Ireland Set to Dominate at Cheltenham Festival 2021

The Cheltenham Festival is the highlight of the year for UK steeplechasing fans. The best jumpers from both sides of the Irish Sea clash over four days of top-class racing.  Competition is fierce among the leading stables, while there is also the side issue of the Prestbury Cup–the battle between Great Britain and Ireland for most winners during the meet.

Ireland currently has a firm grip on the award after winning 17 of the 28 races at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.  Early indicators are that it will be retaining the trophy with well over half of this year’s festival favorites trained in the Emerald Isle.  The strength of the Irish challenge was underlined at the February Dublin Festival, where trainer Willie Mullins won six of the eight Grade 1 races.

Mullins is currently the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history with 72 winners.  He saddled four winners on the final day in 2020, claiming the prize for top trainer at the meet for a record seventh time. His horses will figure prominently in Cheltenham day 1 tips this year, starting with Appreciate It in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Mullins’ stable will be represented by Energumene in the Arkle Chase, having already won the Irish equivalent at Leopardstown.  That sets up a fascinating clash with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, the leading British hope and unbeaten in three races over fences.  Henderson will saddle reigning Champion Hurdler Epatante in the feature race on the opening day.  The mare bids to retain her title but faces a strong challenge from Ireland’s leading mare Honeysuckle, an impressive winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle for Henry de Bromhead.

UK Bookmakers will be bracing themselves for another Mullins four-timer on day 2.  Gaillard Du Mesnil, Monkfish, Chacun Pour Soi, and Kilcruit are all expected to start as favorites.  The second day will feature a make-or-break appearance for dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll.  His connections have indicated that the horse may be retired if he does not show any sparkle in the Cross Country Chase.  A victory could trigger an attempt to equal the legendary Red Rum by securing a third Grand National triumph.

Tiger Roll is trained by Gordon Elliott, who could have the shortest-priced horse of the week on day 3 with Envoi Allen. He has not been seriously tested over fences so far and is already being talked about as a future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner.  The third day features the Stayers’ Hurdle and a duel between 2019 winner Paisley Park and market rival Thyme Hill. They have clashed twice already this season with one victory apiece.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the climax of the Festival on the closing Friday. This is the blue riband event for steeplechasers over 3 ¼ miles.  Al Boum Photo has won this race for the past two seasons for Willie Mullins and bids to emulate Best Mate, who won in 2002, 2003 and 2004.  Mullins had been trying to win this prize for twenty years prior to Al Boum Photo’s 2019 victory.

The 9-year-old has enjoyed a perfect preparation, following the same route as in the previous two seasons. The two horses to emerge as potential threats this year are A Plus Tard and Royal Pagaille.

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By Harvey Mayson, who is a free-lance sports writer based in Scotland.

Horse Racing Business 2021

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