Three stars set to sparkle at the Cheltenham Festival

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Pirate IRWIN
·3 min read
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Jumps racing's showpiece meeting the four day Cheltenham Festival starts on Tuesday with the best of the English horses pitted against the best from Ireland.

The annual racing feast will take place without crowds or even owners attending due to coronavirus protocols.

AFP Sport picks out three horses who can raise the spirits:

Tuesday Champion Hurdle -- Honeysuckle

Sweet-sounding by name deadly by nature as her 10 wins from 10 starts attests to.

She has already tasted success at the Festival and won the Irish Champion Hurdle last month in fine style.

Now she must confront last year's champion and also a mare the Nicky Henderson-trained Epatante bidding to give owner JP McManus a fifth successive win and 10th overall.

Trained in Ireland by Henry de Bromhead if successful her jockey Rachael Blackmore would become the first female jockey to win hurdling's biggest prize.

The 31-year-old has succeeded without having connections in the racing world and is in with a chance of being crowned champion jockey in Ireland.

Her relationship with Honeysuckle is a special one and her optimistic outlook contrasts to de Bromhead who is a self-confessed pessimist.

"She was just deadly," purred Blackmore after the Irish Champion Hurdle.

"She's got plenty of pace and you do whatever you want with her now."

Wednesday Champion Chase -- Altior

The statistics suggest Altior's chance of becoming only the second horse to win three Champion Chases -- Badsworth Boy being the only one to do so up to now (1983-85) -- are against him.

Only one horse aged 11 or older has prevailed since Skymas won aged 12 in 1978-- Moscow Flyer aged 11 in 2005. The latter is just one of two to have regained their crown since 1975.

However, it is the other one to have reclaimed the title Sprinter Sacre (won in 2013 & 2016) which gives those who still believe in Altior encouragement for he is trained by the same handler Nicky Henderson.

Like Sprinter Sacre Altior's previous dominance has faded and he has not run since finishing a distant second in late December.

Altior did not run in last year's Champion Chase and will have to show marked improvement if he is to deny Willie Mullins his first win in the two mile (3200 metres) contest) with Chacun Pour Soi.

Henderson's former jockey Mick Fitzgerald believes he can.

"What Nicky (Henderson) did with Sprinter Sacre that was the impossible dream," Fitzgerald told AFP.

"That is what you get with a trainer like Nicky someone capable of getting them ready for the big day."

Friday Cheltenham Gold Cup -- Al Boum Photo

Champion Irish trainer Willie Mullins waited for years for victory in the 'blue riband' of jumps racing then Al Boum Photo came along and gave him two in a row.

He returns to see if like the proverbial London bus you wait for one then three come along in a row and becomes the first horse since Best Mate (2002-04) to achieve a threepeat.

Such a champion would normally be praised to the rafters but it is not the case with Al Boum Photo perhaps due to being lightly-raced.

Mullins, though, still rubs his head in amazement he is within reach of emulating perhaps Ireland's greatest horse over jumps Arkle's achievement -- he won three in a row from 1964-66.

"Two years ago I had given up on the dream of winning a Gold Cup at all and now it's unbelievable to be on the brink of an Arkle achievement," he said in February.

"It would be extraordinary if he managed to do it. We never dreamed he would."

Fitzgerald says there should be no argument over Al Boum Photo's champion's tag.

"The horse showed that raced sparingly he is right for the biggest stage," he told AFP.

"Is that wrong or right? That is why you have brilliant trainers not one size fits all.

"Willie Mullins does not say a lot but he sees a lot. He is a genius."

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