With the conclusion of Trials Day on Saturday and just six weeks left to go, the build up to Cheltenham has begun in earnest. All that lies between us and jump racing’s biggest spectacle is the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, a handful of unforeseen injuries and considerable wriggling in the markets.
Oh, and the mass annual crossing of the Irish sea, which in recent years has felt akin to Vikings arriving to plunder loot from hapless, God-fearing Saxons. Here’s a look ahead at some of the key horses and talking points.
The big guns
Where to start but with jumps racing’s poster-boy, Constitution Hill. He arrives at Cheltenham bidding for his third consecutive festival victory and second Champion Hurdle. The unbroken string of 1s to his name tell only a part of the story – his dominance is such that he has won his 8 starts under rules by a combined 98 ½ lengths without breaking stride. Apart from a tendency to be almost too brave at his hurdles, he seemingly has no weakness and Timeform have him rated as 177p already, putting him alongside Lanzarote and Limestone Lad. He could be the hurdler of the century and, quite feasibly, ever. He is surely the most talented.
That he has only had 8 starts, though, has been the talk surrounding his second Champion Hurdle attempt. Pundits and keyboard warriors alike are questioning whether he is really being given an opportunity to achieve greatness, lamenting Henderson and Buckley’s conservative campaigning of him as the barrier to the mythical status he is capable of. At the beginning of the season they cited a lack of ambition when the decision was made not to send him over fences in an attempt to emulate Dawn Run. Now it’s the fact that he will only have had one run before the festival – and a pedestrian demolition of 140+ rated hurdlers at that. The web has been awash with calls to ‘Free Constitution Hill’ and pictures of industrial-scale cotton deliveries of cotton wool, apparently headed to Seven Barrows.
They have a point. Istabraq had four runs before each of his three Champion Hurdles. The legendary era of 1970s hurdlers (Night Nurse, Sea Pigeon, Monksfield) probably more. More crucially, these horses were doing battle throughout the season and the tables were constantly turning. Champion Hurdles were a culmination of season-long rivalries: Monksfield was second to Night Nurse, Sea Pigeon was second to Monksfield twice, Monksfield was then second to Sea Pigeon.
But that was another era – what are we expecting Henderson and Buckley to do? David Elsworth put it down to a fear of losing and stated that “He is the most exciting horse we’ve seen for a long time… but we don’t need exhibitions. We need competition”. Yet it’s hardly as though an appearance Fighting Fifth at Newcastle or on Trials Day would have changed anything. There is little point in running him in unfavourable conditions against horses which might be competitive in a County Hurdle. The only horse capable of laying a glove on him is State Man, who resides in Ireland. Had Henderson rerouted Constitution Hill to the Matheson at Christmas to take him on we would have criticised him for undermining one of the foremost fixtures of the English season. Elsworth’s words reflect on the current state of jumps racing in Britain rather than Henderson. There is not an avoidance of competition but a lack thereof.
As for Cheltenham, we can only hope that he delivers a memorable performance, because amid a lack of worthy rivals it is the immeasurability of his talent which would make him great.
The other horse capable of hitting similar heights this year is Galopin des Champs, who bids for back-to-back Gold Cups to emulate Willie Mullins’s only other winner of the blue riband, Al Boum Photo. He was so impressive last year that it seemed a likely proposition, barring mishaps. But after consecutive defeats to Fastorslow in the Punchestown Gold Cup and on reappearance in the John Durkan, some were beginning to doubt the strength of last year’s race (Bravemansgame also failed to inspire). He has since, however, put to bed any doubts over his retained ability or over questions as to whether the Gold left a mark, destroying the Savills Chase field by 23 lengths. It would seem as though Punchestown came at the end of a long season and he seemed fresh in the John Durkan, which was run over a trip short of his best and turned into something of a sprint. There are question marks over almost all of his rivals.
An on-song Shishkin (elusive nowadays) would give him something to think about, but Gerri Colombe is yet to prove that he is the horse people think he is. With a lack of new pretenders emerging this season, I think he is very good value to retain his crown at 11/10. Many of the wiseguys are siding with Fastorslow, but I think L’Homme Presse and Gentlemansgame are two horses who could improve. Whether it will be enough is another matter.
