SHE is the horse in a million who is now just one day – and one race – away from Cheltenham immortality.
If Quevega is victorious just after 4pm tomorrow in the OLGB Mares Hurdle, she will become the first horse in Festival history to win the same race on six successive occasions.
In doing so, the Willie Mullins-trained wonder-mare and big-race jockey Ruby Walsh – already the winning-most rider in Cheltenham history – will eclipse the five successive Gold Cups which the legendary Golden Miller won between 1932-36.
Tomorrow’s date with destiny is no formality – John Quinn’s Cockney Sparrow is quietly fancied to get Yorkshire’s 2014 challenge off to a flying start.
It is also made even more tantalising by the fact that the 10-year-old Quevega is raced so sparingly. For the past four seasons, her appearances have been limited to just Cheltenham and Ireland’s Punchestown festival at the end of April.
But victory would, surely, eclipse the achievements of Hurricane Fly, Big Buck’s and Bobs Worth, a triumvirate who will all attempt to set new benchmarks of equine greatness in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, Ladbrokes World Hurdle and Betfred Gold Cup respectively.
And success for Quevega would probably outrank any of the great training feats by County Carlow-based Mullins whose father Paddy trained Dawn Run to win an epic and emotional Gold Cup in 1986.
The winner of five races last year, Mullins will be privately disappointed if he does not match this accomplishment over the coming days and could even have a short-priced treble tomorrow courtesy of Vautour in the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Hurricane Fly who seeks a third Champion Hurdle in four years and then Quevega.
The latter is blossoming, even though she has not raced since April 25 last year.
“I’ve been happy again in the last few days. She’s just gone from strength to strength and we put everything into getting her right for Cheltenham,” said Mullins, who always appears to be the personification of calmness under his trademark Trilby hat.
“My owners don’t want to breed from her, they want to race. As a trainer I find it as personally satisfying as anything to produce a horse to go back there year after year. When they have ability, you mind that ability and pick the races.”
It is a view shared by Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the legendary racing commentator. Now 96, this will be the first Festival where he will be a non-runner since the 1930s when Golden Miller was dominating.
“It is a miracle to get one there for six years, let alone to win six times,” O’Sullevan told The Yorkshire Post. “It’s up there with the Barney Curley betting coups; it will be something very special if she does it. The Miller was particularly good, but it is a different game now.
“Horses absent for 100 days before Cheltenham would have little chance. Now, they can be nearly off for a whole year and still have a favourite’s chance. Willie Mullins can be particularly proud about the way he has campaigned Quevega so she has peaked at Cheltenham every March since 2009.”
Even though the absence of Champion Chase hero Sprinter Sacre and the ever-popular Gold Cup contender Cue Card are significant, they will not diminish from the quality of jump racing’s Olympics with Quevega’s race being brought forward by 40 minutes so it can be broadcast live on Channel Four Racing.
“If I had to have a blood transfusion in the middle of the Festival, the race I would least want to miss is the Ladbrokes World Hurdle,” added Sir Peter. “The contest between Big Buck’s, attempting to win this race for a fifth time, and the Mullins mare Annie Power is a fascinating one. And I certainly can’t rule out the JP McManus horse – I think At Fishers Cross could have a squeak.”
Yet, while the Mullins raiding party from across the Irish Sea is likely to be in excess as Emerald Isle-trained horses look to eclipse their domination 12 months ago when they enjoyed a fascinating 14 winners, there will be intriguing sub-plots throughout the whole of the Festival week.
Firstly the ground. Most of the key races this season have been run on soft or heavy ground. Yet the form book could be rendered redundant because of the drying conditions at Cheltenham that could even see the course having to be watered.
Next the jockeys. The private battle between the aforementioned Walsh, Barry Geraghty and AP McCoy will be a fascinating one, even though the latter’s focus has been on his seven-month-old son Archie who is recovering from major cardiac surgery.
Then the young guns. This is a big week for Sam Twiston-Davies and Bryan Cooper, two young riders who came of age at this meeting 12 months ago. They are hungry for more success.
And then the English trainers. Paul Nicholls holds a £500,000-plus lead over Nicky Henderson in the race to become champion trainer, a contest which is decided by prize money.
Cheltenham week will determine whether Nicholls can reclaim the title which he lost to Henderson last season – and it is apt that the pair will go head to head in Friday’s Gold Cup, the blue riband race of an unforgettable week.
Nicholls will rely upon Silviniaco Conti. Wetherby’s 2012 Charlie Hall Chase winner was still travelling well in last year’s Gold Cup when falling three out.
However, the horse did win Kempton’s King George on Boxing Day and his trainer observed: “I think he has a leading chance. He is the right age and has strengthened up. They are all dangers in the race but Bobs Worth is probably the one to beat, he’s unbeaten at Cheltenham.”
As for Henderson, he says he “could not be happier” with Bobs Worth, who is attempting to become just the fourth horse since the war to win successive Gold Cups.
However, he is increasingly bullish about the prospects of Hennessy winner Triolo d’Alene, who is a late addition to his Gold Cup team.
Both the Nicholls-trained Denman and Bobs Worth 12 months ago have pulled off the Hennessy and Gold Cup double in the same season and Henderson said: “If it keeps drying, I think he is a genuine contender.
“I think he is a player.”