Strong Irish raiding party could set new mark for Cheltenham winners

The record Irish haul of 19 winners in 2017 could come under threat over the next four days

Appreciate It enjoys a roll at Cheltenham on Monday ahead of the start of this year’s festival. Photograph: Francesca Altoft/Inpho

Appreciate It enjoys a roll at Cheltenham on Monday ahead of the start of this year’s festival. Photograph: Francesca Altoft/Inpho

 

On the eve of Cheltenham 2021 many in racing would probably settle for a nice ordinary run of the mill festival.

A sport beleaguered by recent controversies hardly needs more left-field deflections into the wider spotlight.

Cheltenham is its greatest shop-window event, when the eyes of the outside world are drawn to one of the great sporting amphitheatres on the side of a hill in Gloucestershire.

However, a year after that attention became the sharpest of double-edged swords, officials in both Britain and Ireland can be forgiven for keeping their fingers crossed that the coming four days prove unremarkable, maybe even humdrum.

More than ever racing needs the action on the track to do the talking.

If Cheltenham 2020 became a lightning rod for public anxiety at the emerging pandemic then this week’s behind closed doors meeting will hopefully divert focus back to the straightforward business of getting to the finish line first.

That the weeks leading up to it have been mired in reputational own goals inevitably means anxiety about the chances of more unwanted drama will circulate around the empty racecourse.

The track itself has been sealed tight, designed to prevent any outbreak of Covid-19, and with the small group of Irish present securely in their own bubble.

Everyone has been left under no illusions that the world is watching and it all makes for a notably fraught atmosphere in what is usually a raucously enjoyable event.

Desolate stands, normally thronged with 60,000 people, underpin how in many ways the coming week is much more of a functional exercise than a sport showing off its best bib and tucker.

Even by the standards that have seen him land a record 72 festival winners, the near-60 strong team Mullins has brought to Cheltenham this time looks exceptional

But 20 years after the festival was cancelled completely due to foot and mouth at least it can go ahead.

And as usual there will be some winners and many losers.

Still, the ultimate result could be getting to 5.0pm on Friday evening with a prevailing sense of relief at how ingenuity and doggedness have won out in singular circumstances.

It’s a sombre context that parks more normal considerations to the side.

They include the worryingly meagre turn out of just eight runners for the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and only a handful for the following Sporting Life Arkle.

Ordinarily such numbers would provoke plenty of debate about whether too many race options means the festival butter is getting spread too thin.

Then there’s the prospect of the Supreme favourite, Appreciate It, kicking off a potential Willie Mullins bonanza this week.

Even by the standards that have seen him land a record 72 festival winners, the near-60 strong team Mullins has brought to Cheltenham this time looks exceptional.

He can count on the ante-post favourites for almost half of the 28 races, including Al Boum Photo who has a Gold Cup hat-trick in his sights on Friday.

Mullins jointly holds the record with Gordon Elliott of saddling eight winners in a single week. The chances of him hitting double-figures this time cannot be discounted.

Where such dominance leaves the state of the famed Anglo-Irish rivalry that defines so much of Cheltenham’s appeal is another issue, although it doesn’t appear so pressing right now.

A combination of short-priced favourites to make bookmakers wary on day one also includes the Mullins-trained Concertista in the Close Bros Mares’ Hurdle

Apart from Mullins, the strength of Henry de Bromhead’s team, as well as the horses now running under Denise Foster’s licence, means the record Irish haul of 19 winners in 2017 could come under threat.

Certainly if the local hot-pot Shishkin doesn’t land the Arkle it could prove to be a very long week for the home team.

With proven winning form around Cheltenham, and faultless in three starts over fences since then, the Nicky Henderson star appears to hold outstanding credentials.

A combination of short-priced favourites to make bookmakers wary on day one also includes the Mullins-trained Concertista in the Close Bros Mares’ Hurdle.

She too won at the festival last year and Mullins is pursuing a 10th win in a race he so memorably dominated with Quevega (2009-2014)in particular.

Nevertheless Concertista does appear very short in the betting for a race in which she is joint top-rated with Roksana.

The forecast for genuinely soft ground will help the latter while there could be a touch of betting value in another proven festival winner, Indefatigable.

Covid protocols in Britain mean no amateur riders are in action this week so the first of three races professionals will take over in is the National Hunt Chase.

The decision to send Royale Pagaille to the Gold Cup opens the race up with Galvin, now in the care of Ian Ferguson, a likely favourite.

Whether the late switch from Elliott’s Cullentra team has an impact on Galvin is an imponderable that could make switching allegiance to his former stable companion, Escaria Ten, a profitable exercise.

Brian O’Connor’s Cheltenham day one selections

1.20: Appreciate It

1.55: Shiskhkin 2.30: Milan Native 3.05: Honeysuckle

3.40: Indefatigable

4.15: Saint Sam (Nap) 4.50:Escaria Ten

Nap and Double: Saint Sam & Escaria Ten

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