The title of leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival has been firmly in the grip of Ireland for the last decade. Willie Mullins has been successful eight times in the last ten years (a record nine times in total) with Gordon Elliott claiming the title in 2017 and 2018. The last British trainer to take the title was Nicky Henderson in 2012. Mullins re-wrote the record books in 2022 when saddling an unprecedented ten Cheltenham Festival winners. This eclipsed the previous record of eight which he had shared with Gordon Elliott. It is worth noting that Henry de Bromhead finished level with Mullins with six winners in 2021, only to be beaten on countback of placed horses. It promises to be another year of Irish domination this season and it will take something special to prevent Mullins heading the list of Cheltenham 2023 top trainers.
The Cheltenham Festival Leading Trainer Award is always very competitive with trainers representing Great Britain, Ireland and France. Willie Mullins won it for the first time in 2011, the first Irish-trained winner since Edward O’Grady shared the title in 1996. He has since gone on to become the most successful Cheltenham Festival Trainer of all-time. Besides breaking records in terms of numbers, Mullins has also achieved landmark victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Queen Mother Champion Chase in recent seasons.
The Cheltenham top trainer award also has a huge impact on the outcome of the Prestbury Cup, awarded for the highest number of wins trained in either Great Britain or Ireland. Britain last won it in 2015, although they did force a tie in 2019. Ireland enjoyed a record 23 winners in 2021 with Great Britain restoring a little pride with ten of the 28 winners last season.
Cheltenham Festival top trainer for the last four years and the winning-most trainer at the meeting in history with 88 winners. His record speaks for itself and Mullins will be expected to field another very strong team in 2023.
At the 2022 Cheltenham Festival, Mullins was responsible for the favourite in around half of the 28 races. This yielded a record haul of ten victories, many of which will return in 2023. His ten winners were Stattler (National Hunt Chase), Sir Gerhard (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle), Energumene (Queen Mother Champion Chase), Facile Vega (Champion Bumper), Allaho (Ryanair Chase), Vauban (Triumph Hurdle), State Man (County Hurdle), The Nice Guy (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle), Billaway (Hunters’ Chase) and Elimay (Mares’ Chase).
Mullins first tasted Cheltenham Festival success as a rider aboard Wither Or Which in the 1986 Champion Bumper. He has won the Champion Hurdle four times; Hurricane Fly (2011, 2013), Faugheen (2015) and Annie Power (2016). He had to wait until 2019 to win his first Cheltenham Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo with that horse retaining his crown the following year. Energumene provided Mullins with his first Champion Chase victory in 2022.
Perhaps his most remarkable piece of training was producing Quevega to win the Mares’ Hurdle for six successive seasons from 2009 to 2014. He has gone on to win that race on a further three occasions. Mullins has been even more dominant in the Champion Bumper with an incredible 12 victories.
Suspended from the 2021 Cheltenham Festival when Denise Foster briefly took control the yard, Gordon Elliott returned in 2022. He was successful with Commander Of Fleet in the Coral Cup and Delta Work in the Cross Country Chase.
He won the coveted Cheltenham Trainers Title in 2017 and 2018. Elliott enjoyed his best Cheltenham Festival with eight winners in 2018. He won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Don Cossack in 2016 but will forever be associated with dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll. Besides his famous Aintree victories, the popular gelding also won at five Cheltenham Festival meetings. He won the Triumph Hurdle (2014), National Hunt Chase (2017) and the Cross Country Chase (2018, 2019, 2021).
Hopes were high that Tiger Roll would land a fourth Cross Country Chase and a sixth Festival race on his final career start in 2022. He was denied only by his well-backed stable companion Delta Work, eventually losing by three-quarters of a length.
Henry De Bromhead has emerged as a major player in the race to be Cheltenham Festival leading trainer in recent seasons. He was pipped to the award in 2021 in the final race of the Cheltenham Festival when Galopin Des Champs won the Martin Pipe Hurdle for Willie Mullins. With both trainers finishing on six winners, the prize was awarded to Mullins on countback of placed horses.
That was a mere footnote on a truly remarkable 2021 Cheltenham Festival for De Bromhead. He won the three most prestigious prizes of the week in the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup, the first trainer in history to win all three in the same season. Although unable to quite match those achievements in 2022, he enjoyed repeat victories in both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup.
