We are now a matter of weeks away from the Cheltenham Festival, anticipation grows, betting portfolios begin to grow and discussions about who rides where and which horses are ‘well handicapped’ begin to grow feverishly.
It really is the most wonderful time of the year for jumps racing fans, below is a run through the key Championship races and a look at other key races across the four days of the Greatest Show on Turf.
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The Old Course, eight hurdles, two miles and 87 yards, a string of legendary horses in the history of the race; the feature race on day one of the Festival took an almighty turn when Honeysuckle cemented herself as a true player when destroying the field in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Christmas.
Henry De Bromhead’s mare has taken favouritism after a stunning victory at the Dublin Racing Festival. The talk before the race was whether she is good enough for the Champion Hurdle, and those doubts were firmly put to bed with a 10-length success over her male counterparts. After beating Benie De Dieux last year Rachel Blackmore will be hoping to go 11 from 11 on board the superstar mare.
Epatante would be vying for favouritism had she not disappointed in the Christmas Hurdle where Silver Streak upset the odds-on favourite. Nicky Henderson has since confirmed she has been treated for a back issue putting doubts into punters’ minds. She holds almighty respect though after a brilliant victory in last year’s renewal and if she turns up A1 on the day it will be a stunning showdown between two fantastic mares.
Sharjah made it a superb hat-trick when winning the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown in December, that was enough to install him as third favourite for Willie Mullins who also has Saint Roi and Concertista. Both would command respect but Concertista may well go for her easier assignment in the Mares’.
Abacadabras is an interesting one for Gordon Elliot, a neck second to Shishkin in last year’s Supreme isn’t bad form, his races since haven’t been great but he may well turn the tables as they approach the hill this year. Always travelling well in his races he does tend to find little off the bridle which would be a concern taking into account Honeysuckle’s brilliance and Epatante’s turn of foot.
An interesting runner entered provisionally also belongs to Willie Mullis in the shape of James du Berlais (50/1), a four-time winner in France for trainer Robert Collet, joined the Mullins stable after being transferred over by owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. Earning a Timeform rating of 152, he’s the highest rated French hurdler to switch countries in recent years, but we all saw what happened to Paul’s Saga earlier in March.
On paper, it looks an absolute belter of a race, let’s hope come race day we are treated to something special.
Last year’s Champion Chase was decimated after Altior and Chacun Pour Soi were pulled out at the last minute and Defi Du Seuil failed to deliver when huge odds-on. This year sees Chacun head the market again after looking imperious so far this season. The Rich Ricci colours look to have a banker on their hands if injury is avoided unlike last year.
The way Chacun takes lengths out of the field at the fences is a sight to behold and you’d expect him to approach the hill still on the bridle whilst his rivals are all hard at work. The only negative you could possibly find is that he has never run at Cheltenham racecourse before, that should be put to bed on the Wednesday afternoon though.
Last year’s winner, Politlogue looked simply sensational when landing the Tingle Creek this season, although there is an argument to suggest that the race this year may have too much quality compared to last year’s renewal. That won’t bother his trainer Paul Nicholls who we know will have him primed for this, he was rather disappointing recently though, beaten seven lengths by First Flow in the Clarence House.
Altior is an unusually big price, but a surprising second at Kempton at Christmas tempered expectations and with his second run of the season cancelled due to the weather the legendary horse goes into race with a seeming lack of prep. No one would begrudge him one last hurrah up that hill with Nico punching the air as he crosses the line in first place however.
Looking at the rest of the field, Nube Negra looks a big price after downing Altior in the Desert Orchid at Christmas and Dan Skelton has been bullish about his chances stating – “Nothing frightens me with the way the race is going to be run with Nube Negra, because I’ve got a confident feeling we’re the fastest horse in the race”. Kim Bailey’s nine-year-old First Flow provided a flawless performance in the Clarence House and must be respected.
This could prove to be one of the Cheltenham races of the Festival with Paisley Park and Thyme Hill doing battle for a third time this season, they both have a win against their name after two epic races in the Long Distance and Long Walk Hurdles respectively. The combined winning distance of both races was less than two lengths and both horses have lost nothing in defeat to each other.
Emma Lavelle’s experienced and battle-hardened Paisley Park has bounced back from disappointment at last year’s Festival to show the fire and class is still there. It would have maybe suited him a little more to run in the Cleeve Hurdle and put the Cheltenham memories behind him but Lavelle is confident her horse can win two Stayers’ in three years.
Phillips Hobbs’ Thyme Hill is the new kid on the Staying scene and looked a champion in waiting when accounting for Paisley in the Long Distance Hurdle, and with only six career starts to his name you can imagine he has a fair bit of improvement left in him for the showdown on the Thursday.
JP McManus’ Sire Du Berlais is a notable runner here, after back-to-back wins in the Pertemps he steps up to three miles here but hasn’t looked suited to the distance as of yet, it would be foolish to rule out his chances though given the owners record at the Festival and his ability to plot horses for specific races.
Last year’s winner Lisnagar Oscar is possibly overlooked in the market with a general 33/1 shout – two races this year has seemed as if the runs have been needed and Rebecca Curtis will be hoping her charge strikes lucky again. Roksana and Ronald Pump are other noteworthy runners in the race where both have shown high-level form this season and it wouldn’t be a surprise if either of these cross the line first.
One of the most open renewals here in a long time, mainly because there isn’t an obvious favourite or definite runners. You can look at trends of the race however to rule out some horses. The main one being course form, 11 out of the last 12 winners have had at least two previous runs at Cheltenham with nine of them winning, and eight of the last 11 winners finishing in the top two of a Festival race.
