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Cheltenham Festival week is finally here, the most eagerly-anticipated four days in the racing calendar by some stretch.
This year’s Festival in the Cotswolds will have a different feel to it, being run behind closed doors for the very first time (and hopefully the last!). The famous Cheltenham roars will be absent but the top-class National Hunt racing can surely sustain the sporting theatre.
Ahead of the Festival getting underway on Tuesday afternoon, our racing analyst assesses the hopes of the market leaders in the four Championship races at Cheltenham this week.
Tuesday – Champion Hurdle: Honeysuckle @ 9/4*
Wednesday – Champion Chase: Chacun Pour Soi @ 5/6
Thursday – Stayers’ Hurdle: Paisley Park @ 15/8
Friday – Gold Cup: Al Boum Photo @ 5/2
*Odds are subject to change.
Star mare should have the answers
Honeysuckle won her second Irish Champion Hurdle crown last month and made it a ‘Perfect 10’ in her career thus far, arguably delivering her most polished performance to date. Henry De Bromhead’s stable star got the better of Benie Des Dieux to win the Mares’ Hurdle over 2m4f here last March but, this time, connections have elected to go for Championship glory in the Champion Hurdle instead over the minimum distance.
Reigning champion Epatante was most disappointing when beaten by Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and needs a career-best to cling to this crown. Goshen, the gut-wrenching final-flight faller in the Triumph Hurdle here last March, showed he’s right in the reckoning with a Kingwell Hurdle romp at Wincanton last month. They make up the front three in the market but it’s Honeysuckle that seems likeliest to prevail.
Her proven stamina is a major asset over this searching two miles and Rachael Blackmore showed last time at Leopardstown she’ll be brave enough to kick on early and make the rest come after her sooner than they might want. Honeysuckle is the one they all must try and topple.
Chacun braced for date with destiny
There’s a real sense of an anointing of a mantle that has long been thought a rite of passage as Chacun Pour Soi finally goes for glory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday. Ever since he dismissed Defi Du Seuil in a Punchestown Grade 1 novice in May 2019, this race has seemingly been his destiny.
He was an 11th-hour withdrawal last year and on Wednesday he’ll race on British soil for the first time. Paul Townend doesn’t foresee Cheltenham as an obstacle and the jockey has waxed lyrical on Chacun Pour Soi more than once this season. He’s an electric jumper and will take ground out of his rivals in the air. He travels as a top two-miler should but, sometimes, his run from the final fence to the line isn’t what it threatens to be – could that catch him out here?
He was dealt a boost on Monday morning when Altior was ruled out of the race and might just be too good for the likes of Nube Negra and First Flow. Last year’s Arkle winner Put The Kettle On is 3-3 around Cheltenham and Henry De Bromhead’s mare shouldn’t be counted out getting 7lb from the boys. That said, Chacun Pour Soi will be very hard to beat and is likely to see trainer Willie Mullins completing his set of Cheltenham’s Championship races.
Paisley Park has chance to regain crown
A fibrillating heart was found to be the reason for Paisley Park’s underwhelming defence of his Stayers’ Hurdle crown last March, as 50/1 outsider Lisnagar Oscar scored for Rebecca Curtis.
The latter showed recently at Haydock that he should not be dismissed in any haste here but Emma Lavelle’s charge if firm favourite to reclaim this crown.
He was unable to give weight to Thyme Hill on his comeback at Newbury, finishing second, but he avenged that defeat when collaring Philip Hobbs’ charge late on in the Long Walk at Ascot in December – though that was a race in which Richard Johnson was left with some regrets on the runner-up.
The planned prep run in the Cleeve Hurdle here in late January was lost to the weather and Lavelle opted to come straight to this race rather than head to Wetherby in pursuit of that prize.
With Thyme Hill ruled out last week, their ‘trilogy’ sequel has been postpone for now at least. That certainly leaves the door wide open for Paisley Park but the likes of Flooring Porter, Vinndication and the aforementioned Lisnagar Oscar will make life tough for Aidan Coleman’s mount and he will need his best stuff.
Historic Photo opportunity
Willie Mullins once had a Cheltenham Gold Cup ‘hoodoo’ to conquer but Al Boum Photo did just that two years ago, giving the Festival’s all-time leading trainer a first win in this Blue Riband contest.
He did so off a relatively fast pace and, 12 months ago, Al Boum Photo retained his prize, this time finishing strongly off a much more sedate pace set ahead of him. His versatility is there for all to see and his peak years as a staying chaser are being choreographed superbly well by his all-conquering trainer. As with last year, a lone run – and win – at Tramore on New Year’s Day was his prep for the Gold Cup.
With the likes of Champ unproven at this distance, not to mention in open Grade 1 company, and A Plus Tard with stamina to prove despite his Savills Chase win at Christmas, Al Boum Photo looks to be holding very strong claims of joining Best Mate as a three-time Gold Cup winner in this century.
The presence of exciting novice Royal Pagaille adds some spice to the Gold Cup but Al Boum Photo should prove a tough nut to crack in his quest for three-in-a-row. Arguably, he hasn’t yet got the recognition his two wins have merited.