While it may be a little unkind to suggest that British-trained runners were humiliated at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, courtesy of just five winners out of the 28 races up for grabs, a similar level of success (or failure) would have serious repercussions for the sport in this country.
With leading Irish handlers Willie Mullins, Henry De Bromhead and Gordon Elliott sure to approach this year’s festival with all guns blazing, what chance do British-trained contenders have of stopping the ‘rot’ in 2022?
SUPREME NOVICES’ HURDLE (Tuesday)
With trainer Nicky Henderson being responsible for the first two in the betting for the opener, courtesy of CONSTITUTION HILL (9/4 with Paddy Power) and JONBON (3/1 with Betfair Sportsbook) this race could well set the trend for the days ahead. Last year’s Champion Bumper winner Sir Gerhard is the one most likely to put the home challenge on the back foot.
ARKLE NOVICES’ CHASE (Tuesday)
The Irish contingent are unlikely to contemplate defeat for Willie Mullins’ main contender Ferny Hollow. But trainer Alan King fields a serious rival in EDWARDSTONE (6/1 with Paddy Power) who, after finishing third in Newbury’s Betfair Hurdle, ran well in major handicaps over the smaller obstacles at both the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals.
King compares the impressive winner of his last three starts over fences favourably with the stable’s previous Arkle winners, Voy Por Ustedes and My Way de Solzen. The Kayf Tara gelding is unlikely to go down without a fight for a horse that ticks all of the boxes.
BALLYMORE NOVICES’ HURDLE (Wednesday)
CONSTITUTION HILL (10/1 with Unibet) also holds an entry in this longer contest and it would be no surprise to see the Seven Barrows handler keep his pair of star novices apart by redirecting last weekend’s Tolworth Hurdle winner to this race.
The Ditcheat stable of Paul Nicholls also has a potential leading candidate in STAGE STAR (8/1 with bet365), impressive winner of Newbury’s Challow Hurdle and unbeaten in three runs over hurdles to date. This looks a wide-open affair however, with bookmakers currently going 6/1 the field.
FESTIVAL NOVICES’ CHASE (Wednesday)
The Paul Nicholls-trained BRAVEMANSGAME (4/1 with William Hill) is probably Britain’s best chance of winning one of the Grade 1 novice chases. Unbeaten in three starts over fences, the Ditcheat handler has already pencilled-in next season’s King George for the Brave Mansonienne gelding, who could not have been more impressive in taking the scalp of Ahoy Senor in Kempton’s Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase.
The seven-year-old is likely to face a serious rival in Willie Mullins’ Galopin Des Champs however. A winner over hurdles at both the Cheltenham and Punchestown festivals, the six-year-old simply destroyed the opposition with a polished exhibition of jumping when making all of the running on his chasing debut at Leopardstown just after Christmas.
CHAMPION CHASE (Wednesday)
For many, Britain’s banker of the meeting will be Nicky Henderson’s SHISHKIN (11/10 with Paddy Power) for the stable that has won five of the last ten renewals. The son of Sholokhov will be attempting a Cheltenham Festival hat-trick following victories in the 2020 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle along with last year’s Arkle.
A potential clash with main market rival Energumene in next weekend’s Clarence House Chase at Ascot awaits Shishkin, the result of which would almost certainly make the victor a very short priced favourite for the two mile championship contest.
TURNERS NOVICES’ CHASE (Thursday)
The 10 length winner of a Grade 2 contest at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, Venetia Williams’ L’HOMME PRESSE (8/1 with bet365) has Henry De Bromhead’s exciting Bob Olinger standing in his way. Should last season’s Ballymore Hurdle winner fail to perform on the day, the Diamond Boy gelding could be the one to pick up the pieces.
STAYERS HURDLE (Thursday)
Britain and Ireland look evenly matched in this hurdling stamina test, with Klassical Dream and Flooring Porter heading the betting alongside CHAMP (9/2 with William Hill) and THYME HILL (13/2 with Paddy Power).
With the winner likely to come from one of these four, conditions on the day may prove to be crucial.
GOLD CUP (Friday)
Once again Irish-trained horses dominate the betting for the final day highlight, headed by last year’s runner-up Ar Plus Tard.
The main British challenge comes in the shape of Dan Skelton’s PROTEKTORAT (10/1 with BetVictor), who is one of the least exposed contenders and proved his stamina with a 25 length victory over previous Gold Cup winner Native River at Aintree.
While the Irish will go into the race with strength in numbers, the improving seven-year-old looks to have as good a chance as any.
HUNTERS’ CHASE (Friday)
Last year’s race was fought out by PORLOCK BAY (12/1 with bet365) and Billaway, with the former just coming out on top in a close finish. Just why Willie Mullins’ charge is a 4/1 chance to reverse that form is hard to fathom, making the Will Biddick runner excellent value to win back-to-back renewals.