Can Cheltenham Deliver With the Big Five Absent?
The Cheltenham Festival finally began in earnest yesterday, as riders, trainers and fans from across the UK to enjoy a true celebration of jump racing. Arguably the most magical and iconic event on the horse racing calendar, the next few days will see some make history while others see their dreams fall away in the last, desperate strides.
Come Friday evening, a total of 450 runners will have competed for success on the grandest of stages, across four days and 28 helter-skelter races. Make no mistake; however, this year threatens to be one of the most challenging for organisers, with some of the event’s magic having been diminished by the absence of big names and last years’ stellar champions.
The Absence of the Big Five, and What This Means for the Event
If you have listened to this insightful Cheltenham podcast by My Racing, you will know that none of last seasons’ so-called big five are returning to defend their titles this year. Each absence represents a huge blow to the very heart of the event, as an unfortunate combination of injury, death and the creeping wrath of time have ruthlessly stalked last seasons’ winners. This means that Annie Power, Sprinter Sacre, Vantour, Thistlecrack and Don Cossack (who won the coveted Gold Cup in 2016) will not take their rightful place in the field, creating a huge void that stretches across the major racecards.
The sudden and tragic death of Many Clouds (who collapsed after a thrilling victory over Thistlecrack at Cheltenham in January) has only exacerbated this, causing some pundits to ask how the event organisers can possibly respond to such adversity.
While this significant void may be concerning, however, it also creates an opportunity for others to step up and make the mark on the sport. Take Cue Card, for example, whose breath-taking narrative of sustained success and heroic defeats on the biggest stage has captured the imagination of fans from across the world. Now 11 years old and surely poised for his final shot at glory in the form of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, he has never had a better chance to secure a truly wonderful legacy.
Our Final Thoughts: Why Cheltenham Will be Great, But Not in the Way We Expected
Cue Card’s trainer, the 83-year old Jean Bishop, has even suggested that she may retire him if he wins the Gold Cup. This is the type of story that elevates sport above the purely physical, and fans will wait with baited breath to see if Cue Card (who remains one of the most popular horses of all time) can capitalise on the gaps that have opened up in the field and claim the prize that has eluded him throughout a stellar career.
With horses such as Native River and Tea for Two having also entered the festival in fine form, there remains a sense of uncertainty and anticipation that has been enhanced by the absence of last seasons’ defending champions. It is this unpredictability that remains the lifeblood of elite level sport, while it also means that this years’ Cheltenham Festival can deliver a truly stunning spectacle in-spite of its numerous, high profile absences.