Cheltenham is all set for a return to ‘normal’ with big crowds back at the Festival this afternoon for the first time in two years.
Unfortunately the 2020 meeting was shrouded in controversy. All four days went ahead – but the mood changed as the severity of the coronavirus pandemic really began to emerge. The Gold Cup took place on the Friday, and just days later the country was in lockdown.
The four-day fixture went ahead last year, but there was no general admission and people allowed on course were strictly limited. Those lucky to attend did their best, but it simply was not the same.
Now the famous roar when the tapes go up for the first race of the meeting, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, will be greeted with more enthusiasm than ever. And the Supreme itself promises to be a humdinger with Nicky Henderson hoping to get Britain off to a flying start against the Irish by saddling Constitution Hill and Jonbon to take on the might of the Emerald Isle.
Alan King’s Edwardstone carries British hopes in the Arkle Trophy, which is followed by a typically open Ultima Handicap Chase. Then all eyes will be on Honeysuckle, who goes for back-to-back victories in the Champion Hurdle as she bids to continue her remarkable winning run under the equally magnificent Rachael Blackmore, who simply stole the show 12 months ago.
A mighty mix of races – the Mares’ Hurdle, the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle and the National Hunt Challenge Cup, which this year carries the name of the Ukraine Appeal – add more spice to a day when the best jumps meeting in the world feels like home again.
Racing’s first ladies are back for more
Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore are the names on everyone’s lips as Henry de Bromhead’s wonder mare seeks to bring the house down by repeating last year’s victory in the Unibet Champion Hurdle. The eight-year-old is a hot favourite to continue her remarkable unbeaten run and take her record to 15 from 15 under rules and bag an 11th Grade One triumph. Her biggest rival could be her compatriot, Appreciate It, who has not raced since winning the Supreme 12 months ago but will have been trained to perfection by Willie Mullins.
Hill too far for Team Ireland?
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is a fitting race to open the meeting and has all the ingredients of being a classic. Henderson is throwing two darts with both Constitution Hill and Jonbon unbeaten and looking capable of running massive races. They may not have it their own way, however, as the Irish inevitably have a strong hand in the Mullins-trained Dysart Dynamo and Kilcruit.
The Arkle was thrown wide open when Ferny Hollow was ruled out of the race through injury. With the short-priced ante-post favourite out of the equation, Edwardstone has taken up the mantle. The progressive eight-year-old from the King stable enhanced his claims when completing a four-timer in the Kingmaker at Warwick. The Mullins team may be missing Ferny Hollow but in Blue Lord they have a solid replacement, as well as Haut En Couleurs and Saint Sam waiting in the wings. Gordon Elliott’s mare Riviere D’etel looks a serious rival having gone down by only half a length to both Ferny Hollow and Blue Lord in her last two races.
Stormy to strike?
Stormy Ireland heads the Mullins charge as the Closutton handler bids to improve on his record of nine wins in just 14 renewals of the Mares’ Hurdle. Second in this race back in 2019, Stormy Ireland has been a different horse since returning to Mullins following a spell with Paul Nicholls, most recently winning the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. This looks an open renewal on paper with her stablemates Burning Victory and Echoes In Rain among a host of smart rivals.
Elliott back in the Hunt
Tiger Roll and Galvin are just two of the horses to have lifted the National Hunt Chase in recent times and another above-average renewal looks on the cards. Elliott, the trainer of both those horses, has a leading fancy in Run Wild Fred. Elliott was serving a six-month suspension for sitting on a dead horse last year and will be especially keen to get some winners in his own name again. The Mullins-trained Stattler and Gavin Cromwell’s Vanillier, who took the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle last year, are other fancied runners from across the sea as the Irish will be favourites to end day one on a high.