The issue of ‘absent friends’ can often overshadow a sporting event. Regularly an injury or suspension will overshadow a major fixture to the extent that more people are bothered about who isn’t in attendance than who is. With so many superstars both equine and human for racing fans to fawn over, that seems unlikely to be a problem at next month’s Cheltenham Festival, but certainly became a concern this week when Thistlecrack, favourite for the Gold Cup, the week’s biggest race, was ruled out with injury. Last year’s World Hurdle winner, who took Kempton by storm over Christmas when cruising to victory in the King George, was seeking to become only the second novice since 1974 to win racing’s blue riband event, but will now not line up at Prestbury Park on March 17th. He suffered a slight tendon tear, not a serious injury in the grand scheme of things, but enough to keep him out of the picture at least for the rest of the reason, though trainer Colin Tizzard hopes to have his star back for a defence of his King George crown this winter.
But Thistlecrack isn’t the only big name set to miss out on the tension and the potential glory of a race at the Festival. Among those already confirmed to be missing the big meeting are Annie Power and Faugheen, the last two names of the Champion Hurdle trophy, who are both trained by Willie Mullins at Closutton. Mullins relies on a much reduced Cheltenham squad compared to his normal heavy raid, with ace novice chaser Min recovering from a slight setback, and one time Gold Cup favourite and Ryanair Chase victor Vautour no longer with us after a tragic paddock accident early in the season. In fact, the absence of Thistlecrack, Vautour and Annie Power means that none of the five horses who won the Festival’s lauded ‘championship races’ will be back this year, with reigning Champion Chaser Sprinter Sacre and the Gold Cup hero of 2016 Don Cossack both having been retired since last March. Valseur Lido, last year’s Ryanair runner-up, and Coneygree, the Gold Cup champion of 2015, are among the others who miss out due to injury.
Overall then, we are looking at the risk of much depleted fields in some of jump racing’s biggest events. The Champion Hurdle looks like it could pass as a Grade 2 event, while the three market leaders for the Gold Cup have had six horses beat them collectively so far this season – hardly the mark of a group of potential champions. However, it will take more than a few injuries to detract from the spectacle that is the Cheltenham Festival. Those of us who love racing know that it’s bigger than the individual horses or people that make it up. It is indeed an institution, and once again, you can hear ‘the Cheltenham roar’ coming.
Featured Image: Rex Features