Short-priced favourites are a bit of a theme across some of the big races this year. Aside from Constitution Hill, there are four other odds-on shots: Marine Nationale (8/11, Arkle), Lossiemouth (4/6, Mares Hurdle), El Fabiolo (4/7, Champion Chase) and Gaelic Warrior (price varies, Turners).
Marine Nationale has been almost foot-perfect in winning all six of his career starts for Barry Connell and form such as his defeat of Irish Point last season is looking all the stronger now. I thought he might struggle to make the transition to fences given his directness over hurdles but he looked a natural when making his chase debut at Leopardstown. He had a good blow after that race and there’s every chance he will improve for it in a race where competition looks thin on the ground.
Lossiemouth was unbelievably impressive on Trials Day, beating last year’s Mares Hurdle second Love Envoi by 9½ lengths without being pushed by Paul Townend. 5-year-olds are always tricky to campaign but she has matured since last year and looks a formidable prospect. It will be a surprise if the Triumph Hurdle heroine were not to follow up in the Mares this year and she rates as one of the strongest favourites in my books.
El Fabiolo has been a firm favourite for the Champion Chase ever since it was announced that Energumene was out and his odds hardened considerably over the weekend when his only conceivable rival, Jonbon, fluffed his lines in the rearranged Clarence House having been sent off 1/4F. It is difficult to see the Arkle order from last year being reversed, especially since Jonbon’s jumping at one point seemed to be his biggest asset. That said, he has been otherwise impressive this season – perhaps more so than El Fabiolo – and did very well to get as close as he did to Elixir de Nutz after what would normally be a race-ending mistake. There is an existing hierarchy, but if Jonbon attacks his fences like he is capable of doing he may well still give El Fabiolo something to think about and his price is fair.
Gaelic Warrior is perhaps the most vulnerable of these short-priced favourites with his tendency to jump markedly right, not least when throwing away the Boodles here to Brazil two years ago. Fortunately he will be running on the New Course where that tendency might be put under less scrutiny, and his recent form is scintillating. Though Noel George might have said otherwise, don’t entirely discount Kauto Star winner Il Est Francais running here, which would be a mouthwatering prospect. His target remains the French Gold Cup but he has only been entered over the intermediate trip at Cheltenham and they could be tempted to use it as a prep run if the field looked weak.
Best of the rest
The remaining two Championship races look wide open. The Stayers Hurdle is a division which has been in need of youthful injection for a while now and the changing of the guard might be imminent. Teahupoo and Irish Point sit at the top of the market for Gordon Elliott and Robcour, though I would prefer the latter, a classy sort who races within himself and all but proved his ability to stay 3m over Christmas. Lurking behind is Crambo, an improving 7yo who I really like. Noble Yeats has thrown his hat into the ring with victory in the Cleeve but from what I can decipher the main target remains the National. Don’t discount the remarkable 12yo Paisley Park each-way at 20/1, who has been running his heart out this season to finish second in each of his three races by a head, shoulder and head. No doubt he will be staying up the hill for his swansong.
The Ryanair also lacks a linchpin with Allaho having been ruled out through injury for the second year in a row. It leaves a muddle of 160s rated chasers all looking to make the step up to real top-class G1 material, chief among them being Banbridge, Envoi Allen and Stage Star. All previous festival
winners, they are difficult to split and one could easily foresee any of them winning on a going day. Banbridge perhaps shades it if he gets his preferred good ground, but Envoi Allen is last year’s winner and I have a soft spot for Stage Star who I was very sweet on for the Turners last year. It is not a race to be getting involved with at this stage.
The Brown Advisory and National Hunt Chase look more open than the shorter novice chases, though Willie Mullins predictably stables the favourites for each, Grangeclare West and Embassy Gardens respectively. The latter race doesn’t appeal from a betting perspective quite yet, while in the Brown Advisory perhaps the strongest candidate is Mullins’s other horse, Fact To File. There is a also a strong British challenge in the shape of Stay Away Fay, last year’s Albert Bartlett winner, and Grey Dawning. Stay Away Fay has long looked the type for this and ran a very promising trial in the Cotswold Chase (though not too good to try him in the Gold Cup). Grey Dawning is interesting at a bigger price. The Skeltons looked after him as a novice hurdler and skipped Cheltenham to go to the Sefton, where he fell when fancied to go close. He has twice since walloped the winner of that race, Apple Away, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he will be a top-class operator. He was close behind Stay Away Fay on seasonal/chase debut when the yard wasn’t firing, trounced Gaillard du Mesnil at Haydock next time out and came out best at the weights when 2nd in a novice chase at Cheltenham when making a mess of the second-last.
