This year, as we approach a Cheltenham Festival like no other, our aim at Balls.ie is to get ourselves, and the majority of you, the non-hardcore racing fans, ready for the one week of the year where we all like to sound like experts!
Over the next few weeks, we'll be previewing the Festival by looking at the storylines and contenders in all of the big races with our new podcast, in association with Ladbrokes, The Buildup: Road To Cheltenham. Our very own Shaman Of Cheltenham, Aonghus Ó Maicín, will be our guide on this journey, and will also cover the main storylines for each race here on site.
You can watch to the first episode of the show below, or listen here.
There will be no roar, no organic salvo greeting the novice hurdlers in the Supreme, no outpouring of excitement and nervous energy that is incomparable to any other outburst in sport. But there is, rather significantly, a Festival - and at least that's something.
Cheltenham has always been about the storylines anyway. There’s the bestowing of superstar status on the runners we thought may come good when we still lacked the proof, and then there’s the emergence of the oft-forgotten underdogs who had all the traits of champions we just were too blind to see. So many plots for a mere week to unravel. And with or without the bulging crowds, storylines are still there to be told.
Ahead of the long road to March 16, Balls are dusting off the crystal ball in an attempt to decipher where and how the magic will occur, because there can only be one thing we're certain of as we approach the World Cup of the Jumps - there will certainly be magic.
The Arkle: Shishkin Vs. Energumene - The Best Arkle of a Generation?
One of the first opportunities for real magic comes in the Arkle Challenge Trophy on Day One where in any other year Dan Skelton's Allmankind would look like a sound 'good-thang'. But, as was discussed on Balls’ Road to Cheltenham this week, the wizarding duo of Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins are coming to the table with two talents that have given us every reason to salivate.
Making the case for this being anything but a two-horse race is a futile endeavour. Henderson's Shishkin showed that he relished climbing that fabled hill during the 2020 festival while Energumene, the Mullins contender whose name can be loosely translated as ‘the Mad Yoke’ (see this week’s episode for context), has exhibited a contempt for having to slow down after passing the winning post in previous outings. There is every reason to believe this is the equine version of Forrest Gump.
Look further through the list of runners and you happen upon what is probably the storyline that would stoke most joy for the seasoned observer of the game, and indeed anyone with a weakness for a feelgood story. Franco De Port retains solid each-way value but, this being Cheltenham and the course posing an incalculable amount of questions of a horse, a shock is always more than faint possibility. That’s if he's pointed towards this contest, a major 'if' this far out from the Festival.
The real tear-jerking aspect of a win for Franco De Port, another in the impressive-looking Mullins string, pertains to the man who will be steering him around the venue in the Cotswolds, Bryan Cooper.
When the Kerry man won the Gold Cup in 2016, he was being heralded as the next great jockey in the game, the true heir to Walsh and McCoy and that decorated class. He was the young man best primed to ignite a new era. Since then, he has fallen on hard times within racing’s notoriously tough ecosystem, losing his role as the retained rider for Gigginstown House and generally struggling to pick up rides on decent runners.
Paul Nolan can be credited as the man who gave him another chance in the major leagues but it is with Mullins - a man who has been in search of reinforcements since losing both Ruby Walsh and David Mullins to retirement - where Cooper can really begin to hoist his name back up to where it belongs. A win here, far from a laughable lofty possibility, will do just that.
The Champion Chase: The Crowning Of The Next King?
Equally, Wednesday offers a similar opportunity of redemption as Mullins aims to win the one monkey left on his back - the Queen Mother Champion Chase - with the highest-rated horse in training no less, Chacun Pour Soi. Facing the star of Closutton is the elderly Altior, winner of two renewals of this race, who is out to prove that old adage about class being permanent.
11-year-olds don't win Champion Chases in the same way 60-year-olds don't win marathons and Meath men don't win All Irelands...anymore. If the Lambourn-based champion does emerge to win in his old age though, it would catapult him into a realm whereby they will immediately begin chiselling bronze in a spot around the parade ring where he would stand sentry alongside Arkle, Dawn Run and Best Mate, among others. He’s already an all-time great. The question is whether or not he can return and become a deity.
There are other challengers - most notably 2020 champion Politologue, Nube Negra, First Flow and the wonderfully indefatigable mare, Put The Kettle On who may all run here or go elsewhere - but all eyes will be focused on the champion versus the pretender, the double champion Altior versus the yet-to-be-tested-at-Cheltenham Chacun Pour Soi, the man looking to become leading trainer of all time in this race, Nicky Henderson versus the one hoping to win it for a first time, Willie Mullins.
These are just two of the plots set to be decided at the Festival. There are 26 more where they came from.
All will be discussed in the kitchen, the garden, the virtual pub and anywhere somebody cares to listen over the coming weeks. Above all, there will be ramblings aplenty ad nauseam here.
Four weeks of conjecture and fever and unsubstantiated buffoonery. Who said Christmas doesn’t come early?