'It's behind you.'
That's where we believed Annie Power's chances of winning a Champion Hurdle to be, yet here she is, thrust into centre stage for the final act in what has felt like a pantomime at times this season.
Twists and turns, ups and downs, fun and frolicks, big entrances and bigger exits, the drama of the division has played out like a far-out fairytale, with a sting in the tail. Using the eight-point, two-part narrative of the pantomime structure, of crises and contingencies, let's chart the Champion story, from the sure-bet start to the unwritten end.
1. START PLOT, INTRODUCE MAIN CHARACTER
Narrator: A winter's trail abates dark nights.
The tunnel's end, the Cotswold lights.
A powerful pull for beast and man,
A Champion's quest to Cheltenham.
(Other side of the stage a monster appears)
And here he is, the great Faugheen,
Perhaps the best we've ever seen.
Once more unto the breach, so strong.
His destiny, what could go wrong?
The hero of the odds-on backer,
The cornerstone of every Acca.
His legion grew and bookies ducked,
Should he not win, we'll all be flabbergasted.
2. ESTABLISH COMIC CHARACTERS, PLOT EXPANSION
It's route-one comedy for the kids, more slapstick than a Kieren Fox drive, and so how about a scene with Nicky Henderson orchestrating a gallop across the boards for his five prim pantomime horses, only for them to fall over each other at the start. It ends, naturally, with Henderson chasing them around the stage, obviously to the Benny Hill soundtrack, while the onlooking Faugheen shakes his head.
3. CRISIS SCENE, ADDING JEOPARDY TO THE STORY
Two out in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown. Nichols Canyon has got Faugheen off the bridle. It looks like he's going to get beat. Or is he? Shock, horror, he's about to lose his unbeaten record. Oh no he isn't...
4. CRISIS RESOLVED
The Christmas Hurdle. The Christmas present. The present light illuminating the past and invoking the future.
5. JOYOUS INTERLUDE
Break time. Time to break new ground, in record-breaking time, breaking the mould, breaking the rest, breaking the game, as it wasn't just the Irish Champion Hurdle that was decided at Leopardstown but the Champion Hurdle itself.
Faugheen turned pantomime into panto-mine, a selfish, solo show, Beauty and the Beast combined in a schizophrenic rampage.
6. CRISIS 2
Only just, but a pantomime is a drama, and every drama needs suspense, but not every drama is a suspensory ligament strain. Entering stage left, to boos and hisses, this vaporous villain literally adds insult to injury, victimising Hurricane Fly in 2010 and playing the same lame game with Faugheen in February.
7. RESOLUTION OF CRISIS 2
The golden rule of musical comedy (pantomime), according to experts (Biggins), is that anyone who leaves the stage must have good reason for going, and Faugheen did, and anyone who comes on must have good reason for coming.
Her make-up is skew-whiff after she was rushed and pushed on stage, the ultimate understudy, but she doesn't need to fill Faugheen's boots when she's got her own high-powered high heels, full of feminine firepower, ammo at the ready, just waiting for Director Mullins' call: Annie, get your gun.
Annie Power is putting the stand-in into outstanding.
March 15th, 3.30pm.
It might be a travesty that Faugheen isn't coming to Cheltenham, but it's a travesti that Annie Power is. Travesti, meaning disguise, is a theatrical term for the portrayal of a character by the opposite sex. The presence of females in male stage roles dates back to the 17th century, when a quarter of the parts in Shakespeare plays were actresses dressed as men, and the practice continues today, predominantly in pantomimes, with the 'principal boy'.
The principal boy with girl power in the Champion Hurdle has got three questions to answer: fit enough, good enough, fast enough? In effect, they're supplementary questions, deliberated in relation to her supplementary fee, in part answering the fitness query. Like all of us, Willie Mullins doesn't know exactly what it will take to win the Champion Hurdle, but he does know what it takes to get Annie Power to peak fitness, the way he did at the last Cheltenham Festival when she was coming in cold, after ten months off, and he, through his personal banker, is betting 20 grand that she's ready for the challenge. Ready and willing, but how about able?
To gauge Annie Power's ability we have to go fishing.
A favourite lure, lethally deceptive, is the spinnerbait, whose petite head masks a heavy-duty hook, concealing its hidden weight under the skirt. The same principal applies to Annie Power, the skirt she's worn in ladies-only company over the years disguising her real weight, the wrong end of the stick used to beat her by the resistance, resisting the favourite's lure for the Champion Hurdle.
It's easy to undermine her on the surface; it's hard to mine under her surface. Easy to lay, hard to play, at her odds, but the true power of Annie is that we don't know her true power.