The horse most readily associated with De Bromhead is the dual Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle. The remarkable mare starts the 2022-23 season with an unbeaten record in sixteen races under rules. She has won at the last three Festival meetings, her two Champion Hurdle wins following success in the Mares’ Hurdle in 2020. She has been ridden in all of her races by the record-breaking Rachael Blackmore. She famously rode Minella Times to victory for De Bromhead in the 2021 Grand National at Aintree and was aboard A Plus Tard, the 2022 Gold Cup winner.
Nicky Henderson is second only to Willie Mullins in the all-time Cheltenham Festival trainers list with 72 winners. He has won or shared the Top Trainer prize on nine occasions, the most recent when he saddled six winners in 2012.
He has remained the mainstay of the British trainers in the face of the domination of Irish runners in recent years. His most notable Cheltenham successes include two Cheltenham Gold Cups, six Champion Chase wins and a remarkable eight Champion Hurdle victories. He won the Gold Cup for the first time with Long Run in 2011 and again two years’ later with Bobs Worth.
His Champion Chase victories came courtesy of Remittance Man (1992), Finian’s Rainbow (2012), Sprinter Sacre (2013, 2016) and Altior (2018, 2019). Sprinter Sacre’s second victory was highly emotional after the highest rated chaser in training had been off the track for over a year suffering from an irregular heartbeat.
However, it is the Champion Hurdle in which Henderson has excelled. He won it for three successive seasons with the brilliant but fragile See You Then (1985-1987). Punjabi won it for the yard in 2009 and he has since trained Binocular (2010), Buveur D’Air (2017, 2018) and Epatante (2020) to win the hurdling showpiece.
Thirteen times Champion National Hunt Trainer Paul Nicholls has won the Cheltenham Champion Trainer award six times, the most recent being in 2009. He has 46 Cheltenham Festival winners to his credit and enjoyed a golden era at the event between 2006 and 2009, winning Top Trainer at the Cheltenham Festival four times in a row. His highest individual tally was five winners in 2009.
Although he may no longer have the firepower to compete with the likes of Mullins and Elliott, he showed he can still prepare a Festival winner when Politologue won the 2020 Champion Chase. That was his sixth victory in the race, including dual winner Master Minded (2008, 2009). A thirteenth National Hunt Champion Trainer title at the age of sixty suggests Nicholls will be doing his utmost to be back among the Festival winners again this season.
Nicholls has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup four times; See More Business (1999), Kauto Star (2007, 2009) and Denman (2008). Kauto Star became the first horse to regain the Cheltenham Gold Cup crown after losing it to his stable companion the previous season. As well as his chasing success at the Festival, Nicholls won the Champion Hurdle with Rock On Ruby in 2012 and four successive Stayers’ Hurdles with Big Buck’s (2009-2012). Injury prevented Big Buck’s from attempting a fifth victory in 2013 and he was retired after finishing fifth in the 2014 renewal.
Dan Skelton has only four Cheltenham Festival winners to date, three of those in the County Handicap Hurdle; Superb Story (2016), Mohaayed (2018) and Ch’tibello (2019). In 2022 he adopted a policy of taking his horses to Cheltenham fresh without a recent racecourse appearance. Protektorat ran well to finish third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup but he could not add to his tally.
Having trained over 100 winners each calendar year since 2015-16, Skelton will be looking to bounce back after three blank Festival meetings. He will be hoping that his exciting chasing prospect My Drogo can return to action after missing much of last season through injury.
Prior to Ireland’s recent monopoly of the Cheltenham leading trainer award, there had been some notable British trainers topping the all-time list.
Harvey Mayson has worked as a horseracing writer, blogger and tipster for several of the UK’s leading bookmakers and numerous other specialist racing sites. Harvey has great knowledge of horse racing history and was the author of the Paddy Power Cheltenham Festival and Aintree Grand National blog for three years. Harvey’s blog at the Cheltenham Festival in 2014 included a 100,000-1 ante-post four-timer while he correctly forecast the first four winners on Grand National day in 2015. He also tipped three Grand National winners in a row and eleven consecutive winning nap selections.