Goliath: Sam Spinner in the Stayers' Hurdle, Kalashnikov the Supreme or Didtheyleaveuoutto in the bumper.

The smaller yards winning with their great hope makes for a fine story, but there is an even greater joy in an unlikely victory for those unaccustomed to the feeling.

Take Domesday Book in last year's Kim Muir, a maiden festival win for both jockey Gina Andrews and trainer Stuart Edmunds, delivering with it perhaps the most unbridled joy of the meeting. Edmunds liked it so much that he fancies a bit more of the same with Maria's Benefit in the Dawn Run this year.

4. It's supposed to be theatre, but anything can happen

Dramatic moment: Annie Power hits the final hurdle before her infamous fall in the 2015 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham

They say you could not have written what happened to Annie Power on the Tuesday of the 2015 festival. Actually, you could have. In fact, it would have been extremely easy to take as fiction and plenty of punters wish it had been precisely that.

What makes the festival so dramatic is that all outcomes, from the predictable to the outright ridiculous and everything in between, can take place right up until the last fence and beyond. On a flatter track, or with easier obstacles or fewer good horses in pursuit, these things would all become that little bit less likely.

All of sport is theatre without a script and the higher the quality, the more strongly that applies.

5. The inimitable test of the Gold Cup

The Gold Cup: a candidate for the complete jumps race

Gold Cup horses can be subjected to the right sort of test (King George, Irish Gold Cup), under the right sort of conditions (Cotswolds Chase), but never both before they line up at the start in a Gold Cup.

One of the most famous races in the calendar does not need assistance in creating its mythology, but the programme book is obliging. How else might you get the winners of the Welsh National and Kinloch Brae to share a podium, as happened between Native River and Sizing John last year.

There are a few candidates for the complete jumps race and the Gold Cup has as strong a claim as any.

6. The high-octane Grand Annual

Family success: Tom Scudamore celebrates after riding Next Sensation, trained by his brother Michael, to win the Grand Annual in 2015

The T20 version of the Grand National, the Grand Annual is an elimination race by any other name and, in one sense, deserves a much higher billing than the tailpiece on the meeting that it currently acts as.

Drama is more or less guaranteed in the Grand Annual, whether it be Next Sensation's spectacular redemption, the ridiculous chutzpah of Paul Carberry on Bellvano or the mad scramble up the hill that often brings the race, and the Cheltenham Festival, to a close.

On reflection, it might be just the right sort of thing to get you excited for next year . . .

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What makes the festival so dramatic is that all outcomes, from the predictable to the outright ridiculous and everything in between, can take place
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