Next year’s Cheltenham Festival will run from March 15 -19th and whether you like it or not, the success of Jump racing’s showpiece event is a barometer of the wider strength of the sport. Here in the West Country, we’re lucky enough to enjoy a stronghold of the sport not seen since the Dickinsons made north Yorkshire a similar powerhouse 35 years ago. Plenty of that passion and will to win rubs off on smaller venues where the stars of tomorrow are nurtured.
There are some that say that the season has become too concentric around the Festival, with novice hurdlers winning in September and being priced up for the Supreme Novices. But since racing has hitched its waggon to the betting sector, there seems little point in reversing this trend. In a media market where racing is constantly fighting for editorial space, bookmaking sites have replaced mainstream media outlets like newspapers in bringing the racing news to the fan.
And so it is that even though the Festival is still 15 weeks away, even though races like Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle won so gamely by Thomas Darby on Friday are big enough events in their own right, even though Christmas is a prize money bonanza in its own right, winners of many of these races will see them as a stepping stone to one of 28 races in March. If you want to place a bet or want to learn more about Cheltenham Racecourse and the Festival, you should follow the link at the base of this article. But in this piece, we will list some featured races and favourite horses for the meeting no-one can match.
There are plenty who’d argue that the opening day of the National Hunt meeting features far and away the best programme of races, and I wouldn’t disagree. This last weekend was a busy one for Champion Hurdle contenders on both sides of the Irish Sea, with 2021 winner Honeysuckle beating the other seven runners in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse with facile ease, whilst Epatante, winner in 2020, dead-heated with Hughie Morrison’s Not So Sleepy in a nail-biting snow-blinding Fighting Fifth at Newcastle.
If truth be told, it looks highly improbable that a British trainer will be taking the magnificent Champion Hurdle trophy back home on March 15th. Four of the first five in the betting are trained in Ireland, with a phalanx of Willie Mullins top flight winners ready to pick up if Honeysuckle slips, including Sharjah, winner of the Morgiana at Punchestown earlier this month, Ferny Hollow, last season’s Champion Bumper winner, and Appreciate It, winner of the Supreme Novices. The market is very one-sided, to the extent that even Klassical Dream, the 2020 Supreme Novices winner is priced at 33/1, and Goshen, who unseated his rider with the 2020 Triumph in the bag, at 66/1.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
Day 2 features the kings of speed in the breath-takingly fast two mile championship. This was the second of the big four features to head westward across the Irish Sea last year when Henry de Bromhead scored with Put The Kettle On.
This next weekend’s Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown is always a key staging post for British contenders, but rather denuded this time around by Shishkin’s withdrawal from his planned reappearance. The Supreme Novices and subsequent Arkle winner is a red-hot favourite for the race, and will likely aim for the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas, which is sure to put a smile on the faces of the team at Sunbury.
Put The Kettle On certainly found the strength of British opposition too hot on his last outing in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham earlier this month, when Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra beat him 10 1/2l, with former winner Politologue in front. The Mullins yard also has Energumene, winner of the Irish Arkle and Grade I Ryanair Novices at the Punchestown Festival, and there’s the small matter of Chacun Pour Soi, the highest rated horse in Anglo-Irish classifications last season, at 176, winner of the Punchestown Champion Chase in April, and yet to appear this autumn.
This looks like the race of the meeting so far.
Day 3 features joint billing for the Stayers Hurdle and Ryanair Chase, something of a halfway house between the minimum trip of the Champion Chase and the extended 3m of the Gold Cup. It’s been a successful race since its introduction under the initial sponsorship of the Daily Telegraph in 2005.
Last year’s winner Allaho is a well-respected favourite at 7/2, but after the race last year, Willie Mullins enthused about bringing him back for the Champion Chase over half a mile less. He’s also been suggested for the King George over Christmas, but has yet to reappear this autumn.
In the same ownership, but with Henry de Bromhead, Envoi Allen, a talking horse if ever there were one, has already stamped his authority on the season with a bullish victory in a Grade II chase at Down Royal. Fakir d’Oudairies, a 12l second to Allaho in the Ryanair, is also a leading candidate, and he’s shown his intentions loud and clear in the Clonmel Oil Chase at Thurles earlier this month.
Chantry House, Allmankind, and the recently re-energized Lostintranslation are the best of the British effort to date.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
And so to the big one. The Gold Cup, first run in 1924, three years before racing began here at Orchard Portman, is the most coveted conditions chase of the season, bar none.
After his comprehensive demolition of the British candidates in this month’s Betfair Chase, A Plus Tard is a worthy favourite at 7/2, outpointing last season’s winner Minella Indo and the season before Al Boum Photo.
Chantry House represents the shortest price among British prospects but we’ve yet to see Champ or Galvin reappear due to the lack of rain. And you can never quite rule out Frodon, fifth last season, but subsequent winner of the Champion Chase at Down Royal. Here’s not forgetting his stirring victory under Bryony Frost in last year’s King George.
Spring ground at Cheltenham is not the same as Haydock in November, and the configuration of the course means comparison between races and racecourses often obfuscates the best chances. This is the glorious uncertainty of racing that allows the occasional surprise like 100/1 winner Norton’s Coin in 1990. So if you fancy a horse, don’t let the odds marr your judgement. Who says your opinion counts less than others?
So often however, easier winners are to be found by researching some of the supporting races at the Festival, where you are more likely to see a horse that may have run at Taunton. One I like the look of is Elle Est Belle, a Skelton mare who shaped nicely for the Mares Novices Hurdle in an 8 1/2l win at Newbury over the weekend. If you want to know about other big hitters emanating from Taunton this winter, check this article.