Countdown to Cheltenham - our expert's verdict on the four big races
After the 2021 Festival was forced behind closed doors, record-breaking crowds totalling about 280,000 are expected to flock to Prestbury Park for four days (Tuesday to Friday) of the best Jumps action in the world.
My eve-of-meeting selections for all 28 races will be posted here first thing Monday morning. But here are my thoughts, and potted previews, on the big four events of the week, the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Stayers’ Hurdle.
BOODLES CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP CHASE, 3m2f (Friday, 3.30)
After last year’s Gold Cup, I was convinced we had seen a vintage renewal. In a race run at an electrifying pace, the two-times champion AL BOUM PHOTO was comprehensively outgunned by two progressive stayers from the Henry de Bromhead stable, MINELLA INDO and A PLUS TARD. All three are back for more and would normally be expected to dominate again. Instead, question marks hang over them.
Age is against Willie Mullins’s 10yo Al Boum Photo (10/1), although he does not have many miles on the clock, and the trainer has revealed that his work at home has been far from sparkling.
The classy A Plus Tard (7/2) was propelled into favouritism by a scintillating performance on his seasonal re-appearance in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, but his reputation was tarnished by defeat as an 8/11 shot in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.
It must be said that he received a misjudged ride that day from Rachael Blackmore, who asked him to do too much too quickly, leaving him with little left on the run-in. And another poor effort by Blackmore, combined with bizarre, new front-running tactics and the application of first-time cheekpieces, also contributed to a shocking performance by Minella Indo (5/1) in the King George at Kempton.
Indo has not won a race since his triumph 12 months ago, and although he shaped well last time out and loves Cheltenham, confidence is knocked further by the fact that his 2021 pilot, the brilliant Jack Kennedy, has been replaced by Robbie Power.
Given the doubts about last year’s first three home, it might pay to look for improving, unexposed alternatives, such as GALVIN, PROTEKTORAT and TORNADO FLYER.
The upwardly mobile career of Galvin (7/2) has been masterminded to perfection by Gordon Elliott. He began this campaign as a Grand National candidate after landing a hot National Hunt Novices’ Chase over 3m6f at the 2021 Festival, but he’s moved seamlessly into Grade One company, and can count both A Plus Tard and Minella Indo among his scalps. The 8yo has performed admirably whenever he’s run at Cheltenham, and relishes Good ground, which is likely to prevail next Friday. With the wily veteran, Davy Russell, aboard, there’s little not to like.
Protektorat (8/1) could be the horse that finally gives Dan Skelton his pass to elite status among the training ranks. Transformed by a wind operation 13 months ago, he excelled on his first try at 3m when bolting up at Aintree in December and is another who revels in the unique demands of Cheltenham. Unquestionably top-class, his only negative is the fact that he’s been off the track since that win, courtesy of Skelton’s curious one-size-fits-all belief that his best horses should turn up at the Festival fresh. In fact, 30 of the last 31 Gold Cup winners had run on or after Boxing Day.
Tornado Flyer (12/1) was the toast of that very Boxing Day when emerging from nowhere to land the aforementioned King George. Many dismissed the success as a fluke because he picked up the pieces after most of the principals had fluffed their lines. But the 9yo has always been highly regarded by the genius that is Willie Mullins, and after mixing it consistently with the best, he could be capable of more now that he’s tackling trips.
Of the rest, Nicky Henderson’s CHANTRY HOUSE (16/1) finished last term looking like a potential champion, but was painfully laboured in victory on Cheltenham Trials Day in January, while another Mullins contender, the error-prone ASTERION FORLONGES (25/1), will definitely get it right one day.
VERDICT – 1 GALVIN, 2 Protektorat, 3 A Plus Tard
UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE, 2m (Tuesday, 3.30)
So incredibly impressive was HONEYSUCKLE in landing last year’s Champion Hurdle that she is many people’s banker of the meeting this time round. Indeed, a repeat victory for Henry de Bromhead’s 8yo mare, who is unbeaten in 14 starts, including ten Grade Ones, would raise the roof among her legion of supporters.
In my humble opinion, though, she has looked more workmanlike than wondrous this season, and given that most of us don’t have the money required to take full advantage of cramped odds of 4/7, it’s worth seeking out alternatives.
Unfortunately, her opposition lacks serious strength in depth. The dire record of 5yos (only two winners from the last 107 to try) has to put you off the likes of ADAGIO (16/1), ZANAHIYR (16/1) and the pick of that age group, the admirably progessive TEAHUPOO (8/1). And while fellow mare EPATANTE (10/1), representing the lethal Nicky Henderson/JP McManus partnership, has returned to something like the form she showed when winning the race two years ago, she has been thoroughly hammered by Honeysuckle on both occasions they have clashed.
Outsiders TOMMY’S OSCAR (33/1) and GLORY AND FORTUNE (80/1), who have moved menacingly through the handicap ranks, are capable of picking up a place, but it’s hard to envisage them troubling the favourite.
