Much has been made of Ireland’s current dominance at the top end of the National Hunt game – a debate which was really sparked after the raiding party’s total dominance of the 2021 Festival.
While there has been a definite sea change in the balance of power in recent years, few could have envisaged the Irish would ever manage to win a staggering 23 of the 28 races on offer in the Cotswolds.
It is widely expected that the majority of this year’s Festival heroes will again be trained in Ireland, but the home team will certainly hope to put up more of a fight this time around.
With behind-closed-doors festivals hopefully a thing of the past, the Prestbury Park grandstands will once again be packed to the rafters to witness the latest Anglo-Irish turf war.
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 as the battle for the Prestbury Cup resumes.
Constitution Hill – Nicky Henderson – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The British contingent, and Nicky Henderson in particular, will be hoping to get the Festival off to a flying start in the traditional curtain-raiser. The master of Seven Barrows is preparing to fire a two-pronged assault, with Constitution Hill joined by expensive purchase Jonbon, both of whom have yet to taste defeat under rules. It is not easy to split the pair, but the fact that Constitution Hill beat Might I further at Sandown than Jonbon did at Haydock means he is preferred in the market. By all accounts the Blue Bresil gelding does not set the world alight on the Lambourn gallops, but he has been hugely impressive in two starts on the track and a hat-trick could be in the offing at Cheltenham.
Edwardstone – Alan King – Arkle Trophy
Alan King’s charge has firmly established himself as Britain’s leading Arkle hope in what does not look the strongest renewal of the two-mile novice chasing championship. There was not much to choose between Blue Lord and Riviere D’etel in a thrilling Irish Arkle a few weeks ago, whereas Edwardstone comprehensively outgunned the smart Third Time Lucki in the Kingmaker at Warwick on his latest appearance. In truth, the eight-year-old has not been hard pressed to win his last four races and given he has run well at Cheltenham before, he looks the one to beat for a trainer who won successive renewals of this race in 2006 and 2007 with Voy Por Ustedes and My Way De Solzen.
Bravemansgame – Paul Nicholls – Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase
A Grade One-winning hurdler last season, the seven-year-old was put in his place at Cheltenham and Aintree in the spring – but it could be a different story this year. This imposing type always promised to make up into an even better chaser and has so far lived up to the billing with four brilliant displays over fences. His accurate jumping is undoubtedly his biggest weapon and his recent handicap success at Newbury saw his mark elevated into the mid-160s, which is exceptional for a novice. With Galopin Des Champs seemingly headed elsewhere, this looks his for the taking.
Shishkin – Nicky Henderson – Queen Mother Champion Chase
Undoubtedly Britain’s biggest gun, Shishkin will return to the Cotswolds bidding for a third Festival win following his previous triumphs in the Supreme and the Arkle. His record of seven from seven over fences speaks for itself – and his recent defeat of Energumene in an enthralling Clarence House at Ascot will go down in National Hunt folklore. The pair are set to renew rivalry, while the presence of Energumene’s stablemate Chacun Pour Soi adds further spice. But Energumene has never been to Cheltenham and Chacun Pour Soi has twice failed to live up to expectations on British soil. With Shishkin there are really no question marks and there is every chance he will raise the roof once again.
Pats Fancy – Rebecca Curtis – National Hunt Chase
While the other four British hopes put forward seem fairly obvious, this fellow is a little bit of a dark horse for what used to be ‘the four-miler’. In a market dominated by the Irish pair of Stattler and Run Wild Fred, Pats Fancy looks to be a bit of value, having made steady progress through his novice campaign. The seven-year-old comfortably beat subsequent Cheltenham winner Imperial Alcazar at Chepstow in December and was last seen chasing home the aforementioned Bravemansgame at Newbury. That looked an ideal prep run for the Festival and the booking of leading Irish amateur Barry O’Neill is a huge positive for his chances.
Honeysuckle – Henry de Bromhead – Champion Hurdle
It is difficult to look beyond the first lady of Irish racing as she bids for back-to-back wins in the day one feature. While Henry de Bromhead’s string have not been firing all cylinders for large parts of the season, it has not prevented Honeysuckle from winning her third Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse and her third Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown – extending her overall unbeaten record to 14. With meaningful opposition thin on the ground, it will be a major shock if she does not come up the famous Cheltenham hill in front once more.
Facile Vega – Willie Mullins – Champion Bumper
Willie Mullins’ domination of the Champion Bumper is well documented by now – saddling a further 10 winners since memorably steering Wither Or Which to victory in 1996. Three of the last four runnings have gone to Closutton and Facile Vega looks the horse most likely to get the job done this time around. Bred to be special as a son of Walk In the Park out of the six-time Festival heroine Quevega, the five-year-old has so far lived up to his regal breeding with two demolition jobs at Leopardstown, with his most recent performance at the Dublin Racing Festival nothing short of spectacular. It is, however, worth noting that Kilcruit produced a similar display in the same race last year before being upstaged by stablemate Sir Gerhard at Cheltenham – and he is not the first Mullins hotpot in the Champion Bumper to be beaten by a second or third string.
Allaho – Willie Mullins – Ryanair Chase
It could be argued Allaho produced the most visually impressive performance of the entire Festival last year, with the deadly combination of relentless galloping and slick jumping from the front truly a sight to behold for anyone who loves National Hunt racing. Admittedly his two performances so far this season have not been quite so striking, but he performed much worse for much of the last campaign before taking his game to a different stratosphere in March. ‘GSI – Get stuck in’ were the words of Mullins when told Allaho’s odds were drifting prior to the 2021 Ryanair. Maybe we should all take note and do just that 12 months on.
Flooring Porter – Gavin Cromwell – Stayers’ Hurdle
On the same afternoon Allaho defends his crown, Flooring Porter will do the same in the other day three feature. Gavin Cromwell’s charge made remarkable progress last season and there was certainly no fluke about his front-running triumph under Danny Mullins. He was pulled up at Punchestown next time and fell on his return to action, but proved the fire still burns bright when runner-up to Klassical Dream at Leopardstown in December. The pair are set to renew rivalry and both have their quirks. But while Klassical Dream has since fluffed his lines at Gowran Park, Flooring Porter has been kept fresh for the big day – just as he did last year – and he will not give up his title without a fight.
Galvin – Gordon Elliott – Gold Cup
The Irish appear to have a stranglehold on the blue riband, with only Dan Skelton’s Protektorat managing a place in the top half dozen in the betting. Cases can be made for last year’s one-two Minella Indo and A Plus Tard, as well as dual winner Al Boum Photo, who connections seem sure was not at his best when third 12 months ago. But the pick of the lot could be Galvin, who may not yet have reached his peak. Elliott’s inmate has already won at the Festival and proven his stamina for the Gold Cup trip and more, having struck gold in last season’s National Hunt Chase. He proved he can mix it at the highest level when lunging late to deny A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas and connections have opted to keep their powder dry for the Gold Cup since.