She needs her mares allowance, all 7 lb of it, to be Timeform top-rated, even then by only the hem of her skirt, but she's never shopped in Evans, the home of the big figures.
Ratings speak on behalf of horses but records speak for themselves, and thirteen wins from fourteen completed starts would have been a perfect fifteen but for a hurdle and a More of That, the Bond baddie to Annie Power's Bond girl in a remake of The World Was More Than Enough, the three miles of the World Hurdle showing she has a limit. Three was too far, but is two far enough? She's being rushed to get there, but will she be rushed once she gets there?
It's rarely remarked upon, but Annie Power wasn't always trained by Willie Mullins, and we're not talking a Monsieur Merde-iocre here, but a certain James S. Bolger.
Annie Power was bred for the Flat, sent to Jim Bolger to be trained on the Flat, and certainly good enough to win on the Flat, but some slow-maturing coupled with the carrot of a hefty Galway gamble - won at odds-on in a bumper at the Festival - saw the four-year-old Annie Power start down a different path.
Annie is a given name rather than just a name given, from a long 'Ann' line. Her dam, Anno Luce, was a Group 3 middle-distance winner, including for John Gosden, and grandma Anna (Paola) was the champion filly in Germany at both two and three years.
If it's true that the Champion Hurdle is as close as jumping gets to a Flat race, then Annie Power definitely has the pedigree for it, and the big, swinging moves she's made before at Cheltenham suggests she has the gears for it. Think back to how she cruised into the lead in both the World Hurdle and the Mares Hurdle, with a speedway sweep straight out of the Champion Hurdle playbook.
Annie Power may be arriving at this pivotal point in her career more by accident than design, but the exact same thing could have been said before the World Hurdle, before the Grade 2 novice at Naas when forced against the boys, Don Cossack amongst them, and before her first ever race, having bypassed the Flat. But the accidental heroine was in many ways designed for the Champion Hurdle.
It's a right race against time for her: this is the right time for her to race against a flawed field for the Champion Hurdle. The sceptics say Annie Power has been preparing for this for about three weeks, the believers know she's been prepared for this all her life.
The woman at the top of the mountain didn't fall there.
When it isn't staging prime-time pantomimes, the Cheltenham Theatre - or natural amphitheatre as it must be referred by local bylaw - puts on other reworkings of popular plays and productions. Here's a Tuesday events list:
THE KINGS AND I
'Thanks a lot lads,' says Min. The brilliance of two National Hunt kings, Vautour and Douvan, make it not a hollow crown but a heavy one for Min's connoted coronation, the added weight of anticipation, of self-evident succession, bringing to bear great pressure, if not on Min himself then certainly his price.
One fighting for favouritism for a Gold Cup and the other a would-be favourite for almost any Festival race, the foosteps of Vautour and Douvan aren't so easily followed as is factored into Min's odds for the Supreme, overestimating him while underestimating others.
Min's covering fire has diverted from the advancing manoeuvres of his gunner-mate Yorkhill, unbeaten and only 1 lb behind Min on Timeform ratings, likewise with a large 'P' Pineapple - the slang for grenade - still in his holster. And then there are the Henderson snipers, Altior and Buveur d'Air, who are themselves on the same ratings frontline and yet to fire their best shots.
Lest we forget the battlescars from where myself and most of Timeform have been before, in wrongly trying to outflank Willie Mullins in the Supreme, with collapsed My Tents and a power failure rather than a Serge, but after attending three funerals I dare not miss the wake, the waking understanding that all that glitters in reflected light isn't necessarily gold.
And when that doesn't work, there's always this, yet again...
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
A fictional story with a factual twist, Vroum Vroum Mag and Douvan take on the roles of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, terrorising their hapless and helpless victims, making off with the thick end of £120,000 with back-to-back hits in one day, in some style.
It will be brutal, it will be bloody, it will be brutally bloody brilliant to see these two giants in full steamroller mode, the way we've become accustomed to both.
It's what non runner no bet was made for, because he may not make the cut, but Out Sam's mark of 139 is an act of sweet charity, looking at the Ultima Handicap Chase. True, the three-runner novice at Newbury was hard to gauge, but everything about Out Sam sceamed improver, going in and coming out of it, and the toyed-with Milansbar easily winning a novice handicap at Exeter a fortnight later off 137 is a big hint that Out Sam has been let off ridiculously lightly. The Ultima lot, plots and all, won't know what's hit them if Out Sam sneaks in.
G3 - The Majordomo Hospitality Handicap Steeple Chase
G2 - Prix Raoul Balliere
G2 - Prix Ariste Hemard
G3 - Victress Stakes
G2 - Premier Trophy