CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL Tue 15-Fri 18 March
BBC Radio 5 live Fri 1300-1600, Gold Cup 1520, Channel 4 TV/Racing UK
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Denman and Kauto Star are two of many stars at Paul Nicholls's Ditcheat stables
By Frank Keogh at Cheltenham
It takes a while for top racehorses to have a familiarity that captures the wider public imagination outside the sport itself.
For the last few years, racing - and one particular trainer - has been blessed to have three of them.
In Big Buck's, Denman and Kauto Star, Somerset-based champion Paul Nicholls has a trio who have set new marks.
It has been a lucky coincidence for the group Racing For Change, which is charged with expanding the sport's audience, that these equine stars have been around, particularly at a time when top jockeys like Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh are also setting new standards.
Big Buck's - under the Cheltenham Festival's all-time leading jockey Ruby Walsh - became the first horse to land the World Hurdle three times running with a
thrilling victory on Thursday
at the big meeting.
Ruby Walsh on Kauto Star
Friday sees Denman and Kauto Star run in the
taking on reigning champion Imperial Commander, as three previous winners do battle against each other in National Hunt's blue riband for the first time since 1958.
Kauto Star won a record four consecutive King George VI Chases at Kempton and became the first animal to regain the Gold Cup when he won
his 2007 win.
In between, his pal Denman who lives in the box next door at Nicholls' Ditcheat yard, beat him comprehensively
in the 2008 version.
He has also won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury under big weights with mighty performances.
But time catches up with us all. With the pair aged 11 - and Imperial Commander now 10 - this may well be the second and last time they all compete against each other.
In opposition are a clutch of younger horses, led by the six-year-old Long Run who lowered Kauto Star's colours when he was bidding for a historic fifth
King George at Kempton
Irish challengers Pandorama and Kempes, the latter to be ridden by McCoy, and Cheltenham specialist Midnight Chase are among others who could challenge.
Northern Irishman McCoy, who won the
Sports Personality vote
by a landslide in December, has played his part in taking racing's story to a wider public by agreeing to a range of media activities that probably would not be top of his wishlist.
"AP winning the Sports Personality of the Year was a huge change for the sport," said Racing For Change spokesman Nick Attenborough.
We are trying to do things which will enhance racing for people who are relative novices to the sport
Racing For Change spokesman Nick Attenborough
"I think it has given the sport confidence and a weapon in the publicity armoury we can go to war with.
"The media want to know what he is about and what his opinion is.
"We have been lucky with some pretty amazing jumps horses around and have a great story to sell.
"Being live at a racecourse, the atmosphere is fantastic. It's a fun environment and you have a peak of excitement every 30 minutes. It's an unbeatable day out for both men and women."
With a budget for next year of around £1m, the whole Racing for Change initiative has been questioned in some quarters.
However, simple but effective moves to make the sport more accessible have included larger numbers on the horses' saddlecloths and using full names, rather than initials and surnames, for jockeys and trainers in racecards.
"We are trying to do things which will enhance racing for people who are relative novices to the sport," added Attenborough.
"The free race week we did last year, where people could attend certain meetings for nothing, was phenomenally successful, and we are doing a
free month this year
"More than 50,000 people had taken up the offer before Cheltenham and there are still some free tickets available.
"Last time about two thirds of the people taking part in this were new to racing. It is important to get people through the gates and experience everything.
"We are working with jockeys and trainers and they are getting much more used to publicising the sport. We are getting stories covered outside of the racing press and we need that to get more people interested and talking about it."
Racing clubs have been established at 22 universities in the UK, which a total of more than 1,000 students have joined so far.
"They come racing, they organise trips to places like Cheltenham. There's a magazine about racing targeted at students," said Attenborough.
Social media is being used to attract younger people, with racing club Facebook pages at universities.
Jockeys, trainers, owners and journalists who use Twitter are listed on the
Love the Races
website, which tries to explode some of the jargon that can confuse racing newcomers.
Sam Twiston-Davies rides Baby Run to victory at Cheltenham last year
"We don't want to lose some of the traditions of the sport, but we need to make sure it is relevant to younger adults," said Attenborough.
For me, two young people sum up the new breed of racing enthusiasts and how social media is helping to reinvigorate the sport.
Willy Twiston-Davies, the 16-year-old son of Imperial Commander's trainer Nigel, rides the favourite Baby Run in the Foxhunter Chase, the race immediately following the Gold Cup.
His brother Sam, now 18, won on the horse in the same race last year and his father intimated it was a prouder moment than claiming the feature race.
While he has yet to take his GCSE exams, Willy knows what he wants to do in life - he hopes to be champion jockey. Perhaps in a few years after the record-breaking perennial title holder Tony McCoy has hung up his whip.
The Gloucestershire teenager tells in his Twitter postings of his frustration at having to attend lessons in things such as Biology and French, when he would rather be out riding horses.
He probably won't forgive me for saying that a pass in English is not guaranteed as he has managed to spell the amateur bit of amateur jockey wrong in his account profile.
And then there is 13-year-old Irish lad Mark Boylan.
A few weeks ago, Boylan wrote a song titled The Festival in the bedroom of his home in County Offaly. His dad videod him performing it and put the clip on YouTube.
When I posted a link on Twitter, it was posted again - or retweeted - by McCoy and it has gone on to be viewed more than 15,000 times.
He was invited into the offices of the Racing Post for a day, where his song was recorded for download with proceeds going to the Injured Jockeys' Fund.
Mark, complete with his trilby and guitar under his arm, has been on a whirlwind of media interviews at Cheltenham over the last few days.
And to cap it all, he was invited to perform for the jockeys in the hallowed weighing room at jump racing headquarters after the action had finished on Wednesday.
"I stood on a table - I actually hit my head on the roof - and sung the song, and they all cheered at the end, it was unreal," he said.
A fairtytale week for the youngster. We wait to see if there will be another fairytale in the Gold Cup for one of the older brigade, or whether a new champion will be crowned.
Denman was second in the 2010 Gold Cup and third in the Hennessy after treatment for a heart murmur which had threatened to end his career.
Kauto Star fell in last year's big race, and although he won well on his seasonal return, he was out of sorts at Kempton.
The safe return from their exertions for both the veterans and the new kids on the block will be the best result of all as a crowd of 70,000 watch another potentially memorable contest.