Cheltenham Day One: Punters set to support high-calibre Irish runners

Mullins, Elliott and De Bromhead back with classy strings in pursuit of festival success

With the dangers of jingoism all over our screens, reining back on the flag waving might be a timely move going into this year's Cheltenham festival.

The temptation to rub in last year’s unprecedented drubbing of the home team by Irish trained horses – 23 races to five – proved irresistible to some and probably will be again given a similar or worse rout this week.

That’s hardly beyond the bounds of possibility given the strength in depth of the Irish raiding party.

Willie Mullins is only 11-10 to outscore the home team on his own. Even by the standards that has made him the festival's most successful ever trainer, Mullins's team of up to 60 horses rank with any he's brought before in terms of depth.


He is odds-on to be leading trainer for a ninth time and may even trump his best ever previous haul of eight winners in a week in 2015.

His great rival, Gordon Elliott, also saddled eight in 2018 and following his suspension a year ago returns with similar numerical strength in depth to his great rival.

All three champions from Henry De Bromhead's Triple Crown exploits in 2021 are back too at the vanguard of an awesomely strong challenge from Ireland.

In response a rather plaintive cross-channel cry about punters not caring about where horses are based, and the whole national bit being overplayed in such an individual sport, has gathered momentum. If it might sound more convincing had British racing not been so obviously mortified at the Irish pummelling last year there is a point lurking in there anyway.

For one thing, a rivalry only works if both sides have a shout and the Anglo-Irish element has always been central to Cheltenham. For the festival’s own sake, the home side needs to score more often.

So if a good start is half the battle then a lot is riding on the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle. Dysart Dynamo leads a three-pronged Mullins attack while the Grade One winner Mighty Potter represents Elliott.

However, a lot of home hopes revolve around Nicky Henderson’s pair of highly rated unbeaten youngsters, Jonbon and Constitution Hill.

The latter in particular looks an exceptional prospect based on the evidence of a pair of wide-margin victories at Sandown. If the bare form doesn't appear to amount to much, there's no arguing with the stylish impression Constitution Hill made.

Perhaps a crucial element too will be a temperament that apparently isn’t so much laid back as horizontal.

With “full house” signs back at Cheltenham, and all the noise and hoopla that comes with that, the atmosphere ahead of the first race will be feverish.

There have been plenty signs that Jonbon can live on his nerves while Dysart Dynamo’s wide-margin victory at Punchstown in January, while impressive, suggested a horse eager to get on with things.

Adopting a phlegmatic approach to Cheltenham is tough for most but could prove a big plus for Constitution Hill. There may be a lot riding on such an outcome too for home hopes.

One barrier that hasn’t been broken by Irish trained horses in recent years is a clean sweep of every race in a single day. It has come agonisingly close on a handful of occasions over the last decade and only the short head by which Billaway was beaten in the Hunter chase prevented it on the final day of 2021.

Champion Hurdle

Edwardstone is a long-time favourite for the Sporting Life Arkle but home failure in the first two races could make for a long and grim week ahead.

Honeysuckle’s apparent superiority means she mightn’t need any 7lbs sex allowance in the Champion Hurdle although it could prove pivotal to Riviere d’Etel in the Arkle.

She has half a length to make up on Blue Lord from the Irish Arkle form but the five-year-old's final fence blunder, plus subsequent interference from the winner, looked decisive on that occasion. The way Riviere d'Etel finished at Leopardstown, plus that vital weight pull, suggests the final hill should suit.

Anything but an Irish victory in Tuesday's other Grade One, the Close Bros Mares Hurdle, will be a big shock with all three major yards strongly represented.

Willie Mullins has three shots at a 10th victory in a race he dominated like no other with the six-time winner Quevega.

Paul Townend has opted for Stormy Ireland which leaves Patrick Mullins on Echoes In Rain.

The champion amateur’s only previous ride on Echoes In Rain yielded a Grade One at Punchestown last season. A strong tempo will help her settle and a first start at 2½ miles makes Echoes In Rain a potentially value bet.

The Boodles Hurdle is a rare gap on the Mullins festival CV that could get filled spectacularly if the 129 mark assigned to his French import Gaelic Warrior really is as lenient as is widely suspected.

This is a race that threw up an 80-1 winner last year though so HMS Seahorse could ride to the bookies’ rescue.

Cheltenham Tips: 1.30 – Constitution Hill; 2.10 – Riviere d'Etel; 2.50 – Ben Dundee 3.30 – Honeysuckle; 4.10 – Echoes In Rain; 4.50 – HMS Seahorse; 5.30 – Vanillier (Nap)

Nap and Double: Vanillier & Riviere d'Etel.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column