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Fab Four

It is something of an anomaly that, in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, never have all four title holders in the four feature races – the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase and the World Hurdle – gone back the following year and successfully defended all four titles.

Vincent O’Brien completed a double-double in 1949/50 with Hatton’s Grace in the Champion Hurdle and Cottage Rake in the Gold Cup, but there was no Champion Chase or World Hurdle in those days. There were more double-doubles in 1976/77 and 1978/79 via Night Nurse and Monksfield in the Champion Hurdle and Skymas and Hilly Way in the Champion Chase, but the Gold Cup and the World Hurdle had four individual winners in those four years.

The closest the four champion have collectively gone in modern times was in 2003/04, when Best Mate successfully defended his Gold Cup crown, Baracouda finished second to Iris’s Gift in the World Hurdle, Rooster Booster finished second to Hardy Eustace in the Champion Hurdle, and Moscow Flyer unseated his rider at the fourth last fence when travelling well in Azertyuiop’s Champion Chase. Yet, still the (non) record remains intact. This year, there is a real chance that it will fall.

Hurricane Fly, Champion Hurdle

Probably the most talented two-mile hurdler since Istabraq, Hurricane Fly was a noted absentee from the Cheltenham Festival roster in 2009 and 2010. The concerns about the Montjeu gelding in the lead up to last year’s Champion Hurdle centred on the fact that the strength of his Irish form depended on how good you thought Solwhit was, and on the unknown that was his ability to handle Cheltenham. Never before had a son of Montjeu won a race at the Cheltenham Festival.

In one searing change of gear and a head-outstretched willing surge up the final climb 12 months ago, however, Willie Mullins’s gelding laid all concerns to rest, a deserved Champion Hurdle title in the bag. The first of many, they said.

This year, reminders of his fragility re-surfaced when he missed his intended seasonal bow in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November. Indeed, we didn’t see him until he re-appeared in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in February. Uncharacteristically weak in the pre-race market that day, and uncharacteristically quiet in the pre-race parade ring, he still managed to put up a top class performance in beating the best horses that Irish trainers could throw at him. Mullins said that he thought it was his best performance yet, and that is ominous for his rivals in nine days’ time.

Sizing Europe, Champion Chase

A 10/1 shot when he won the Champion Chase 12 months ago, it was that performance that finally convinced the doubters that Sizing Europe really was a Cheltenham horse, and a top class one at that.

His Cheltenham record is now 1011, the 1s coming in the Greatwood Hurdle, the Arkle and the Champion Chase, the 0 when he injured his back badly on the run down the hill in the 2008 Champion Hurdle, when he was travelling so well that he traded at 1/2 in-running before they had jumped the second last flight. But for his injury that day, his Cheltenham record would probably read 1111, yet it is to that disastrous Champion Hurdle that many used to refer when they talked about his course form.

Now they talk about last year’s Champion Chase, the ease with which he travelled, the alacrity with which he jumped, the strength with which he gobbled up the hill, and they acclaim him a worthy champion.

We know now that Henry de Bromhead’s horse is tough as well as fast. He bounced back from a lung-bursting effort to finish an out-on-his-feet second behind Quito De La Roque in the Champion Chase at Down Royal in November over three miles on heavy ground – a combination that stretched his reserves beyond their limit, and could easily have stretched them beyond breaking point – to win the Tinge Creek Chase at Sandown less than a month later.

On his only subsequent run, he beat old rival and 2010 Champion Chaser Big Zeb in the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown, and that run should have put him spot on for the defence of his crown.

Big Buck’s, World Hurdle

It is remarkable to think that, but for the fact that Big Buck’s unseated his rider at the final fence in the 2008 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, he may have remained a chaser, he may never have gone back over hurdles, and he would never have become the phenomenon that he now is.

Since that Hennessy mis-hap, he has run in 15 races over hurdles, and he has won all 15. Long Walk Hurdles, Long Distance Hurdles, Liverpool Hurdles, Cleeve Hurdles – he is unbeaten in them all.

And it isn’t as if his opposition has been made up of second-raters. Punchestowns couldn’t beat him, Karabak couldn’t beat him, Time For Rupert couldn’t beat him, Grand Crus couldn’t beat him. It looks like he gives them a chance, he likes to hit a flat spot at some stage during his races, make Ruby Walsh work a little, give the impression that he is vulnerable. But he isn’t. Or he hasn’t been in two and a half years.

He is the only horse in the 40-year history of the World Hurdle to win the race three times in a row, and, if he wins it again in 11 days’ time, he will become just the second nine-year-old to win it since Galmoy in 1988. Sent off at odds-on for each of his last 12 races, he will be odds-on again to win the World Hurdle for an unprecedented fourth time, and that is just about right.

Long Run, Gold Cup

Long Run is perhaps the most vulnerable of the Big Four. When he won the Gold Cup last year as a short-trousered six-year-old, you would have been forgiven for thinking that he was a short price to go and win two or three more. He may still, but his aura of invincibility has been diluted somewhat by defeats in the Betfair Chase and the King George this season, both at the hooves of old foe Kauto Star.

Even when Nicky Henderson’s horse won the Denman Chase at Newbury on his most recent run, even though he was conceding 10lb to most of his rivals, he just scrambled home from his stable companion Burton Port, who was having his first run since the 2010 Hennessy Gold Cup. It was a win, and Kauto Star just scrambled home in the same race from L’Ami in 2007 on his last run before he won that year’s Gold Cup, but it wasn’t the authoritative performance that you were hoping for from the reigning Gold Cup champ.

That said, Long Run should improve for that performance and – much

more a force of stamina than of speed these days – the extra two and a half furlongs of the Gold Cup will be a significant help. In light of Kauto Star’s recent setback, this year’s renewal of the Gold Cup may lack strength in-depth, and it is correct that Long Run is favourite to win it.

66/1 the bookmakers offered a couple of months ago about all four returning champs winning. Now, you will do well to get any better than 10/1. That may be just about right too.

© The Sunday Times, 4th March 2012