So that leaves APPRECIATE IT (7/2) to throw the spanner in the works. Willie Mullins’s imposing 8yo was one of the best winners I have seen of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival and is palpably superstar material. Not seen since, after a switch to chasing had to be aborted because of injury, he is attempting to achieve the near-impossible by winning a Champion Hurdle on his seasonal debut. But you get the impression at the Closutton yard that if anyone can do it, he can. And if he does, it would top all the amazing achievements by Mullins that have gone before.
VERDICT – 1 APPRECIATE IT, 2 Honeysuckle, 3 Tommy’s Oscar
BETWAY QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE, 2m (Wednesday, 3.30)
A re-run of the race of the season so far, the stupendous duel between SHISHKIN (4/6) and ENERGUMENE (7/2) in the Clarence House at Ascot in January, is on the cards in this eagerly anticipated Champion Chase. Nicky Henderson’s new stable star somehow dug deeper than deep to get the better of his Willie Mullins-trained rival that day, despite looking second best for most of the last mile, and given his proven liking for Cheltenham, having won there at the previous two Festivals, it’s difficult to see roles being reversed on Wednesday.
However, does the race necessarily revolve around these two, particularly as both endured a hard enough race at Ascot? While Shishkin, undefeated in seven starts over fences, is beginning to attain the invincible aura of his predecessor at Henderson’s yard, Altior, he came off the bridle some way from home last time and invariably needs a furlong or two before summoning turbo-charged top gear. Is it possible to envisage a rival getting away from him in front, coming down the hill at Cheltenham?
Of course, that rival might yet be Energumene. But equally, it could be his stablemate CHACUN POUR SOI (9/2), who might be getting on as a 10yo but whose sheer class shows no sign of regressing, if his victory at the Dublin Racing Festival is anything to go by.
Critics diss the Rich Ricci-owned 10yo because, on two visits to England, he has bombed, including in this contest last season. But the steady gallop that day, combined with jockey Paul Townend’s failure to grab the bull by the horns, was all against him.
It would be no surprise if Townend tried to make amends and chose to ride him on Wednesday, rather than Energumene. Certainly, Mullins thinks he should and, unusually, has made it abundantly clear that he regards Chacun the superior animal. At the prices, he’s worth supporting to burst the Shishkin bubble.
VERDICT – 1 CHACUN POUR SOI, 2 Shishkin, 3 Energumene
PADDY POWER STAYERS’ HURDLE, 3m (Thursday, 3.30)
I’m surprised the bookies have made reigning champion FLOORING PORTER (3/1) the favourite for this year’s Stayers’ Hurdle. Yes, he deserves credit for the relentless display of galloping that enabled him to make all 12 months ago, but it was a weak renewal and Gavin Cromwell’s 7yo has disappointed in three starts since.
I feel there’s room for a classier animal to scupper his chances of a repeat success and, in KLASSICAL DREAM (9/2) and CHAMP (5/1), the race has a couple of ideal candidates, even though both can be enigmatic, if not downright bonkers.
The former was an electric winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the 2019 Festival and looked sure to emerge as a Champion Hurdle contender. But fragility and recalcitrance took over, and he became incredibly hard to train, even by someone with the expertise of Willie Mullins. A switch to chasing was even considered before Mullins decided on a most unlikely step-up to 3m and the now-8yo defied a 483-day absence to win a Grade One staying contest at last year’s Punchestown Festival with ridiculous ease.
He returned this term to defeat Flooring Porter at his own front-running game and although he suffered a shock defeat last time, Mullins blamed himself for a less-than-ideal preparation and is sure he will be back to his best at Cheltenham.
If he is, the rest are in trouble. Except, maybe, Nicky Henderson’s Champ, a horse with a remarkable similar profile to Klassical Dream in that he too burst on to the scene with a remarkable Festival triumph when he beat subsequent Gold Cup and Ryanair heroes, Minella Indo and Allaho, no less, two years ago to emerge as a candidate for the Blue Riband event himself.
Things went awry, however, and, like the Mullins horse, he spent a long time off the track before disgracing himself in last season’s Gold Cup with an erratic exhibition of wayward jumping and, again like the Mullins horse, he had to make an unlikely diversion, in his case back to hurdling.
Champ, named after AP McCoy, duly relished his fresh challenge by making light of another long absence to take the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in superb fashion on his seasonal bow in December, beating one of Thursday’s main rivals, THYME HILL (9/2). But again like Klassical Dream, he blotted his copybook last time out when running flat on tacky ground here at Cheltenham when conquered by old favourite PAISLEY PARK (7/1).
It’s almost unheard of for a 10yo to win the Stayers’. But while that may rule out Paisley, I doubt it will inconvenience Champ, given he’s made only 15 career starts over obstacles.
If there is to be a shock, Irish raider ROYAL KAHALA (9/1) is capable of providing it, especially in receipt of the 7lb mares’ allowance. She was the horse to cash in on Klassical Dream’s labours last time. But she needs plenty of give in the ground to be at her best and is unlikely to get it.
VERDICT – 1 KLASSICAL DREAM, 2 Champ, 3 Royal Kahala