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Being leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival is an accolade every handler across Britain and Ireland dreams of. To have a chance requires a strong team with immense depth in order to be consistently challenging across the four days of this Cotswolds extravaganza.
It has become an exclusive club since the meeting moved to four days, with just four trainers able to claim the award since Howard Johnson topped the charts back in 2005.
It’s hard to see the domination of Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson being broken in 2021.
Ireland’s perennial champion trainer has dominated this Festival over the last decade, with the name WP Mullins crowned leading trainer at Cheltenham seven times since 2011, including the last two years. His remarkable sequence of success means Mullins is now the all-time winning-most trainer in Cheltenham Festival history with a running tally of 72 winners.
He showed at the recent Dublin Racing Festival that his hand remains as strong as ever, taking out six of the eight Grade 1 prizes in that two-day meeting. With the likes of Appreciate It, Monkfish, Kilcruit, Chacun Pour Soi and, of course, hat-trick-seeking Gold Cup kingpin Al Boum Photo; it’s going to require a herculean effort to prevent Mullins topping the charts again.
The Master of Seven Barrows now trails his Irish adversary by four, Henderson’s Cheltenham Festival victory count standing at 68. His longevity is almost untouched and Henderson has of course been saddling winners at this meeting for close to four decades now. His most recent leading trainer gong at the meeting came in 2012 but Henderson continues to hover with plenty leading chances.
Shiskin will be expected to get him on the board early as ante-post favourite for the Sporting Life Arkle Chase on day one, while his mare Epatante will also be seeking to defend the Champion Hurdle title on Cheltenham Tuesday. With the likes of Altior and Santini, as well as plenty up-and-coming stars and handicap possibilities, NJ Henderson remains firmly in the leading trainer discussion.
Elliott is still the ‘new kid on the block’ to some degree despite being well established as one of the best trainers in Britain and Ireland now. He is the only trainer to dislodge Mullins in recent years, having won the leading trainer award at Cheltenham in both 2017 and 2018 – his tally of eight winners in the second of those wins is a joint-record. Only a fabulous four-timer for the Mullins yard on day four last March stopped Elliott regaining this mantle.
He has perhaps the most exciting jumps horse in training with Envoi Allen going for a third Cheltenham Festival win, as well as established performers like Galvin and Tiger Roll in his ranks. Elliott is always a man to be reckoned with in handicaps, while his talented team of juveniles includes Triumph Hurdle contenders Zanahiyr and Quilixios.
The name of PF Nicholls was etched into Festival folklore during a golden era for his Ditcheat operation that saw him crowned Cheltenham’s leading trainer four years on the trot from 2006-2009. It’s a mantle Nicholls hasn’t been able to regain since the heady days of Kauto Star, Denman, Big Buck’s et al, but he’s enjoying perhaps his best season in a decade now and is on course to be champion trainer in Britain once again.
Politologue won the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2020 and Nicholls has exciting names like Bravemansgame and Barbados Bucks with growing reputations going into Cheltenham 2021, while the durable Frodon won the King George over Christmas to thrust himself into the Gold Cup picture.
If there’s a name lurking just underneath the surface then it is that of Dan Skelton. Former assistant to Nicholls, he has established a strong operation in his own right and is already a Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer. Skelton’s early ethos in the training ranks was to fire as many winners as he could but a noted shift has occurred this season, with the focus now on quality over quantity.
Former Mares’ Hurdle winner Roksana looks a contender for Stayers’ success, while Allmankind and Shan Blue are exciting novice chasers with Grade 1 aspirations this spring. His alliance with main rider and brother Harry is as potent as ever and the Skelton brothers are likely to become key Cheltenham Festival narratives in the near future.