The time of year is upon us once more when Cheltenham starts to force itself into our subconscious.
Jumps racing is taking over from the flat after the summer months and, gradually, the big names are re-appearing. The likes of Don Cossack and The New One have come out and got their respective campaigns off to winning starts that connections hope will lead eventually to Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle glory respectively.
There will be many alterations and shake-ups in the betfair ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival between now and March, of that much we can be sure. As the national hunt season clicks into top gear, let us take stock of the four Championship contests for the festival and the contenders we expect to see in the spring.
Reigning champ: Faugheen
The (so far) impenetrable shadow of Faugheen casts itself over the Champion Hurdle. From all that we have seen so far from Willie Mullins’ giant, he has the scope to become jumps racing’s answer to Frankel. A while back we thought we had something similar in the form of Sprinter Sacre but Nicky Henderson’s ‘Black Aeroplane’ nose-dived following his well-documented heart problems.
In ten career starts under rules, Faugheen has yet to seriously consider defeat as an option. He goes about his business in hugely authoritative fashion, granting him the moniker of ‘Faugheen the Machine‘ last season. Can anything beat him this season? Moreover, can any horse actually get him swaying enough to force Ruby Walsh to get serious with him?
Faugheen is the most exciting hurdler since the mighty Istabraq and could go on and match his feats in time. Coming so soon after the retirement of the remarkable Hurricane Fly, this horse has the potential to go on and carve his name in the record books.
Contenders: Arctic Fire, Douvan, The New One, Peace And Co, My Tent Or Yours
Of course, the beauty of the Champion Hurdle is that it remains such a test of speed and precise hurdling that one error could be the undoing of Faugheen. The champion has, on occasion, shown a tendency to flick the odd hurdle and that will always be a lingering source of hope for those who seek to lower his flag.
Last year, Mullins enjoyed a Champion Hurdle clean sweep courtesy of the aforementioned duo, Faugheen and Hurricane Fly, with Arctic Fire splitting the pair. Arctic Fire was a rapid improver last season and looked destined to land Grade One success at Aintree only for a crashing fall at the final flight to hand victory to Jezki. Coming from the all-conquering Mullins operation, Arctic Fire is not even assured of progression up the ranks with Hurricane Fly’s retirement.
Last season’s Supreme Novice Douvan is another tantalising prospect for owner Rich Ricci, who will find it increasingly tough to keep his stars apart given the strength and depth in his team now.
The New One has already got his season off to a winning start at Kempton, although his workmanlike performance did little to inspire and sees him trading at 21.00 on betfair at the time of writing to win a first Champion Hurdle crown at the third attempt.
Things have always seemed to come that little bit harder for the Nigel Twiston-Davies runner since his storming Neptune win at the festival in 2013. Last season this race was billed for much of the winter as a duel between Faugheen and The New One and yet, when the big day arrived, the latter was unable to land a telling blow.
The International Hurdle in December will be the The New One’s main early season target. Will he be meeting any rivals with Champion Hurdle aspirations in that contest? Nicky Henderson last won that particular race with Grandouet four years ago and the Seven Barrows team have another promising recruit in the colours of Simon Munir with Peace And Co, the unbeaten Triumph Hurdler from last season.
Henderson had a really promising crop of juvenile hurdlers last term – the first three home in the Triumph – but Peace And Co always looked the pick of them. His progression this season will be an intriguing narrative in the two-mile hurdling division.
Also from Seven Barrows, 2014 Champion Hurdle bridesmaid My Tent Or Yours, is set to return from a tendon injury that forced him to miss last season in its entirety. Still just seven-years-old, the JP McManus-owned runner came within a neck of winning at Cheltenham in Champion Hurdle claimed by Jezki.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
Reigning champ: Dodging Bullets
It’s fair to assert that champion trainer Paul Nicholls didn’t really feel Dodging Bullets got the respect he deserved going into the Queen Mother last March. Winner of both the Tingle Creek at Sandown and the Clarence House at Ascot, Dodging Bullets had scooped the two key trials for the two-mile chasing crown in impressive fashion.
He was, said Nicholls, a much more mature performer and one that deserved favouritism for the Cheltenham contest rather than being sent off third choice of the punters. The Ditcheat handler was suitably delighted when Dodging Bullets stayed on best of all up the Cheltenham hill to fulfil his prophecy.
Nicholls expects even more from his charge this time around and has reported him to be in rude health having enjoyed an extended break since his Prestbury Park joy. Will he be proved right again?
Contenders: Un De Sceaux, Sire De Grugy, Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Special Tiara
Given that he smashed the record for the most winners trained at a single Cheltenham Festival last time around, we should not be surprised to find the name of Willie Mullins attached to a red-hot contender for this race as well. What is a surprise, however, is that Mullins has yet to land any of the four Championship contests outside of the Champion Hurdle. Given the ammunition at his disposal, that record looks almost certain to tumble soon.
The 2015 Arkle winner Un De Sceaux spearheads the market for what is his natural graduation to take this race. It has been said the greatest threat to Un De Sceaux is Un De Sceaux himself. He front runs, big and bold, and attacks his fences with seemingly wanton abandon.
Such tactics helped bring about the sole defeat of his career when he crashed out in a beginners chase at Thurles last November. Any fears that his racing style would be his undoing at Cheltenham were proved to have no foundation as he readily squashed a brief challenge from God’s Own in the Arkle.
