How the big Cheltenham Festival races next week are shaping up

Fear, reminiscent of that generated by foot and mouth 19 years ago, has been sweeping through racing, courtesy of coronavirus.

Monday, 2nd March 2020, 5:27 pm
Updated Friday, 6th March 2020, 9:22 pm
Jockey Paul Townend celebrates aboard Al Boum Photo, winner of last season's Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The Cheltenham Festival, highlight of the racing year, serving up the best Jumps action in the world, is less than a week away.

But foot and mouth sabotaged the meeting back in 2001, and worries that coronavirus could inflict a similar wipeout have been scarring the build-up to the 2020 Festival.

Should the number of cases escalate dramatically across the UK, government and health officials could well pull the plug on major events attracting large crowds in a bid to stifle the spread of the disease.

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Epatante (right), who was made favourite for the Unibet Champion Hurdle after this win at Kempton on Boxing Day.

More than 260,000 people are hoping to flock from all corners of the UK and Ireland to the Cotswolds. They might be counting down the hours in excited anticipation, but they are also on tenterhooks.

Hopes were raised this week by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s insistence that “it’s business as usual”, and, as things stand, the show will go on. So, it’s an opportune time to assess how the big five faces of the Festival are shaping up.

MAGNERS CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP (Day 4, Friday)

For the second season running, the showpiece race of the week looks sure to be graced by a terrific, competitive field. Last season’s surprise winner, AL BOUM PHOTO, who broke master trainer Willie Mullins’s Gold Cup duck, heads the market and he arrives at Prestbury Park on the back of an identical preparation to 2019.

Trainer Nicky Henderson with the mighty Altior, who is gunning for a hat-trick of wins in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

It’s very rare for horses to land the race two years on the trot, and Mullins’s 8yo faces serious opposition from representatives of last season’s impressive novice contingent. Both SANTINI, trained by Nicky Henderson, and DELTA WORK, from the yard of Gordon Elliott, featured in a thrilling finish to a top-class RSA Chase at the 2019 Festival. Both were edged out by Topofthegame and although Paul Nicholls’s charge has missed this season because of injury, LOSTINTRANSLATION, the horse who claimed his scalp at Aintree last term, three weeks after Cheltenham, will line up next week. Santini, whose profile and running style has Gold Cup written all over him, and the classy Delta Work go into the race in peak form, while Colin Tizzard’s Lostintranslation must put behind him a shoddy effort in the King George at Christmas which led to him being booked in for wind surgery.

In the absence of Topofthegame, Nicholls again relies on the smooth winner of that King George, CLAN DES OBEAUX. He palpably failed to stay in last year’s race, but his trainer insists he will be stronger and fresher this time round.

Mullins also saddles KEMBOY, who came down at the first last year but recovered for spectacular victories at Aintree, where he crushed Clan Des Obeaux, and Punchestown, where he beat Al Boum Photo. And two more notable Irish raiders are PRESENTING PERCY, superb winner of the RSA two years ago, and MONALEE, who has always looked the type to meet the demands of the Gold Cup but who was pitched into the wrong race at last year’s Festival.

Monalee is trained by Henry De Bromhead, whose flag might also be flown by lively, progressive outsider CHRIS’S DREAM, while the admirable and resilient grey BRISTOL DE MAI, third last year, should not be discounted either. Both would prefer the mud to be flying.

Popular, blind owner Andrew Gemmell celebrates the victory of his horse, Paisley Park, in last year's Stayers' Hurdle.

UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE (Day 1, Tuesday)

The word ‘poor’ is wildly overused by pundits and analysts, particularly in football. But make no mistake, this is a poor Champion Hurdle. Indeed, very possibly the worst I have witnessed in 36 years of Cheltenham Festival pilgrimages.

The contest could yet be rescued by the brilliant Irish-trained duo HONEYSUCKLE and BENIE DES DIEUX but, sadly, their first-choice targets appear to be the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, scheduled for 40 minutes after the Champion.

Ironically, in their absence, it is another mare, EPATANTE, trained by Nicky Henderson and owned at JP McManus, that lines up as favourite. The 6yo is improving at a rate of knots and won the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day with polished authority. But she bombed at the Festival last year, and recent stable reports of her coughing have scared her supporters.

Jockey Bryony Frost salutes the crowds on Frodon as they walk back to the winner's enclosure after last year's Ryanair Chase.

Her main rival is one of four other runners from the Henderson yard, PENTLAND HILLS, winner of a weak Triumph Hurdle 12 months ago, but turned over in both of his engagements this term when he raced too keenly and finished tamely. Against both him and Triumph runner-up COEUR SUBLIME is that only two 5yos, from the last 102 to have tried, have been crowned champion. Mind you, one of those was the 2019 winner, the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen, one of whose placed victims, SILVER STREAK, is back for another crack at the race.

At the other end of the age scale, some fancy the 10yo veteran SUPASUNDAE to rediscover the pace that landed him the Irish Champion Hurdle two years ago, while there is even a whisper for novice DARVER STAR, such is the openness of the contest.

