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Cheltenham Festival day one – Let battle commence as stars converge again

With the 2020 Cheltenham Festival beginning just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to take hold, the four-day meeting was the last major sporting event to survive before the country was forced into lockdown and all public gatherings were cancelled.

Twelve months later the world is still not fully recovered and all sporting fixtures must take place behind closed doors, with the Festival no exception.

With no crowds to witness the lifting of the tapes in the very first race of the meeting, there will be no Cheltenham roar, nor will there be the famed reception that awaits winning horses when they return to the parade ring.

Empty grandstands at Cheltenham
Empty grandstands at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

The Cheltenham Festival is as much about the top-flight racing as it is about the off-course atmosphere, however, and still promises to be of its usual calibre, despite the empty grandstands.

The first day is headlined by the Unibet Champion Hurdle, where last season’s heroine Epatante is poised to face the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle – on whom Rachael Blackmore could make history – and a resurgent Goshen.

The Sporting Life Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase looks at the mercy of Shishkin, although Allmankind will not go down without a fight.

Let battle commence…

Appreciate It – right from the start

Paul Townend could be all smiles again with Appreciate It
Paul Townend could be all smiles again with Appreciate It (PA)

It is a rare thing these days for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle not to kick-off proceedings with a Willie Mullins hotpot and this year is no exception, with Appreciate It having been a warm order since a terrific performance in Grade One company over Christmas. Ballyadam got closer to him at the Dublin Racing Festival, but while Appreciate It promises to be better over further – and fences – in time, all the evidence suggests there is little point in ignoring the obvious.

All eyes on Shishkin

Shishkin warmed up for Cheltenham with an easy success at Doncaster
Shishkin warmed up for Cheltenham with an easy success at Doncaster (Tim Goode/PA)

Top of the bill is Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, who has built a flawless record over fences since triumphing in the Supreme at the Festival last season. The Mullins-trained Energumene was his chief rival following a highly-impressive display when taking the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown by 10 lengths, but was withdrawn on Friday after a suffering an injury. Dan Skelton’s Allmankind wears his heart on his sleeve in front, so the Henderson hotpot will still have to be as advertised to get the job done.

Honeysuckle in full bloom ahead of Champion showdown

Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore struck in the Irish Champion Hurdle
Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore struck in the Irish Champion Hurdle (Niall Carson/PA)

Epatante bids to defend her crown in the feature race on the opening afternoon, after a three-length success 12 months ago. There is a question or two, however, after the Henderson runner disappointed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She also faces strong opposition from Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle, who has yet to suffer a single defeat in 10 starts under rules and was a 10-length winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle. If she can get her head in front it will see Blackmore become the first woman to ride a Champion Hurdle winner. Gary Moore’s Goshen, who was agonisingly denied victory in the Triumph Hurdle last year when unshipping Jamie Moore at the final hurdle, looked to have bounced back to his brilliant best when easily winning the Kingwell Hurdle and has very much rejoined the reckoning off the back of that performance.

Concertista centre stage in Mares’ Hurdle

Concertista and Paul Townend in winning action at Leopardstown over Christmas
Concertista and Paul Townend in winning action at Leopardstown over Christmas (PA)

The Henderson, Mullins and Skelton yards will face off once again in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Mullins’ Concertista was a 12-length winner at the Festival last season and has since enjoyed two further big-race successes, stepping up in trip on both occasions to prove her ability over two and a half miles. Henderson’s Coral Cup winner Dame De Compagnie reverts to hurdles after unseating Nico de Boinville in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, while Skelton’s Roksana is back down in distance – having dipped her toe in the staying division waters before defeating Jessica Harrington’s Magic Of Light in the Warfield Hurdle at Ascot.

Correct Destination?

Next Destination was a tenacious winner at Newbury
Next Destination was a tenacious winner at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Paul Nicholls made a surprise late decision to reroute his unbeaten novice Next Destination from a prospective clash with Monkfish on Wednesday to the Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase, which closes the card on day one. In the absence here of Royale Pagaille – who will sport the famous colours of Monkfish’s owners in Friday’s Gold Cup – it may prove a wise move. But Galvin will have his supporters too, following a run of four successive victories over fences. Now with Ian Ferguson after moving from Gordon Elliott, he also has strong Festival form in the book.

Race Histories 5: The National Hunt Chase

Now here’s a conundrum for you. We’ve just seen the 4 mile National Hunt Chase (I’ll just use it’s regular title here), a race in it’s 153rd year. Yet National Hunt racing has only regularly taken place at Cheltenham since the early 1900s, with the festival established in 1911. So what about the early years of the race? Read more