Un De Sceaux guarantees a bare knuckle ride, designed to test the very limits of his opponents as early and as often as he can. Fallen champions Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy cannot be completely written off.
The former has perhaps the most to prove given his heart troubles but Henderson retains the faith and has issued some positive reports on what he is seeing on the gallops this year that was simply not there last season. The early season skirmishes are vital for Sprinter Sacre, much more so than any other horse in training. Failure now and he will surely dot off into retirement.
Sire De Grugy’s problems were of much more benign foundations last term and Gary Moore’s stable star looks likely to have his say again this time around. Simonsig, an Arkle winner himself, has been forced for endure a long spell looking on but in Henderson he has the perfect ally to coax him back to full health.
A mention too for Henry De Bromhead’s Special Tiara, who proved either side of finishing third to Dodging Bullets at Cheltenham that he belongs in the top drawer of speedy chasers and will no doubt have his say again heading into 2016.
Reigning champ: Cole Harden
The most open of the four Championship races and certainly one where it is tough to pin down those likely to feature come March. Cole Harden produced a career-best effort to win in March, providing trainer Warren Greatrex with his maiden Cheltenham success in doing so.
He was unable to follow up at Aintree a month later, going down to the prodigious Nicky Henderson runner Whisper. When Cole Harden was bowling along in front at Cheltenham in March, few, if any, of his rivals expected him to stay there.
Of the four champions that may return to the festival in 2016, Cole Harden looks most vulnerable.
Contenders: Aux Ptits Soins, Annie Power, Windsor Park, Whisper
Finding the most viable alternatives is every bit as tricky as trying to imagine a repeat success for Cole Harden. The most obvious contender would be Annie Power, the mare who finished second to More Of That in 2014.
The Grade One status afforded to the mares’ race on the opening afternoon is likely to see her trainer, Willie Mullins, pursue that race instead. Given his will could not be bent with the wonderful Quevega, and Annie Power’s final hurdle spill last time, Mullins will be loath to stray from his plan. Were Annie Power in the line-up for the World Hurdle, she would arguably stand a favourite’s chance.
Saphir Du Rheu and Un Temps Pour Tout have been earmarked for chasing by Paul Nicholls and David Pipe.
Whisper did not enjoy an ideal prep coming to Cheltenham last March – finishing third at Exeter over fences on New Year’s Day on his sole start. Given this division looks open, Henderson will have to give long consideration to aiming his charge at the World Hurdle again.
Windsor Park was excellent when taking the Neptune at the festival and the dual purpose runner from Dermot Weld’s yard should progress again but of more interest may be subsequent Aintree and Punchestown scorer Nichols Canyon, who was only third in the Neptune.
One of the most eye-catching performances of 2014 came from Aux Ptits Soins in the Coral Cup, sprung from Nicholls’ Ditcheat team for a winning British debut in an ultra-competitive handicap. The early indications are that he has been given the World Hurdle as his primary target by the champion trainer and he is one to watch out for based on the brief glimpse we have had so far.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
Reigning champ: Coneygree
What a complete breath of fresh air Coneygree was in winning the blue riband, becoming the first novice to do so in 41 years.
The attitude of trainer Mark Bradstock in taking on the big guns was highly commendable and Coneygree responded with a huge, gutsy performance to see off some sustained late challenges having made almost every yard of the running. It was a glorious success that capped a magical novice campaign but will there be collateral damage for those efforts?
Many horses have been tainted by the effort that goes into Gold Cup glory and, in particular, when doing the legwork from the front. The comparison with the great Denman springs to mind almost immediately. ‘The Tank’ was never quite the same horse after his 2008 triumph.
That said, the vibes have been positive again from the Bradstock team and a tilt at the Hennessy Gold Cup should confirm his well-being or otherwise. If his win in March has done no lasting damage, what a prospect Coneygree will be this year.
Contenders: Vautour, Don Cossack, Djakadam, Saphir Du Rheu, Road To Riches
This season has the capacity to produce a gripping Gold Cup storyline that leads all the way until the tapes go up on Friday 18th March. There are an endless list of threads that could contribute along the way.
Don Cossack is the highest-rated chaser in England or Ireland and trainer Gordon Elliott holds him in the highest regard. While he has won multiple Grade One events on both sides of the Irish Sea and produces remarkable consistency, his credibility is underlined by a fall in the RSA Chase in 2014 and his only reverse in his eight most recent starts having come in the Ryanair last March.
The Irish challenge appears to have real depth to it with Djakadam and Road To Riches – second and third behind Coneygree – both expected to return.
Vautour’s storming victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase had pundits and fans alike fawning for superlatives, such was the dominance and majesty of his performance. Twice a festival winner already, he looks sure to hold the key should his supreme trainer, Mullins, finally land the most sought after race at the festival in 2016.
Meanwhile, Paul Nicholls firmly believes that Saphir Du Rheu can end his seven-year wait for another Gold Cup success. This contest already has mouthwatering components and the season is scarcely upon us.
That is what Cheltenham provides, a wondrous winter-long build up as we prepare for the ‘greatest show on turf’ to burst into action in mid-March.
Between now and then, there will be much conjecture and opinion swapping.