The Cheltenham Festival marks the start of the spring and summer season of wonderful sport in Britain and at the time of writing the next one is nearer than the last. The last seven months have seen some great sport but for many four days in Gloucestershire in March will always be the highlight. The feature race of the meeting is the Gold Cup and at the start of October bookmakers were going 10/1 the field.
The ante post favourite is Bobs Worth who won the race in 2013.The only horse to win different Grade 1 races at three consecutive Festivals ran below his best in this year’s Gold Cup. In a bizarre race Lord Windermere stormed up the hill on the near side to beat more fancied rivals racing on the other side of the course. Last passing the stands Lord Windermere outstayed his rivals at the business end of the race.
Holywell is trained by Jonjo O’Neill who has been backed to win the trainer’s championship for the first time. He broke his own numerical record with 134 winners last season and early in the current campaign has a tidy lead over Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson in terms of prize money won.
In terms of numbers and the backing of several wealthy owners O’Neill is some way behind the big two. However, he does have the support of JP McManus who has more jumps horses in training in Britain and Ireland than any other owner. He does like to spread his horses around numerous trainers but his best prospects are usually trained by O’Neill.
Holywell ultimately was one of the best novice chasers of last season. He won his first chase in his fourth race in this discipline last season but then won at Cheltenham and Aintree. Therefore, he has proven form at the Festival and it takes a good horse to also win at Aintree three weeks later. Holywell has a similar profile to Bobs Worth and could give O’Neill his second Gold Cup as a trainer after the sadly departed Synchronised won the race in 2012.
O’Faolains Boy was the best staying novice in the chase division last season. However, the winner of the RSA Chase in March could be out for the season due to ongoing problems resulting from a poor run at Aintree the following month. The trainer has reported that in all likelihood the horse will not be ready for the spring and he is too good to risk when not totally prepared.
Cue Card was not able to run in last season’s Gold Cup, a race in which he could have proven categorically that he gets the three miles and two furlongs trip. He was mightily impressive at Haydock last November in the Betfair Chase but emptied between the last two fences with the King George at his mercy. He was beaten by Silviniaco Conti that day who on Aintree form could finally win the Gold Cup.
The Blue Riband of chasing is always a great race but the highlight of the 2015 Festival will be the Queen Mother Champion Chase if it brings together Sire De Grugy and Sprinter Scare. Sire De Grugy was easily the best two mile chaser of the last campaign but Sprinter Sacre did not run after pulling up at Sandown in December.
A heart problem was identified with Sprinter Scare so the he was not able to defend the Champion Chase crown he won in 2013. Both crack chasers could reappear in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in the first of several showdowns over the next few years. Sprinter Sacre will be the marginal favourite and back to his best will be virtually impossible to beat in the Tingle Creek and at the Festival. Sire De Grugy is a great horse but still not in the same class as Sprinter Sacre.
Simonsig is also in the betting for the Champion Chase but could go down the longer race distance route of the Ryanair Chase. The horse was the best two mile novice chaser two years ago but did not run last season due to injury. Henderson may wish to keep Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig apart so the latter could only take on the Champion Chase if his stable mate is not able to run.
At much bigger prices Hinterland is an interesting contender. The horse was going well in last season’s Champion Chase when brought down by another horse. Hinterland recorded a faster time than Sir De Grugy when they ran in different races at Sandown last autumn. Beating Sire De Grugy may have been beyond Hinterland at the Festival but he still has the potential to be the best of the lot besides Sprinter Sacre.
Vantour is the fourth favourite for the Champion Hurdle but the race is tough to win for a horse just out of the novice ranks. However, Vantour was very impressive when winning the first race of the 2014 Festival and the form has been boosted since. Vantour is trained by Willie Mullins in Ireland as is Faugheen who won the longer novice hurdle at Cheltenham in March and may go for the World Hurdle and not the Champion.
Jezki is the defending champion but the horse to take out of last season’s renewal was The New One. He was badly hindered by the fatal fall of the sadly deceased Our Conor at the third hurdle. The jockey did not rush The New One back into the race but was going best of everything up the hill. The New One has a chance to make amends but we will never know how good Our Conor could have been.
More Of That is another horse that could make a significant contribution to Jonjo O’Neill’s prize money haul this season. The unbeaten hurdler overcame inexperience to win the World Hurdle beating Annie Power who had also not lost a race. The target for that horse has not been decided and is being talked of as a future Gold Cup winner. Man Of That will not go novice chasing this season and is now a clear favourite to win the World Hurdle again.
The stayer’s championship race for hurdlers has a history of multiple winners most notably Big Bucks who won the race four times. At Fishers Cross could be the one to prevent a repeat from More Of That as he was placed in last year’s renewal despite not being at his peak in terms of fitness. At Fishers Cross is on target to run again before Christmas depending on the ground but in any case the World Hurdle will be on the agenda in March at the best race meeting in the world.