When the amphitheatre of dreams that is Cheltenham racecourse opens its doors for festival week on Tuesday, it will herald the start of one of the most successful events on the British sporting calendar.
Over the years, the festival has far outgrown its status as simply National Hunt’s premier meeting of the season. It has become a national treasure which attracts a wider public eager for what the festival delivers time and again – the excitement and allure of the unexpected.
At the festival, anything can happen and often does. A £1 accumulator on the seven races of 2017’s opening day would have made you a millionaire, with 25-1 and 16-1 winners among the roll of honour that day.
Nothing is certain here, the dream is always on and every horse has a chance.
Yet, this week Cheltenham, even by its own extraordinary standards, threatens to throw up a story that, if it comes to pass, would enter the annals of racing as one of the most unlikely.
Edwulf is the horse in question and his bid to win steeplechasing’s premier prize, the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, on Friday, which, connections hope, will be the final chapter in a tale of remarkable recovery.
Twelve months ago, the prospect of Edwulf’s participation in this year’s Gold Cup was unthinkable.
His life hung in the balance after he collapsed, suffering from an out-of-rhythm heartbeat, when second following the final fence in the JT McNamara Novices Chase on day three of the festival. As vets tended to him on the run-in, there were fears he might die. The aim was simply to save him, with thoughts of Edwulf ever appearing on a racecourse again banished to the realms of make-believe.
Joseph O’Brien, his trainer, recalled: “Edwulf ran out of oxygen and collapsed. He was on the ground for about an hour and a half and it didn’t look good, but the racecourse vets, who did a terrific job, encouraged us that he might recover.”
Miraculously, he did. Thanks to the help of the veterinary and support staff at Cheltenham, Edwulf worked his way back into training with O’Brien, although, in the early days, nothing was certain.
The recovery began well, the persistence of racecourse head vet Liam Kearns and his team paid off as, after just a week, Edwulf was well enough to travel home to Ireland where he continued his convalescence at owner JP McManus’ Martinstown Stud in County Limerick.
Edwulf even made his racecourse return in the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown on 27 December, but his performance, pulled up before two out, tempered anticipation of a full recovery.
He continued to thrive at home, though, and connections clung to hope. Just over a month later that hope bore fruit. Edwulf, a 33-1 shot, produced a performance out of the top drawer, winning the Grade 1 Irish Gold Cup by a neck from Outlander in a thrilling finish at Leopardstown. It was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Edwulf, quite remarkably, was back.
Kearns, the vet to whom the horse owes his life, said: “To see him come back from where he was and do the business in such a big race was amazing. It will be fantastic to see him come back for the Gold Cup. He’s done so incredibly well so far and anything is possible after his performance at Leopardstown.”
O’Brien, meanwhile, is in no doubt that Edwulf is good enough to win on Friday, and is happy for the nine-year-old to have his chance of immortality in chasing’s blue riband. “He’s good enough to win a Gold Cup,” said the County Kilkenny trainer. “He’s in good form and he’s well entitled to take his chance. You need luck and we’ll see what happens.”
Edwulf was ridden at both Cheltenham and Leopardstown by top Irish amateur Derek O’Connor, who is so proud and grateful to be part of the horse’s fantastic journey. “It’s an incredible story with the horse. Just to be part of it and to ride a prestigious Grade 1 winner for Joseph was a jockey’s dream,” said O’Connor.
“The medical team and vets at Cheltenham and the racecourse were all absolutely incredible. Thanks to them all, it paid dividends. Without it I wouldn’t have had a Grade One winner in an Irish Gold Cup. It was amazing what they did. I’m hoping he has a good chance. He has come out of his Leopardstown win well and Joseph is quite happy with him, but it’s a very competitive Gold Cup.
“There are a good few horses with an open chance. There are four or five horses there you’d say could win it. You wouldn’t be surprised and you’ve got to respect them.”
O’Connor’s caution is probably wise. The 16-1 generally available for O’Brien’s horse is, perhaps, a fair reflection of his chance, faced, as he is, by the likes of Might Bite, Native River and Our Duke. Yet, fairytales do come true – and this, after all, is Cheltenham.