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08th Mar 2024

Four things to watch out for when picking a horse for the Cheltenham festival

Niall McIntyre

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The Cheltenham festival is only just around the corner.

The prep-races have all taken place, the preview nights have come and gone, it’s almost time for starter’s orders.

The Cheltenham festival is the pinnacle of the national hunt racing calendar every year and we are set for yet another blockbuster renewal, with a host of stacked and high quality races on the horizon.

If Galopin Des Champs’ prospective Gold Cup battle with Fastorslow and Shishkin isn’t enough to set pulses racing then, not to worry, Constitution Hill’s ding-dong with State Man in the Champion Hurdle certainly will.

That dual will mark a clash between Irish raiders and the English which, of course, is yet another factor that contributes to the magic of the Cheltenham festival.

For horse-racing fans and punters alike, much of the joy and interest derives from tips and predictions. Who do you fancy here? Who will justify the hype there?

In the end, it all comes down to you.

You might follow a certain jockey, you could be taken by a trainer, you may even just go with the most eye-catching colours.

Here are four other important factors that can be taken into account when choosing the horse for you.

Horses for courses

Some horses come alive around the Prestbury Park track, it’s as simple as that.

Take Nicky Henderson’s legendary gelding Bobsworth, who won three separate Cheltenham festival races in his career – the Albert Bartlett Novice’s hurdle in 2011, the RSA Chase in 2012 and the Gold Cup in 2013.

Take Tiger Roll, the Irish dynamo who always peaked in March, racking up a whopping five Cheltenham festival wins.

If you like the idea of horses for courses then Gordon Elliott’s gem of a veteran Sire du Berlais might just be the horse for you.

The 12-year-old has won three Cheltenham festival races in his life, including last year’s World Hurdle. He has also placed at the festival on two separate occasions and will be chasing down a second World Hurdle in a row on Cheltenham Thursday, at odds of in and around 20/1*.

Flooring Porter, winner of two stayers’ hurdles in his time, is another who likes it around Cheltenham – he shouldn’t be discounted wherever he goes, and it looks like he’s going to the National Hunt Chase right now.

A generous mark

Just like all athletes will target the Olympics, all national hunt racehorses target the Cheltenham festival – the Olympics of jumps-racing as it’s so often called.

Some trainers may, as a result, opt not to show their best hands in certain prep-runs so as to give themselves a best chance at the Cheltenham festival.

In other words, some horses may have just been ‘out for a run’ last time out so that they will be given a lower weight to carry in the handicap races.

One such horse may be Nicky Henderson’s No Ordinary Joe. He finished third last time out in Kempton but is expected to run a good race in the Coral Cup, a race his owner JP McManus has won three times in the past.

Un/happy hunting grounds

Trends and stats should also be considered leading up to the big festival. One eye-catching trend is Willie Mullins’ dominance of the festival’s very first race, the Supreme Novice’s Hurdle.

The Closutton maestro generally targets Tuesday’s opener with a full blown battalion and while he hasn’t been successful in the last two runnings, he is mob-handed this time around.

He saddles the race’s three favourites, with the in-form Ballyburn backed to justify his short odds, thereby seeing the Supreme Novice’s hurdle remain as Mullins’ happiest hunting ground of all.

In recent times, the Cheltenham festival has been a happy hunting ground for Henry de Bromhead so all of his charges should be respected, such as Minella Indo in the cross country and Tellmesomethinggirl in the mares’.

On the other hand, the Champion Bumper is a race that has proven to be an unhappy hunting ground for favourites, with only three of the last 12 favourites justifying the odds in one of the festival’s most open races of all.

Follow the Irish

The Irish trainers have dominated the Cheltenham festival in recent times, winning the Prestbury Cup in seven of the last eight years.

Irish success has been particularly pronounced in the last four renewals with English trainers failing to win more than 10 of the 28 races each time.

2021 was an absolute landslide in favour of the Irish trainers, who won 23 of the 28 races.

Willie Mullins, Henry de Bromhead and Gordon Elliott are obviously the trailblazers from an Irish perspective, but trainers like Gavin Cromwell and Emmett Mullions shouldn’t be discounted either. In other words, if in doubt, follow the Irish.

*Odds subject to change

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