Stand by for AP McCoy’s final Cheltenham Festival

FESTIVAL FAREWELL TO A LEGEND -- Tony 'AP' McCoy with Mr Mole, one of his plum rides at his last Cheltenham Festival. (PHOTO BY: Julian Herbert/PA Wire).

FESTIVAL FAREWELL TO A LEGEND -- Tony 'AP' McCoy with Mr Mole, one of his plum rides at his last Cheltenham Festival. (PHOTO BY: Julian Herbert/PA Wire).

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And you thought Christmas fell in December. Oh no. Not for the legions of fans who make horse-racing the second biggest spectator sport in the country.

The equivalent of the festive season is the Cheltenham Festival. Four days of the best jumps racing in the world, soaked up by a party-like atmosphere few other annual sporting beanfeasts can match.

And next week’s renewal promises to resonate with added poignancy for the thousands of pilgrims who transform a quiet corner of the Cotswolds into a cauldron of sporting theatre.

For it will be the final Festival to be graced by racing’s greatest ambassador, Tony ‘AP’ McCoy, who has announced his retirement at the end of the season, once he has pocketed his 20th champion-jockey title on the trot.

It would be the stuff of legend if the real McCoy could cap his career with victory in one of the week’s three big races, the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Stan James Champion Hurdle. But it’s certainly not out of the question because he has fancied chances aboard Carlingford Lough, Mr Mole and Jezki respectively, all owned by his boss, JP McManus.

Carlingford Lough is one of any number of chasers set to contest the most open Gold Cup for many moons, with favourite Silviniaco Conti bidding for victory at the third attempt to hurl trainer Paul Nicholls into the record books, courtesy of his fifth win in the race.

Quirky seven-year-old Mr Mole, who provided McCoy with his 200th winner of the season, will be aiming to gatecrash a Champion Chase that oozes class, topped and tailed by a compelling clash between the previous two winners, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy, both returning from injury.

As for Jezki, he will be defending the Champion Hurdle crown he pipped McCoy to last year when he rode My Tent Or Yours. But the two most fascinating contenders in next week’s renewal are golden oldie Hurricane Fly, arguably the finest hurdler in the history of the sport after a world-record tally of 22 Grade One triumphs, and the young pretender Faugheen, unbeaten and spectacularly good so far in his career.

Both are trained by Willie Mullins, who brings over from Ireland a blockbusting squad of more than 50 horses, including brilliant novice chasers un De Sceaux and Vautour. Mullins and the battalions from the leading UK yards of Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson, Jonjo O’Neill, David Pipe and Alan King look sure to dominate the meeting, although it could well be the week when emerging young trainers, such as Harry Fry and Dan Skelton, also burst on to the centre stage.

If you’re going to the Cheltenham next week, brace yourself for changes because the course is in the middle of a £45 million redevelopment that will yield a spanking new stand. But it’s odds-on that the disruption will fail to dampen the enthusiasm among the 220,000-strong crowds for an event that has developed into a sporting phenomenon.

Look no further than a guarantee of excellence for the reason. The purists are served the best horses, the punters ar served the best markets in which to bet and the socialites are served the best craic in a part of the world that knows better than most how to fuse rural and urban delights.

As Michael Dickinson, folklore trainer with a pedestal all of his own in Cheltenham’s pantheon of greats, once said: “There are no bad days at the Festival. Just some that are better than others.”

Jumps racing has endured a trying season, blighted by small, uncompetitive fields, poor prize-money, unedifying midwinter mudbaths and the curse of low sun.

But as ever, the Cheltenham Festival, swiftly followed by the Crabbie’s Grand National meeting in April, will ride to the rescue. Strap yourself in and lap it up!