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Cheltenham: Jockey, trainer and owner on Festival hopes

Cheltenham raceourse and Sam Waley-Cohen, Willie Mullins and Clive Smith

Coverage: BBC Radio 5 live Tue 1200-1600 GMT, Wed/ Thur 1400-1600, Fri 1300-1600, Channel 4 TV/Racing UK; reports/results: BBC Sport website
Twitter: Updates from BBC's Cornelius Lysaght and Honest Frank

By Frank Keogh

More than 200,000 spectators are expected at the Cheltenham Festival, which starts on Tuesday.

The four-day jump racing fixture builds to a climax on Friday, with one of the most intriguing runnings in the history of the Gold Cup.

Considered the blue riband event of steeplechasing, it is set to offer the rare treat of three previous winners - Imperial Commander, Kauto Star and Denman - facing each other at the undulating track.

Throw in Kauto's King George VI Chase conqueror Long Run and you have a contest to savour in the fixture's centenary year.

Here, we count down to the big meeting by speaking to a top jockey, trainer and owner about their prospects.

Sam Waley-Cohen
Sam Waley-Cohen
Long Run

A first ride in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, another in the Grand National, followed by a Royal Wedding and then his own. It will be a busy few months for amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen.

"It's a real dream to be riding in the Gold Cup, something I never really believed would happen," says the rider as he tries to clear the decks at his dental business ahead of the Festival.

"It's fantastic to be there and, touch wood, the horse will make it in good condition."

After a schooling session at Lambourn in Berkshire on Wednesday, Waley-Cohen reported he "couldn't be happier" with Long Run, who is owned by his father Robert.

The six-year-old, trained by Nicky Henderson, denied Kauto Star a fifth consecutive win in the King George VI Chase at Kempton in January but after finishing third twice at Cheltenham, could it be argued this is not his favourite track?

"I would certainly think you could lay the accusation, but I don't think you could sentence him quite yet," said the 28-year-old, whose grandfather was a baronet.

"You can find perfectly good explanations, such as the time of the season and the trip, beyond the racecourse why he didn't run his best races there.

"He was just a bit worked up in the preliminaries and was at the end of a long season at last year's Festival.

"In November, it was early season. He's improved on the previous season but found two-and-a-half miles quite sharp and he was ring rusty."

Thirty years on from the last amateur jockey to win the Gold Cup, Waley-Cohen is looking to match Jim Wilson's victory on Little Owl.

He may have only just one ride on the day after his Foxhunters Chase mount Roulez Cool was ruled out through injury.

"There are three previous winners in there and they are all capable of running a huge race. If I had the choice, I wouldn't be getting off Long Run," said Waley-Cohen. "Ultimately, it's a pillar to post gallop and he's shown he's got the speed to manage a fast-paced gallop.

"Any of them might win but on last year's evidence, Imperial Commander is the one to beat. He was incredibly impressive last year and there is no reason why he shouldn't put in another great performance."

After the Festival, it will be only three weeks until the jockey hopes to ride Oscar Time in the Grand National, and three weeks after that he is set to be at the wedding of old friend Kate Middleton and Prince William. His own wedding follows in June.

Willie Mullins
Willie Mullins
Hurricane Fly, Quevega, Kempes

Every morning he wakes up and nervously waits to hear that everything is all right with one of his stable stars.

And it is with good reason that top Irish trainer Willlie Mullins is cautious about his Champion Hurdle prospect Hurricane Fly after he missed the last two Festivals with injury.

"It can be a nervous time and we just hope he gets there," said Mullins.

"He's done nothing wrong at home and he has every right to be in the race.

"The negative is that he's a son of Montjeu, who has never had a Cheltenham winner but we might be lucky enough."

I feel he has improved and think he has an excellent chance of getting in the first three

Willie Mullins on Gold Cup contender Kempes

It is 25 years since Dawn Run, trained by Willie's father Paddy, became the only horse to complete the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double.

Paddy died aged 91 in October 2010 and it will be his son's first Festival without him.

