And so it’s here again. The best sporting week of the year. Four days which give a soul something to aim at from the time one year’s version ends until the next incarnation rolls around. The Mecca for trainers, owners, jockeys and punters alike. When I was younger, before becoming a proper punter cum pundit, it was also different. Now read on…
Back then, the Festival was only a three day affair. And Irish winners were celebrated like national monuments. Reason being that at the time it was standard practice for the best bloodstock in the country to be exported. Thankfully, the Celtic Tiger economy – and even the years since its demise – have turned that whole scenario full circle.
In recent years, on more than one occasion the Irish have actually ended up with more victories than their hosts. Which generated such a stir that one of the bookies put up a Cup for whoever had the most wins at the end of the week. Initially, our lads had a stranglehold thereon, but in the last year or two things have balanced out to such a degree that it can be as hard to call as any of the 28 contests on the track. This year could well be the most difficult to call yet.
SUPREME NOVICES HURDLE
For as long as I’ve been watching racing, at a serious level anyway, Willie Mullins has had something of a spell on this race. The Carlow handler taking it with greats of yore like Champagne Fever, Vautour, Douvan and, most recently Klassical Dream. The latter has been a major disappointment this term but the suspicion is something has been amiss because his efforts were just too bad to be true.
On more than a few occasions, horses trained by Nicky Henderson have played closest second fiddle to the Closutton maestro’s stock. For his part, the master of Seven Barrows has got the big meeting off to a flying start thanks to the (once) mighty Altior. In this season’s renewal, both trainers are multiply represented.
To add a layer of intrigue to the situation, both men fire two bullets each for the same two owners. The colours of Mrs Joe Donnelly will be carried by SHISHKIN (Henderson) and ASTERION FORLONGE (Mullins) while in the green and gold hoops of JP McManus both CHANTRY HOUSE and ELIXIR D’ANAY do battle.
Asterion Forlonge goes into this unbeaten and has appeared to improve with each run. But then, the same could be said of Chantry House. Outside of those already mentioned, the Colin Tizzard-trained FIDDLERONTHEROOF has been admirably consistent and boasts some eye-catching back-form. However, it’s doubtful, it’s doubtful have any of them traded in as exalted company as ABRACADABRAS . That one’s sole reversal was behind stablemate ENVOI ALLEN and by the end of the week that might look very respectable indeed
Always a minefield of a race and this season’s should be no different. What can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that the Irish appear to hold the upper hand here. Not only because there are only four pounds between the three main contenders on ratings but also due to there being damn all between them any time they have clashed.
It’s not unusual for a horse to be transformed when switching to jumping the bigger obstacles. That has certainly been the case with Henry De Bromhead’s NOTEBOOK and perhaps even more so in when it comes to CASH BACK from the Willie Mullins yard.
Before the season commenced, the Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro was something of a ‘talking horse’ in the novice chase division. The same was the case during his novice hurdling campaign and, while in that instance it was proven to be entirely justified, thereafter his ‘career’ over the smaller obstacles fell to pieces.
Regrettably for his followers and those connected with the horse, the same appears to be the case over fences. Though it’s worth recalling that his owner, one Michael O’Leary, famously declared “Samcro is not the next coming of Jesus Christ”.
Having won a race with a lot of deadwood therein at Down Royal, he was then fancied to land the Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse just prior to Christmas. And he may well have done, had he not deposited Jack Kennedy at the second last. They’re there to be jumped, though, and it was Joseph O’Brien’s FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES who picked up the pieces.
Yes, he was since turned over by NOTEBOOK but had CASH BACK in behind him. He’s a former winner around the course, appears to jump impeccably but his biggest asset may in fact be his demeanor as, in comparison, the Gigginstown competitor not only runs with the choke out but gets rightly buzzed up before his races.
ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE
The first of the notoriously trappy affairs that are the Cheltenham handicaps. Instinct here is to always veer towards those at the bottom of the weights and on that premise the Philip Hobbs-trained NO COMMENT makes plenty of appeal – particularly with the gelding having decent course form in his locker, despite never actually passed the jam stick in front there.
Similar comments can be attributed to the Ben Pauling inmate KILDISART – especially given the way in which that operation has enjoyed in recent times. Anything trained by Nigel Twiston Davies can never be discounted around Prestbury Park, thus COGRY merits respect at a big price. But, a tentative each-way flutter will be had on Paul Nolan’s DISCORAMA
I’ve a soft spot for the 7-year-old as part owner Andrew Gemell (who also owns Stayers Hurdle favourite Paisley Park) is visually impaired. However, leaving that aside, the Saddler Maker gelding is justifiably as short as 8/1 having run with credit at the Festival previously and, evidently, been campaigned with this target in mind.
