The Cheltenham Festival, the highlight of the jumps season in Europe, gets underway in Gloucestershire, England, on Tuesday, but without the regular thousands of fans who usually throng to the racetrack. The four-day National Hunt extravaganza is jump racing’s equivalent of the Breeders’ Cup, with the best horses from Ireland, Britain and France competing.
The Cheltenham Festival’s winning-most trainer, Willie Mullins, is again odds-on favourite to claim the title this week. The Irish handler dominated the Leopardstown Christmas Festival last December and the Dublin Festival of Racing last month, showing that his horses are in excellent form. Consequently, his stable jockey Paul Townend is 1/3f to claim the leading rider title.
The opening day on Tuesday begins with a Mullins-trained favourite in the form of Appreciate It (10/11f) in the Grade 1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over 2 miles. Another hotpot, the Nicky Henderson-handled Shishkin will be next into action in the Grade 1 Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase.
The day’s feature contest, the Grade 1 Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy over 2 miles, will see Irish jockey Rachael Blackmore bid to become the first woman to claim the hurdling championship as she rides the race favourite and Irish Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle. Mullins and his main jockey Paul Townend may bring up an opening day Grade 1 double when Concertista, an impressive winner here last year, runs in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.
Wednesday’s highlight race is the 2 mile Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1). The French-bred Chacun Pour Soi is 5/6f for the Mullins-Townend team. Following news today that Altior, the second favourite for the race, is now a non-runner, this looks to be another top-notch race which is at the mercy of the powerful Irish outfit.
On a day which includes four Grade 1 contest, the afternoon begins with the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle over 2m 5 furlongs. Bob Olinger, trained by Henry de Bromhead in County Waterford, Ireland, is the race favourite here following two recent successes. Gaillard Du Mesnil, who will carry the colours of the reigning Gold Cup champion, Al Boum Photo, is second favourite in the betting market – he again will have the assistance of Paul Townend in the saddle.
The three mile Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, another Grade 1, has a 1/2f in the shape of the Rich Ricci-owned Monkfish, arguably the most talked about National Hunt horse in Europe this season. He is another runner for the dominant Willie Mullins-Paul Townend partnership.
The Weatherbys Champion Bumper, a National Hunt flat race of 2 miles, is dominated by Irish-trained horses at the head of the betting market, three of them handled by Willie Mullins. Sir Gerhard, previously trained by the recently-banned Gordon Elliott, only moved to Mullins’ Closutton Stables recently following the owners Cheveley Park Stud’s decision to remove the horse from Elliott’s yard after a photo of the County Meath-based handler lying astride a dead horse was shown on social media.
Thursday, traditionally the weakest day in terms of quality, will feature three Grade 1 events among its seven races. The Ryanair Chase over 2 miles 5 furlongs is often a target for horses who may not stay the 3 mile 2 furlong distance of Friday’s Gold Cup. Incredibly, Willie Mullins is responsible for the three shortest-priced runners in this race, namely Allaho, Min and Melon.
The three-mile Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle gives former winner Paisley Park an opportunity to regain his 2019 crown. The Emma Lavelle-trained 9-year-old was a disappointing seventh to Lisnagar Oscar in last year’s renewal. Sire Du Berlais, the second favourite, could give Denise Foster an early Grade 1 training success at Cheltenham. Foster has taken over the reins at Cullentra House Stables in County Meath, Ireland, during the suspension of Gordon Elliott.
The day’s first race is the other Grade 1 on the Day 3 racecard, the Marsh Novices’ Chase. Henry de Bromhead, another beneficiary of Cheveley Park Stud’s decision to remove its horses from Elliott, saddles the pre-race favourite Envoi Allen, a horse previously handled by Elliott.
Friday, the fourth day of the Cheltenham Festival 2021, will feature the highlight of the National Hunt season in Britain, the running of the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup. Won for the past two season’s by the Mrs Joe Donnelly-owned Al Boum Photo, the Willie Mullins-trained and Paul Townend-ridden nine-year-old bids for turf immortality as he seeks to win three Gold Cup in-a-row. The French-bred has had only one race this season, at Tramore, Ireland, in New Year’s Day, a route he has successfully followed in the previous two winning seasons. Champ, named in hour of former jumps great Tony McCoy, carries the colours of Irish businessman and successful racehorse owner, County Limerick-born JP McManus and may be the biggest challenger to Al Boum Photo.
The Grade 1 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, run over three miles, is being billed as a contest between the Irish-handled duo Stattler and Fakiera – the former trained by Willie Mullins, the latter by Denise Foster.
The other top-level race of the final day is the opening JCB Triumph Hurdle, a race for novice hurdlers over 2 miles 1 furlong. The unbeaten trio Zanahiyr, trained by Denise Foster, Tritonic, handled in Britain by Alan King, and Quilixios, also trained by Foster, head the betting in that order for the contest.
With Willie Mullins and Paul Townend holding such a strong hand in most races, especially the Grade 1 events, Mullins is 8/15f to train 7 or more winners over the course of the four days. Townend is 5/4 to achieve 6 or more winners this week, while the price is as short as 2/1 that there will be 18 or more Irish-trained horses at the Cheltenham Festival this year.
Cheltenham Festival Feature
Photo: The Festival, (Cheltenham Festival)