Previous Festival form should never be ignored when assessing the contenders for those four famous days at Prestbury Park.
Year after year, horses return to the ‘Greatest Show On Turf’, and display their true ability, often rewarding those that ‘keep the faith’. A return to Cheltenham’s unique undulations may be the spark, or possibly the chance of running on decent spring ground rather than trudging through deep winter mud. Whatever, the reason, Festival perennials need spotting, and following.
Some of course are higher profile than others. Hurdling hero Hardy Eustace landed the Neptune as a novice in 2003, before returning to become a dual-winner of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 2005. He continued to enjoy his Cotswold excursions in 2006 and 2007, when third and fourth in the hurdling showpiece.
Denman was another Cheltenham legend that flourished at the track. Runner-up in the Neptune of 2006, he returned in stunning fashion to take the RSA of 2007, before his famous Gold Cup romp of 2008. He was then runner-up on three occasions in steeplechasing’s premier race; behind Kauto Star, Imperial Commander and Long Run. That final effort came in 2011 as an 11-year-old.
More recently, Vautour became a ‘Festival Banker’ for the all-conquering Willie Mullins. It’s tragic when we lose such a star, but his Cheltenham heroics will live long in the memory. He followed his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle demolition of 2014, with one of the Festival’s greatest performances, when putting in an astounding round of jumping to win the JLT Novices’ Chase of 2015. He landed the Ryanair last March with the minimum of fuss, and who knows what he would have achieved this time around.
These of course, were National Hunt elite, and always likely to achieve repeated Festival success
if staying fit and well. Though we weren’t to know for sure when they arrived on the scene, indeed Hardy Eustace won his first Champion Hurdle as a 33/1 shot.
So, the trick is now to find the latest Festival regulars, who are likely to put their best hoof forward, achieving further success on the greatest stage, and leaving punters celebrating in the process. Some are clearly more predictable than others, and as such, hold little value from a punting prospective.
Douvan looks sure to add to his Festival haul in the Champion Chase. Already a two-time Cheltenham Festival winner, the latest ‘Mullins Machine’ appears peerless, and it would come as a mighty shock if he were not to add to his Supreme and Arkle victories.
Similarly, Nicky Henderson’s Altior appears to be starting down the road to Festival immortality. Attempting to mirror the achievements of Douvan, he has looked sensational over fences this winter, and it’s hard to imagine anything landing a blow when the flag drops in the Arkle on the opening day.
Less flashy, yet still likely to make it two from two, is the Stayers’ favourite Unowhatimeanharry. He was something of a surprise winner of the Albert Bartlett 12 months ago, but it would come as no surprise were he to win the staying hurdle crown this time round. Winner of his last eight, he sets the standard, having won all the usual trials en route.
But there’s also those that consistently hit the frame in March, and yet still give plenty of value to those brave enough to take a punt.
Sizing John is one such beast, having finished behind Douvan on his last two visits to Prestbury Park in March. Third in the Supreme Novices’ in 2015 at a stonking 25/1, he then came runner-up to the Mullins hotshot in the Arkle, when again a generous 9/1. Those performances undoubtedly came at trips that were too short for Jess Harrington’s sizeable gelding. His success in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, proved that he could see-out an extended trip, and it’s likely that he will now take his chance in an open looking Gold Cup. There’s every chance that he is once again being underestimated by many, with numerous bookies offering 10s for this perennial Festival achiever.
Jonjo O’Neill makes a habit of landing Festival prizes with horses that peak at exactly the right time. He has a host of contenders that look capable of out-running their current form figures, and would leave punters crying ‘how did I miss that one?’. Minella Rocco took the four-miler last year, defeating Gold Cup favourite Native River, and is currently available at 25s for the ‘Blue Riband’. With two-falls-and- a-submission to his name so far this winter, it would take a brave punter to chuck a fistful of dollars his way, yet many apparently have. He has ‘Festival-previous’, and that counts for plenty.
Another Jonjo regular, who always punches above his weight, is the diminutive 10-year-old Holywell. His Cheltenham Festival record is a cracker, and yet he would be easy to overlook. A Pertemps Final victory in 2013 was followed by a win in the Ultima Handicap Chase (then the Baylis & Harding) a year later. In 2015 he took on the ‘big-boys’ and managed a stunning fourth place finish behind Coneygree, despite the ground being against him. Then last year he returned to the Ultima, with a cracking runner-up finish despite lumping top-weight around the 3m1f. His handicap mark is currently 148, having been 153 this time last year. Bookies are offering 16/1 against him taking the opening day handicap!
Willie Mullins has had his share of upset during the winter, but remains the trainer to follow when the Festival arrives. He’ll have plenty of contenders for major honours, with one hoping to end a run of near misses at Cheltenham’s prestigious meeting. Bumper runner-up; second in the Supreme Novices’ and chinned by Blaklion for last year’s RSA, Shaneshill looks set to contest the Stayers’ Hurdle this time. By leading Festival Sire King's Theatre, he’s 10/1 in places to get the better of Unowhatimeanharry, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t go very close.
Mullins sends a strong team across the Irish Sea, and is joined by Gordon Elliott, who looks sure to have Festival winners among his team. Somewhere in the region of 30 horses are likely to make the journey, with Death Duty and Mega Fortune particularly strong fancies.
Cause Of Causes loves Cheltenham, especially with ground conditions to suit. A sound surface is ideal, and but for a mistake at the last fence in the Kim Muir of 2014, he would have a trio of Festival victories to his name. Elliott is aiming the nine-year-old at the Grand National, but will take in the Cross Country at Cheltenham as a prep. He had a ‘warm-up’ in January on Trials Day, when some distance back in fifth. Expect him to be much closer this time, as he looks to add to his impressive Festival CV.
Cheltenham form and especially previous Festival form is often a key pointer when searching for those elusive winners. There’s sure to be plenty of returning heroes that again land a major Festival success for trainers, connections, and hopefully for us punters, brave enough to keep the faith.