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Cheltenham could not have found a better celebrity than Istabraq, the triple Champion Hurdler, to open its three-day Festival on Tuesday.
No personality, equine or human, could prove a bigger draw than the Irish legend attempting to win an unprecedented fourth Smurfit Champion Hurdle.
His fans will flock to see him in their adoring legions, and, if he can withstand the challenges of Valiramix, Landing Light and Ned Kelly, the Irish roar will reach a new crescendo.
But there could be a real party-pooper lurking in the shape of France’s little mare Bilboa, whose trainer Francois Doumen is confident she is approaching her peak in time for the biggest challenge of her life.
On her sorties across the Channel last winter Bilboa had “future Champion Hurdler” written all over her. My heart says don’t spoil the Istabraq celebrations, but, at 16-1, Bilboa could prove each way value.
Barton, hero of the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle three years ago, has come back from leg trouble with enough of his old panache to win the Irish Independent Arkle Chase. He is trained by Tim Easterby, whose father Peter won three Arkles with Alverton, Clayside, and Ryeman.
Flying the flag
On Wednesday Flagship Uberalles can crown the meeting for his trainer Philip Hobbs in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Ever since winning the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown so impressively in December Hobbs has had one date in his diary for Flagship – March 13.
Regular visits to the beach at Blue Anchor Bay on the Somerset coast have kept Flagship in trim. All his work is done on grass, rather than the woodchip all-weather gallop, to ensure he does not go lame.
“The exercise of wading in the sea has helped condition muscles in his back,” explains Hobbs, who says the horse is best when fresh.
Trainer Paul Webber will not accept any of the talk that his Royal & SunAlliance Chase candidate Frosty Canyon is ungenuine.
“He wears a visor to help him to be more accurate and more fluent over his fences. He just takes time to warm up in his races and my worry is that they go too fast early on,” says Webber.
Going for gold
Florida Pearl, trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins, has been my long time fancy for the race, even in the face of a general concensus that he won’t come up the final hill.
Two years ago Florida Pearl had anything but a troublefree run over the final three fences and would have finished much closer to Looks Like Trouble. If Adrian Maguire can get him jumping out of his hands as he did when winning the King George at Kempton they will take some pegging back.
Mick Fitzgerald has chosen to partner Bacchanal in preference to Nicky Henderson’s second string , while Best Mate and Behrajan are two more who cannot be dismissed.
Interestingly, Tony McCoy has not decided on his mount; he could be on either Cyfor Malta or Shooting Light for Martin Pipe.
If Florida Pearl can get his act together and the ground is not too heavy he could crown a wonderful career, which already includes victories in the Festival Bumper and the SunAlliance Chase as well as three Hennessy Gold Cups in Ireland.
Joe Blake, trained in Northern Ireland by Ian Ferguson, could be another successful raider from across the Irish Sea in the Christies Foxhunters’ Chase. Joe Blake won a hunter chase at Fairyhouse last month and his rated highly by his astute point-to-point trainer.
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