Henderson’s other challengers include VERDANA BLUE, who is unlikely to get the Good ground she needs, and CALL ME LORD, who won nicely at Cheltenham in December to disprove previous theories that he is effective only on right-hand tracks. The Good-ground reservations also apply to SHARJAH, the main hope from the Willie Mullins yard.

BETWAY QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE (Day 2, Wednesday)

There won’t be many runners, but the Queen Mother could yet serve up the race of the week, courtesy of a fascinating clash involving reigning champion ALTIOR, the 2m chaser of the season DEFI DU SEUIL and the exciting, new kid on the block, CHACUN POUR SOI.

Altior would bring the house down if he landed the race for the third year running, emulating the mighty Badsworth Boy from the 1980s. Trainer Nicky Henderson flirted with a step-up in trip, which resulted in his first defeat in 20 starts in November. But after a break, he looked back to his best last time and has yet to be beaten at Cheltenham.

Defi Du Seuil has been responsible for dragging the Philip Hobbs stable out of the doldrums. Winner of the Triumph Hurdle three years ago, he recovered from a subsequent, indifferent campaign to rise to the top of the novice chase ranks last term. And this season, he has conquered the drop to the minimum trip by winning all the flagship chases over 2m.

With ease in the ground, it would be hard to find a chink in Defi’s armor, but he was well beaten by Willie Mullins’s Rich Ricci-owned Chacun Por Soi at Punchestown last May in an eye-popping performance that announced the French-bred as a potential superstar. The 8yo returned to his best last time, but he was previously overturned by A PLUS TARD, who would be an interesting contender if re-routed from his main target, the Ryanair Chase. Chacun also lacks Cheltenham experience and has not looked the strongest of finishers this term. Equally, Defi does not want to be in front too soon, while Altior is renowned for his late turbo-charged burst, so the race is an intriguing tactical puzzle.

Twelve months ago, a similar three-pronged classic appeared to be in store for the Champion Hurdle, courtesy of Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade and Laurina, but it failed to come to pass. I would be amazed if history repeated itself.

PADDY POWER STAYERS’ HURDLE (Day 3, Thursday)

Odds-on favourite PAISLEY PARK is many people’s idea of the banker of the week. Emma Lavelle’s 8yo hasn’t tasted defeat in his last eight outings, a run that began with victory off 140 in a handicap at Aintree and included a convincing triumph in this race 12 months ago. Physically, he has matured again this term, and his popular, blind owner Andrew Gemmell could well be the toast of more memorable scenes in the winner’s enclosure.

If there is to be a party-pooper, the most likely candidate is Willie Mullins’s prolific but fragile mare, BENIE DES DIEUX. After a stunning display on her seasonal re-appearance in January, Mullins looked sure to let her loose in the Stayers’. But he’s since had a change of heart and would like to have another go at the Mares’ Hurdle, which she won in 2018 and would have done so again last year without a fall at the last.

At least another high-profile Irish mare, APPLE’S JADE, looks sure to take her chance, and also primed for the race from the Emerald Isle are PENHILL, winner for Mullins in 2018, and CITY ISLAND, impressive winner of the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival last season.

A third former Festival victor, SUMMERHILL BOY, who pounced late to take the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle two years ago, offers each/way value after proving his suitability to this 3m trip, not far behind Paisley Park, last time. And an improving youngster to keep an eye on is EMITOM, whose handler, Warren Greatrex, landed the spoils with Cole Harden in 2015.

RYANAIR CHASE (Day 3, Thursday)

One of the highlights of the 2019 Festival was the emotional triumph of FRODON and Bryony Frost in the Ryanair, a combination that the racing public have taken to their hearts. The horse for his gutsy, never-say-die attitude and the jockey for her infectious enthusiasm for the game.

Only a fool would rule out a reprise next week because although Paul Nicholls’s 8yo started the season below-par, he returned to something like his best last time and his phenomenal record at Cheltenham cannot be ignored in a race where course form is crucial.

Only two rivals sit above Frodon in the betting market, but both, Irish raiders A PLUS TARD and MIN, are formidable horses. Henry De Bromhead’s favourite might yet be re-routed to the Queen Mother Champion Chase if the ground rides Soft, but this has been his main target since he ran away with the novice chase over the same trip at last year’s Festival. The French-bred oozes class, although it is not commonplace for 6yos to win the Ryanair, so maybe this year is finally the turn of Min for Cheltenham glory. At three of the last four Festivals, Willie Mullins’s Rich Ricci-owned 9yo has seen the backside of Altior, but he has been a magnificent performer in his own right. He has looked as good as ever this term, and this is his optimum trip.

The Ryanair rarely throws up an upset and among the bigger prices, it’s hard to locate one this year either, unless CHRIS’S DREAM switches from the Gold Cup. But there is definitely an argument to suggest 8/1 about RIDERS ONTHE STORM represents a bit of value, especially when you consider that, at Ascot last month, he downed Cyrname, the only horse to beat the mighty Altior over obstacles. Nigel Twiston-Davies’s charge was a bit fortunate and had a tough race in the mud, but the way he has risen from handicap company to Grade One level has been one of the stories of the season and not bad for a horse that cost a mere £50,000 when bought from Ireland last summer.