For decades the Cheltenham Festival has been considered the ultimate battleground for British and Irish-trained National Hunt stars – and while it did not look likely for a while, that rivalry will resume in the Cotswolds.
There will be no packed grandstands or Guinness Village overflowing with revellers, but the action on the track promises to be as fiercely competitive as ever, with the Prestbury Cup going to the victors of the Anglo-Irish turf war.
The Prestbury Cup stayed in Britain in the first two years it was contested in 2014 and 2015, but Ireland has triumphed every year since, bar 2019, when the two nations won 14 races each.
Ahead of this year’s meeting, we assess five of the chief hopes for the home team, and five horses likely to ensure Irish eyes are smiling once again:
Shishkin – Nicky Henderson – Arkle Trophy
Hot on the hooves of Sprinter Sacre and Altior, Shishkin emerged as the latest two-mile superstar on the Seven Barrows conveyer belt when producing a remarkable performance to win last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. While the margin of victory over Abacadabras was small, Henderson’s ace came from a seriously uncompromising position to grab victory, which is testament to both his talent and tenacity. He has made a near-flawless transition to the chasing game this term, with a pair of wins at Kempton and a recent Doncaster domination setting him up perfectly for his Festival return. The withdrawal of Energumene makes Shishkin’s task easier, although it should still be a cracker with Allmankind blazing a trail in front.
Epatante – Nicky Henderson – Champion Hurdle
The JP McManus-owned Epatante progressed from high-class handicapper to the best around in the two-mile hurdling division last season, with success in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton followed by a dominant display at Cheltenham. She looked as good as ever when barely coming off the bridle in winning the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle on her reappearance, but blotted her copybook with a lethargic effort when defending her Christmas Hurdle crown. However, Henderson believes he has valid excuses for that defeat and if she can bounce back to her best in the Cotswolds, even the brilliant Irish mare Honeysuckle may be powerless to resist her electric turn of foot.
Royale Pagaille – Venetia Williams – National Hunt Chase
This French recruit failed to beat a single rival home in his first two starts for Venetia Williams and prominent owner Rich Ricci last season, but has seemingly been turned inside out since a summer break. After making a successful start to the current campaign in novice company at Haydock, Royal Pagaille made a mockery of an opening handicap mark of 140 at Kempton over Christmas, and was even more impressive when routing his rivals in Haydock’s Peter Marsh Chase under top-weight in January. On his revised mark of 166, connections would have been fully entitled to consider a Gold Cup bid, particularly in what looks an open renewal. However, the Riccis love nothing more than success at Cheltenham and the long-distance novice slot looks Royale Pagaille’s best opportunity to continue his winning run.
Bravemansgame – Paul Nicholls – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle
The day-two opener has been dominated by Ireland in recent years, but while a strong raiding party assembled once more, Bravemansgame might just ensure this year’s renewal stays at home. An expensive purchase at £370,000, the Irish point-to-point graduate was actually beaten on his hurdling debut, but has since rattled off a hat-trick of wide-margin wins. Trainer Paul Nicholls, who has compared this five-year-old to the great Denman in terms of physique and potential, has elected to keep his charge fresh for the Festival – giving him plenty of time to recover from his latest triumph in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury in December. Denman actually suffered a rare defeat in this race, but Bravemansgame is fancied to prevail where the former Nicholls star did not.
Paisley Park – Emma Lavelle – Stayers’ Hurdle
The three-mile hurdling championship is perhaps the only race at this year’s Festival in which the British appear to hold the aces, with the ante-post market having been dominated throughout the winter by familiar foes in Paisley Park and Thyme Hill. Paisley Park looked set to rule the division for years to come after winning this race a couple of years ago, but was found to be suffering from a heart problem when attempting to defend his crown. Such an issue may have finished lesser horses, but Lavelle’s stable star has bounced back to at least somewhere near his best this season – going down narrowly to Thyme Hill at Newbury before reversing the form in a thrilling Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. Thyme Hill sadly misses out, so while there are a couple of interesting Irish runners lurking, Paisley Park should be very hard to beat.
Appreciate It – Willie Mullins – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
Willie Mullins has saddled four of the last eight winners of the Festival curtain-raiser and houses this year’s hot favourite in Appreciate It. Runner-up to stablemate Ferny Hollow in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago, the imposing son of Jeremy is unbeaten in three starts over hurdles this season including a pair of Grade One wins at Leopardstown. There is a suspicion the seven-year-old will want further than two miles in time, but he has proved he has enough speed to compete at the minimum distance at the top level and if the ground is on the soft side, there is every chance Appreciate It will get punters off to the perfect start.
Monkfish – Willie Mullins – Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase
Already a Festival hero having coming out on top in a four-way finish to last season’s Albert Bartlett, Monkfish has taken his game to even greater heights this term with three foot-perfect efforts over fences. Having only narrowly beaten the high-class Latest Exhibition 12 months ago, the chestnut gelding was a more authoritative winner when the pair met at Leopardstown over Christmas and left him trailing in his wake on their most recent meeting last month – a measure of Monkfish’s upward trajectory. He travels well without being keen, has jumped impeccably to date and has already proven his stamina and ability to handle the track. What’s not to like?
Chacun Pour Soi – Willie Mullins – Queen Mother Champion Chase
Day two promises to be a big one for the all-conquering Mullins team, with Chacun Pour Soi bidding to provide the winning-most trainer in Festival history with his first Champion Chase success. A late absentee last season after suffering a minor setback on the morning of the race, the nine-year-old has oozed class in three subsequent starts, most recently winning the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown for the second year in succession. With serious doubts about whether dual winner Altior can rediscover his spark, the way looks clear for Chacun Pour Soi to confirm himself as the new star of one of the most exciting divisions in the sport.
Envoi Allen – Henry de Bromhead – Marsh Novices’ Chase
If you were to take a poll from National Hunt fans of who they believe is the most exciting horse in training, the majority would go for Envoi Allen. And even more eyes than usual will be on him this year following his switch from Gordon Elliott. The Cheveley Park Stud-owned gelding has lived up to his expensive price-tag with 11 straight wins under rules, a run which includes victories in the Champion Bumper and the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. So far this season he has blown his rivals away in three starts over fences without making a semblance of a mistake in the jumping department. There is an obvious question mark in terms of how the upheaval of moving yards so close to Cheltenham will affect him, but in short, he looks a class apart.
Al Boum Photo – Willie Mullins – Cheltenham Gold Cup
There is little doubt that for whatever reason, dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo is underappreciated and perhaps underrated by the racing public. He is not an outstanding physical specimen, his owners are not big talkers and he has run only four times since winning his first Gold Cup two years ago. But he has also got the job done on the biggest stage of all on a couple of occasions. Just as he has in the past two seasons, he has run just once prior to the Gold Cup – at Tramore on New Year’s Day, where there was nothing in his latest performance to suggest his powers are on the wane. Only a handful of horses have won three Gold Cups, but very few if any of Al Boum Photo’s rivals have enhanced their reputation in is absence this season. In fact, Champ apart, a few look to have gone backwards. Mullins’ charge appears ground and tactically versatile and has an excellent chance of etching his name into National Hunt folklore.