Min would be an obvious candidate here, but he was majorly disappointing LTO when pulled up due to poor jumping, he will try to defend his crown and that’s something not done since 2011. He is a model of consistency over this distance though and it would be foolish to rule out another win here for Rich Ricci.
Allaho is another runner for Willie Mullins, he is yet to win in Grade 1 company but time is on his side and this race does favour younger horses to an extent. He beat Elimay at Christmas who has since gone on to win and boost the form. With improvement likely he will be a major player in the race you would like to think. The final Mullins runner is Melon who benefits from front-running tactics and a two-length third in the Irish Gold Cup highlighted the potential in the lightly raced (over fences) horse. Connections own Al Boum Photo so a fling at the Ryanair looks even more likely.
Other notable runners which should be there or thereabouts are Fakir D’oudairies, Samcro, Imperial Aura and Saint Calvados. The highlight of day three is always a blinding race to watch and the quality of runners here will ensure fans are treated to a close contest.
The showpiece of the Festival, Friday’s main event may end up a procession however, with Al Boum Photo looking more and more likely to win three in a row. The Willie Mullins jewel has taken the same prep as usual, this time he won the Savills Chase at Tramore on NYD by 19 lengths. He looked as good as ever and whilst his rivals have been battling each other throughout the season, he has been at Closutton relaxing in his stable!
His closest rival in the betting is A Plus Tard, the Savills Chase winner at Leopardstown came on for his disappointing second at Navan in November. Henry De Bromhead will be hoping the extra distance won’t prove too much after it looked like he needed every yard of his run LTO.
Santini is an enigma and has had a very disappointing season so far, his neck second in this race last year has since seen him regress. He seems to save his big runs for Cheltenham though and his lazy style of racing seems to suit the Cheltenham circuit, you cannot rule him out. Nicky Henderson also has Champ in the race, he’s not raced all season and lines up for his prep in a two miler, it would be huge should he land this after no prep at all but with Nicky and JP together, anything is possible.
A really interesting one is Royal Pagaille, three ultra-impressive wins in seven weeks has seen the unknown become a major player in the Gold Cup market. Trainer, Venetia Williams, has tempered expectations but the manner of victory so far has been very impressive and one that has installed him as third favourite in the best jumps race of the season. He is still a novice over fences and owner Rich Ricci has Monkfish in the Novice Chase so a crack at the Gold Cup may well be on the cards.
Other horses for serious consideration are fans favourites Frodon and Native River, both of whom have been in the Winners Enclosure again this season and enter this race in peak condition. The blue riband contest of jumps racing is usually fiercely competitive, let’s hope this year is a great renewal.
A fleeting look at the other Cheltenham horse racing:
The Supreme is the opener of the Festival, the race that usually begins with the famous roar from the thousands in attendance as the best young hurdlers race over two miles. Willie Mullins has won this a record six times and a seventh looks increasingly likely, as at the top of the market is Appreciate It, after a second in last year’s Champion Bumper he has gone on to win three from three over hurdles, including the Chanelle Pharma over Christmas.
In what doesn’t look an overly deep race, Appreciate It’s closest rival in the market is Harry Fry’s Metier, he bolted up by an impressive 12 lengths in the Tolworth and the Mastercraftman gelding only needed a shake of the reigns after leaping the last to put the race to bed. He currently represents Britain’s strongest card in the race.
In what could be a race for EW claims, the likes of Ballyadam, Thedevilscoachman, Blue Lord, Dreal Dreal and Ganapathi at bigger prices may the ones to look at closely.
The opener on day two could end up being one of the races of the week. Gaillard Du Mesnil vs Bob Olinger vs Bravemansgame. The roll of honour for this race speaks for itself, Envoi Allen won it last year and whilst these three may not go on to emulate him they are by no means slouoches and all should go on to have wonderful careers. Mullins has Mesnil, Elliot has Bob Olinger and Paul Nicholls has Bravemansgame. Three top trainers with three of the top novice hurdlers, it should be a thrilling contest.
The Arkle looks to be another hot race. Shishkin has been a revelation over obstacles and was a huge favourite before the DRF took place, then Willie Mullins’ Energumene put on a faultless display of jumping which saw last year’s Supreme winner drift back to odds-against. Allmankind is also in the mix and his front-running assault on the fences will no doubt test the Henderson and Mullins runners like never before, this is no doubt one to look forward to.
Tiger Roll may not be the horse he once was but he holds a huge place in fans’ hearts. Easysland dethroned him last year and he’s the favourite to do it again this year in the Cross Country. Don’t rule out Potters Corner however in the race that provides a bit of different entertainment to the usual races you see at Prestbury Park.
The Champion Bumper offers us an insight into the future stars of the jumps scene, this year looks a great renewal with Kilcruit the favourite after a visually-stunning performance at the Dublin Racing Festival. Gordon Elliot has Sir Gerhard who has looked just as fluent in his races and will offer most to think about. The rest of the field are double figure prices, but in a race which is ran at a frenetic pace it could be anyone’s to land.
Envoi Allen has scared off all comers in the Marsh, the Cheveley Park Stud superstar is undefeated in his career and has looked simply sublime over the larger obstacles. He’s an odds-on shot well worth backing. His jumping will no doubt be tested by Shan Blue, the Dan Skelton runner has looked imperious over fences and should at least offer some sort of a threat to Envoi.
The Brown Advisory (formerly the RSA) looks to be a procession with Monkfish taking apart everything thrown his way so far this season. Slick over fences, quick on the ground he has it all. This should see Rich Ricci land the spoils and set up a possible showdown in the Gold Cup next year.