The marquee race of the first day which, to this hack at least, lost some of it’s sheen the day last year’s victor, Espoir D’Allen, sadly met his demise. Having been a surprise winner of the showpiece last year, the then 5-year-old appeared to have the world as his oyster. With the magnitude of that loss in mind, it is testament to the character and skill of his trainer Gavin Cromwell that he has not only recovered therefrom but actually prospered and in so doing enhanced his reputation as one of the brightest stars in racing anywhere.
And, if his DARVER STAR were to even figure in the finish of the main attraction – never mind actually win it – such a victory would represent one of racing’s great stories. Consider that the son of Kalanisi has gone up 40 pounds in the ratings while running up a string of successive victories over the course of a few months.
Now, a Nicky Henderson horse being favourite for the Champion Hurdle is nothing new. Understandably so, when it’s considered that the veteran handler has taken the top gong in the past courtesy of See You Then and Punjabi and Binocular and Bouvir D’Air.
However, there would be absolutely no problem here taken on the Henderson charge which tops the market on this occasion, EPATANTE. Yes, the mare was was an impressive winner of the Christmas Hurdle, but, to my mind, all the form in the two mile hurdle division should carry an asterisk this year. With respect to all in the field, it looks the weakest Champion Hurdle I can remember in my lifetime.
With Bouvir D’Air, Klassical Dream and Saldier absent from the lineup, it has the look of a high level handicap. CILAOS EMERY is possibly the one who stands out as being the most likely to step up to the plate. The one seeing eye, mind you, is continually drawn back to another Henderson representative. Now read on…
PENTLAND HILLS was a surprise winner of the Triumph Hurdle in 2019, having had only one (winning) run at Plumpton beforehand. He has had a similarly quiet preparation this time around – possibly be design as similar tactics certainly didn’t do any harm last year. With a bigger field than is sometimes the case, it’d be no surprise to see him run into a place at least.
With the exception of the Donald McCain Whiteoak, the early years of the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham was something of a Willie Mullins benefit as the master trainer collected the prize for eight runnings of the race on a row. Six times with the mesmeric Quevega before Glens Melody, Vroom Vroom Mag followed up. Apple’s Jade broke the cycle in 2017 before BENIE DES DIEUX restored normal order a year later
The latter named would surely have left his boss in double figures in terms of capturing the heat in question had she not crumbled at the last a year ago. Her undoing opened the door for the Dan Skelton-prepared ROKSANA to profit. The daughter of Dubai Destination defends her crown here but biggest threat to Benie may be in the form of Henry De Bromhead’s HONEYSUCKLE or, from her own home, STORMY IRELAND.
However, Mr Mullins has proven himself adept in the past at sending stock to the Cotswolds with very prep runs, or often none at all often, in the case of Quevega. BENIE DES DIEUX to be the boss once again.
2M 4F NOVICES H’CAP CHASE
Another handicap, another quagmire of a puzzle to decipher. As is often the case in these contests, there will surely be a few ‘laid out’ for the job – Gordon Elliott’s GALVIN looks exactly that. With mention of the word ‘Soft’ in the going description, ESPOIR DE GUEYE trained by Venetia Williams deserves to enter calculations.
Few if any in the race have as many good references in the back catalogue of form as BEAKSTOWN. The son of Stowaway has encountered the Henderson trained duo Mister Fisher and Champ. Both of them hold entries later in the week in contests which would be deemed hotter than this one.
Having said that, slight preference is for TRAINWRECK On the face of it, there isn’t much to recommend Rachael Blackmore’s mount. Balancing those fears, however, are the realisation that firstly, the run behind Drumconnor Lad looks a bit better now after Adrian Keatley’s 10-year-old recently went in again at Ayr.
NATIONAL HUNT CHASE
Commonly known as the ‘Four Miler’, this ultimate stamina test for horse and amateur rider alike has actually been shortened by three furlongs shorter. That’s unlikely to leave it any easier to come up with a winner however. For a long time, now, the Willie Mullins saddled CAREFULLY SELECTED has headed the betting for this one. Now, while the 8-year-old has ran up a sequence of consecutive victories, gut feeling is that there may be vulnerability there.
Anything ridden by Jamie Codd in these contests commands due consideration. That brings RAVENHILL from the Gordon Elliott yard into the equation. Similar comments can of course be applied to whatever is partnered by Derek O’Connor so I’ll take an each way chance on FORZA MILAN to round off the day.
1.30: ABRCADADBRAS EW
2.10: FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES
2.50: DISCORAMA EW
3.30: PENTLAND HILLS EW
4.10: BENE DES DIEUX
4.50: TRAINWRECK EW
5.30: FORZA MILAN EW