Cheltenham 2018 waiting for superstar to emerge

Bonnie Tyler was willing to hold out for a hero ’til the end of the night, but the wait has been a bit longer here at Cheltenham.

Cheltenham 2018 waiting for superstar to emerge

It’s not that there has been any shortage of animals worthy of our affections, as well as flutters, at the festival. Moreso a sense that the March madness is lacking the sort of superstar that can grab the wider sporting world by the lapels and shake it.

It was a topic taken up by the course radio commentators yesterday. As the conversation trickled on there was a pool of common ground among them that we could do with one of the latest crop of undoubted stars going viral in the wider sporting sphere.

Or, even better, for two from the same class and vintage to go head to head for our hearts as well as our hard-earned over a clutch of campaigns. Is it a first-world problem? God, yes. It’s nitpicking of the highest order, but then the Kauto Star/Denman era spoiled us.

The fortunes endured by those who succeeded that pair as Gold Cup winners just highlights the vacancy. Imperial Commander, Coneygree, Don Cossack, and now Sizing John have all been hobbled by injury after their greatest hour. Synchronised was lost to us just weeks after his win in 2012.

Then there was Long Run who followed up his 2011 success with a King George without ever prompting a factory run on scarves in his colours, while Bob’s Worth and Lord Windermere faded back into the shadows. And that’s just the Gold Cup contenders.

Willie Mullins continues to prep winners galore for this gig, but his stable lacks the stardust of the days when the quality of a Vautour and an at-his-prime Douvan towered over Cleeve Hill. Nicky Henderson’s Lambourn string perhaps offers most hope.

Buveur D’Air has won back-to-back Champion Hurdles and is young enough to saddle high hopes again should he be pointed at a third while Altior’s performance in yesterday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase was described as “electric” by Henderson. ”He’s a freak,” said the latter’s jockey, Nico de Boinville.

Altior is just the fifth horse to win three different races in succession at the festival but, like Buveur D’Air, he could do with a Ronaldo to his Messi. Even his trainer feels that he lacks something of the pizzazz that Sprinter Sacre brought to the table for him.

“We will never forget Sprinter, who tugged at heartstrings in a way this horse might never do, but if he wins again he might,” said Henderson. “Sprinter was such a show-off and a swank, and he won this race by a distance, although I’m not sure he beat horses as good as the runners in today’s race.”

Punters want horses who could give the greats of old a run for their money and that need, that sense of want, heaped a tonne of pressure on Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy yesterday as they brought Samcro to post in the Ballymore Novice’s Hurdle.

People want to see more than winners. They want to witness history.

The failure of Apple’s Jade on Tuesday didn’t help those tasked with providing the expected script and the net effect was writ large on Elliott’s face in the winners’ enclosure after Samcro’s success when he snapped at an innocuous question over the former’s failure on opening day.

“I just want to enjoy this one today,” said Elliot, harshly.

Truth is, trainers are more often asked about events to come rather than those just passed. What’s the next step for the horse? Will it run again this season? Is it a chaser or a hurdler?

Michael O’Leary had enough of it all by yesterday. All such queries were batted away like a passenger without a boarding pass and he was clearly peeved by the hyperbole that had trailed his six-year-old into the parade ring in the first place.

You can understand the frayed nerves. Elliott described Samcro as a horse that does what he has to, “a big idle devil”, and the smooth and serene manner of his win yesterday wasn’t of the type to set the heart aflutter regardless of how damn impressive it was.

But the desire for him, and others, to live up to the hype — and then sweep a furlong or two beyond it — will go on.

“I will be dumbfounded if he is beaten but I wouldn’t be getting carried away with it either,” said Ted Walsh of Samcro on Tuesday morning. “This ‘greatest horse of all time’ stuff, I’ll leave that until he comes back and wins a couple of Champion Hurdles or Champion Chases or three Gold Cups.”

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