Back in November, Ruby Walsh found himself sitting in Naas hospital after tumbling from the back of Willie Mullins-trained Let’s Dance during a mare’s hurdle at Punchestown. Despite the seriousness of the injury Walsh was predictably unflustered, and, following a prognosis of 16 weeks out, quickly resolved to be racing fit in time for Cheltenham.
True to his word, Ruby will saddle up in Gloucestershire on Champion Hurdle day, having come through a relatively seamless recovery. And in truth, the Festival just wouldn’t be the same without him – there are few people more synonymous with Cheltenham than the man from County Kildare. Walsh’s history at the event is one of nigh-on unbridled success, including two Gold Cup wins, and even at the ripe old age of 38, he’s still a rider to be feared.
But, of course, it’s not all about Ruby. This year’s festival is set to serve up some excellent encounters, not least the mouth-watering prospect of a star-studded clash on Friday between Might Bite, Killultagh Vic and Native River. Here’s our rundown of each day’s highlights.
Day One, perhaps, is all about Buveur D’air. JP McManus’ Nicky Henderson-trained superstar is back to defend the Champion Hurdle he won so convincingly last year.
Since that 2017 landmark performance, he has run four times and emerged victorious on each occasion. Now, he faces arguably his biggest test yet, being matched up against Faugheen in the 2018 edition. Tuesday’s big one is far from a two-horse race, but that head-to-head may well be a defining moment of this year’s Festival.
Another highlight from the opening day will be Apple’s Jade going for two-in-a-row in the Mares Hurdle. The Gigginstown flyer was a phenomenon in 2017, pounding to victories over the likes of the late great Nichols Canyon and Supasundae – she’ll be exceptionally hard to beat.
Wednesday is one for the purists. The ruthless Samcro goes in the Ballymore Novices Hurdle, while Presenting Percy and Monalee match up in an intriguing RSA Chase. The highlight of Day Two, however, will be Altior’s quest to take the Queen Mother Champion Chase ahead of some seriously good rivals, most notably a nicely rested Douvan, who has yet to show his face since the 2017 iteration.
The Cross Country Chase also holds plenty of interest, with some interesting runners due to start, including last year’s winner Josies Orders. The Gordon Elliott-trained Cause of Causes will be looking to steal the crown, while Tiger Roll, another Elliott horse, may also enter the equation.
This year, any preview of Thursday’s card will be somewhat nebulous, with doubts remaining over the participation of several of the more high-profile entries. Un de Sceaux will aim to repeat his Ryanair Chase exploits from 2017.
Day Three’s Championship race, the Stayers Hurdle, pits the mighty Yanworth against Jessica Harrington’s Faugheen-conquering Supasundae. Yanworth outran Supasundae by a length at Aintree last year, but the Potts-owned charger has improved rapidly over recent months. The Stayers’ really is one to watch.
Although the Albert Bartlett and Triumph Hurdle are always worth a glance, Friday, as ever, is all about the Gold Cup.
Might Bite leads the betting, but is far from invincible. This is anything but a gimme for Nicky Henderson’s gem, with several big names lined up to take a shot – as you’d expect from a Gold Cup field.
Killultagh Vic, who was cruelly denied an Irish Gold Cup win after falling while leading, won’t be easily beaten. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of a fast-moving Native River to be safely navigated. This race is unlikely to disappoint. But if it does, don’t worry – there’s always St Patrick’s Day to look forward to!