Meanwhile, the markets for the novice hurdles have been slow to take shape. There are already some predictable patterns, namely that Mullins has the favourite in each race and JP McManus holds a very strong hand. The runner with the flashiest reputation is undoubtedly Mystical Power, by Galileo and out of the great Annie Power. Owned by a triumvirate of the most powerful owners in British racing (McManus, Magnier, Ricci), he has so far lived up to his billing, most recently making the Moscow Flyer field look ordinary with a breathtaking turn of foot. He is likely to go for the Supreme, perhaps even more so now that McManus’ other runner, Jeriko du Reponet, made tough work of a G2 at Doncaster. Punters will surely latch onto him and his price could look ridiculously short on the day. The competition seems to come from Gordon Elliott, who will surely saddle at least two from Farren Glory, Caldwell Potter, Firefox and King of Kingsfield. The other notable runner is Ballyburn, for Willie Mullins and Ronnie Bartlett, favourite for the Baring Bingham (former Ballymore). He was beaten on seasonal reappearance by Firefox but 2m5f seems to be his trip and he has always been held in very high regard at Closutton.
Though the novice picture looks overwhelmingly Irish, the British have some live contenders in the juvenile and mares divisions. Nicky Henderson’s Sir Gino shot up to the top of the Triumph market after his romp of the former favourite and Royal Ascot winner Burdett Road on Trials Day. They do lie alone, though, amid a wealth of Irish firepower. Fergal O’Brien is gradually coming into possession of some nice horses and one of his best chances of breaking his festival duck has to be Dysart Enos in the Mares Novices Hurdle. Unbeaten under rules, she is already a winner at Cheltenham and the form of her comfortable bumper win at Aintree in April has been franked. Again, the competition is overwhelmingly Irish with Brighterdaysahead, Jade de Grugy and Jetara seemingly the main rivals, all of whom have already posted an RPR that would put them right in the mix come March.
Fact to File 5/1 NRNB (Brown Advisory Novices Chase)
Willie Mullins has been uncharacteristically excitable about last year’s Champion Bumper second, stating that he thinks ‘he could go the whole way’. The decision to send him straight over fences rather than hurdles seems to have been vindicated. His win at Leopardstown was particularly impressive given that he raced up the inside line, which was chewed up for the whole meeting (horses that used the outside consistently finished better). He achieved an RPR of 160 that day, the second highest achieved in that race (the highest was achieved by Galopin des Champs in 2021). The form of the Champion Bumper is proving to be extraordinary: 20 of the 21 runners have now won over hurdles this season, including the winner of the Challow.
Crambo 15/2 (Stayers Hurdle)
Crambo impressed in the Long Walk when beating Paisley Park and you’d have to take note of how strong he was in the market before that race given he had little form of Grade 1 substance to bring to the table (his best being a handicap hurdle win off 133). His connections give me confidence that this bid has been fully mapped out. He was bred by Jared Sullivan and Noel Fehily (who has become one of the best race strategists since quitting the saddle) and then sent to Fergal O’Brien, who has famously never had a festival winner despite consistently putting up strong numbers each season. He is slowly coming into possession of some top-class horses and the fact that part-owner Chris Giles backed Crambo for this at 33/1 before his run at Haydock suggests this has been a long-term plan. Ascot may have been run at a slow pace but there is every reason to believe that Crambo will be suited by more of a test and he looks an obvious candidate for me in a division which has needed a shake-up for a long time.
Treble 1pt Win
Marine Nationale 8/11 (Arkle)
Lossiemouth 4/6 (Mares Hurdle)
Galopin des Champs 11/10 (Gold Cup
Written by Otis Brankin-Frisby