Newspaper article Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)

Cheltenham Champions Are Back

Newspaper article Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)

Cheltenham Champions Are Back

Article excerpt

Horseracing image has been dealt some severe body blows in recent days, but next week the sport hits back with a celebration of everything that is great about the game - the Cheltenham Festival.

All winter, the jump racing season has been building to this three-day climax, the most gripping, intense competition that the sport has to offer, and the 2004 Festival promises to be a vintage edition.

For many, the meeting will revolve around the winners of the four championship events from 2003. Remarkably, they all return to defend their crowns, each trained to the minute and hot favourite to stage a repeat performance.

The racing world expects the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup to turn into a lap of honour for Best Mate, who bids to match the immortal Arkle by winning the most prestigious prize for the third successive year.

French raider Baracouda is also bidding for a hat-trick of victories in the Bonusprint Stayers' Hurdle and, while this lazy character often makes his supporters sweat, he should do just enough once again.

Rooster Booster was a brilliant winner of the Smurfit Champion Hurdle last year, when able to sit behind a strong pace, but his rivals are wise to that tactic now and are unlikely to set things up so kindly this time.

Thankfully the tough Rooster Booster also has a mean streak to go with his class and, when push comes to shove on the run-in up the famous Cheltenham hill, expect the grey gelding to grind it out.

The biggest danger is Rigmarole, a youngster on a tremendous roll since an operation last summer to help his breathing. He has improved out of all recognition, gaining confidence with every win, including in one of the main `rehearsal' races at Cheltenham in December, when Rooster Booster was short of peak fitness and unsuited by a steady pace.

For many, however, the clash of the Festival comes on Wednesday in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, an exhilarating test of jumping 12 fences at top speed over the minimum two-mile trip. …

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