Weaving wonderful Festival memories
Weird Wide World of Sport
It's that time of year again when horse racing is the talk of the town and Cheltenham conversations surpass discussions about the unpredictability of the weather.
Folk on street corners speak in hushed tones of a 'tip' they have for the 4:10, cautioning listeners to be sure to take the 12/1 on offer before the inevitable onslaught of money from the big-hitters contracts the odds to a fraction of their former succulent self, only for its price to drift like an unmanned dinghy in the Atlantic and then the ungainly sod plods home just in time for the Uttoxeter meeting the following Saturday.
If you're known for showing any more than a passing interest in the sport of kings during the rest of the year, the world and his wife thinks your opinion warrants some consideration. 'What do you fancy for the big one?'. 'How many winners will Ruby have today?'. 'Should I back it on the nose or each way?'.
The standard advice is to stick a pin in the racecard or pick a name or colour you like, because I'm well able to lose my own cash without being held responsible for other dockets being crumpled up and thrown solemnly in the general direction of a bin.
Much of the talk in the build-up to this year's Festival has been about those that will miss the party rather than the ones that will line out at the four-day racing bonanza.
Whether it be equine stars Thistlecrack, Annie Power or Faugheen or those in human form like jockey Barry Geraghty, the festival will be slightly diluted by the loss of some of the leading lights in the game.
However, the show must go on and in some ways, although the puzzles may be trickier to solve, it's better for punters given the more open nature of some of the blue riband events, and the more attractive odds of a potential winner as a result.
One undoubted star that does remain is Willie Mullins' classy chaser Douvan, and if the seven-year-old doesn't sweep to victory at prohibitive odds in the Queen Mother Champion Chase it will be a seismic shock.
Once a year gamblers, and the more shrewd judges alike, are drawn to the relative surety of an accumulator comprised of a number of Willie Mullins hot-pots, but others crave the sense of satisfaction garnered from digging a little deeper into the form and uncovering that unpolished diamond in the rough.
Indeed, some of the most memorable moments for the horse racing fraternity on this side of the Irish Sea have come when less high-profile trainers have come out on top at the Cotswolds, or when unfancied horses have got their heads in front.
Who could forget trainer Paul Nolan galloping Mourinho-like at the side of the track after 20/1 outsider Dabiroun, ridden by Nina Carberry, won the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices Hurdle in 2005?
Or when Hardy Eustace, ridden by Conor O'Dwyer, caused a massive upset by winning the Champion Hurdle for the late Dessie Hughes at 33/1 in 2004, and cemented his place in history twelve months later, with the 7/2 joint favourite sticking his neck out to gain a gutsy win over Harchibald, with Brave Inca back in third.
In a golden age for Irish hurdlers, Brave Inca returned the following year and the Colm Murphy-trained warrior lived up to his name, with the Tony McCoy-ridden 7/4 favourite outbattling Macs Joy and Hardy Eustace.
Memories like those are what makes Cheltenham different from other meetings. While it's always nice to back a winner, I'd gladly sit back and watch the action unfold just for the sheer joy of it as new equine legends put their names up in lights.
Horses like Istabraq, Hurricane Fly, Big Bucks, Dawn Run, Kauto Star, Denman and Best Mate will be forever ingrained in our brains, and it's that sense of familiarity that makes National Hunt racing, and Cheltenham in particular, so special. Many more momentous stories will be weaved this week and the main thing is that the jockeys and horses come back safe and sound.