"Certainly the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup are races that we would like to win," he said.

Kempes, the potential mount of BBC Sports Personality of the Year Tony McCoy, is set to represent him and owner JP McManus in the Gold Cup after winning the Irish Hennessy at Leopardstown in February.

"In the Gold Cup there are question marks over horses at the top of the betting. I feel he has improved and think he has an excellent chance of getting in the first three," said the trainer.

He also has two decent contenders, in Mourad and Fiveforthree, behind favourites Big Buck's and Grand Crus in the World Hurdle over three miles.

"Mourad is improving all the time and ran a lovely race [third to Zaynar, 2009] as a four-year-old in the Triumph Hurdle," said Mullins.

"It will only be Fiveforthree's second run over hurdles since he returned from injury in his first run for more than 18 months but he bolted up over two miles the other day."

Mullins is also positive about his chances in one of the other Festival championship races, where his relative outsider Golden Silver, who has finished down the field in two previous runs at Cheltenham, takes on favourites Big Buck's and Master Minded.

"I think he might be a different horse this year. He's improved and we've changed tactics," he said of the horse, who has been ridden less prominently early on in recent outings.

Mullins has surprised before at the Festival. He won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle with Ebaziyan (40-1, 2007) and Tourist Attraction (25-1, 1995) while Rule Supreme won the 2004 SunAlliance Chase at 25-1.

"There is often a huge focus on the top two horses in the betting to the exclusion of other horses with chances," he said.

Clive Smith
Clive Smith
Kauto Star, Master Minded

Two of the great steeplechasers of recent times have been owned by one lucky man. But is time catching up with Kauto Star and Master Minded?

They went into the Gold Cup and Champion Chase last year as favourites to secure their third triumphs but the Paul Nicholls-trained pair failed to make the first three.

Now the sceptics feel their powers could be on the wane but Smith retains hope in both the 11-year-old Kauto and his stablemate, aged eight.

"Clifford Baker, who rides Kauto Star every day, has been saying what good shape he's in and had never known him better," said Smith.

"He hasn't won two of his last three races but I feel like I can forgive him that and it will turn out well."

A rib injury and breathing issues appeared to have affected Master Minded but with three wins this season, he may be over those problems.

It's fascinating - a very intriguing race

Clive Smith on Gold Cup

"You can't keep giving excuses but there were certain reasons why he didn't perform in one or two races, added Smith.

"Last year he had an interrupted preparation, with a month off because of a cracked rib, but he's not missed a day's training this time and I feel he's in splendid shape."

Kauto Star was lucky to escape serious injury in a fall at Cheltenham last year. He bounced back with victory at Down Royal in November but looked out-of-sorts when third in the King George in January.

There were mutterings in some quarters he should be retired but champion trainer Paul Nicholls believes he can still compete at the top level.

"As Paul always says - 'It's easy to retire them'. This is one of the best around for many years and he's in good order," said Smith.

Kauto Star was being ridden by champion jockey Tony McCoy for the first time in a race and the horse's owner feels he will benefit from the return of regular partner Ruby Walsh.

"Tony is a great jockey and has a different, more athletic style to Ruby," said Smith.

After a gallop at Wincanton racecourse last week, Kauto Star will now look to regain the Gold Cup for a second time.

"The statistics are against the leading four in the race. You have three veterans all aged over 10 and the youngster. It's fascinating, a very intriguing race," said Smith.

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see also
Long Run clinches Gold Cup glory
18 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
Binocular withdrawn from Hurdle
13 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
King Kauto dethroned
15 Jan 11 |  Horse Racing
Kauto Star fails as Long Run wins
15 Jan 11 |  Horse Racing
Irish racing mourns Paddy Mullins
28 Oct 10 |  Horse Racing
Imperial Commander lands Gold Cup
19 Mar 10 |  Horse Racing
BBC racing coverage
09 Apr 11 |  Horse Racing
Cheltenham Festival 2011 schedule
23 Feb 11 |  Horse Racing

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