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Irish challenge looks ominously strong for Cheltenham Festival 2022

by Harvey Mayson, 19.02.2022

Last season’s Cheltenham Festival was completely dominated by Irish-trained horses, winning a remarkable 23 of the 28 races. Willie Mullins and the red-hot Henry de Bromhead stables did much of the damage with six winners apiece. The recent Dublin Festival at Leopardstown underlined the strength of the Irish contingent and they currently have the ante-post favourite in all but five of this year’s races.

Bookmakers are in no doubt as to where the Prestbury Cup (for the most Cheltenham Festival winners) is headed this year. Ireland are at the prohibitive odds of 1-9 with Great Britain 8-1 to repel the Irish raiders. Britain last held the trophy in 2015 but the best they have managed since was a 14-14 tie in 2019. Here is an early preview of how each of the four days is shaping up.

Paul Townend onboard Sir Gerhard

Paul Townend onboard Sir Gerhard ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Day 1 – Britain looks to Henderson for flying start

The opening day has the potential to be Britain’s best of the week with strong claims in the first three events. Nicky Henderson has two strong contenders in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in Constitution Hill and Jonbon. Irish opposition comes from a familiar foe in Willie Mullins who has Dysart Dynamo, Sir Gerhard and Kilcruit among his entries.

The Arkle Chase is up next and Alan King’s Edwardstone has displaced leading Irish hope Blue Lord at the head of the market. There is little between Blue Lord and Gordon Elliott’s Riviere d’Etel on Irish Arkle form so a cracking race is in prospect. British-trained runners have a good record in the following Ultima Handicap Chase but Honeysuckle looks set to land the day 1 feature for Ireland.

She was an impressive winner of the Champion Hurdle last year and goes into the race unbeaten after 14 career starts. Her main market rival is the Willie Mullins-trained Appreciate It while 2020 winner Epatante looks the pick of the home team. Ireland looks strong for the last three races on the opening day.

Day 2 – Shishkin v Energumene round 2 the highlight on second day

The highlight of day 2 is the intriguing rematch between Britain’s Shishkin and Ireland’s Energumene in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. There was only a length between them in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January. It was the first time that Shishkin had been seriously tested over fences and he did not get on top until on the run-in. It is not just a two-horse race as Chacun Pour Soi will try to end his Cheltenham hoodoo.

British hopes rest with the Paul Nicholls-trained Bravemansgame in the Festival Novices’ Chase, although he could face a formidable opponent in Galopin Des Champs. Nicholls has compared his horse to his 2008 Gold Cup winner Denman while Galopin Des Champs is currently favourite for the 2023 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Irish-trained runners dominate the betting for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, the Cross Country Chase and the Champion Bumper. Two-time Grand National winner Tiger Roll will be seeking a remarkable sixth Cheltenham Festival victory if he lines up for the Cross Country Chase. Britain fared badly in last season’s handicap races so will be hoping to reverse that trend in the Coral Cup and Grand Annual Chase.

Day 3 – Allaho on course for repeat win in Ryanair Chase

It is difficult to oppose Allaho who goes for a repeat victory in the Ryanair Chase on day 3. He was one of the easiest winners of the meeting last year and has looked as good as ever this season. The Irish also have a very strong hand in the opening Turners Novices’ Chase. Last year’s Ballymore winner Bob Olinger has had this race as his target all season and could be opposed by the equally exciting Galopin Des Champs. L’Homme Presse is far and away the best of the British-trained runners in this event.

The Stayers’ Hurdle was won by front-running Flooring Porter in 2021. He will probably adopt similar tactics this year but the home team looks strong with Paisley Park, Thyme Hill and Champ. Nicky Henderson’s Champ was so impressive when beating Thyme Hill in the Long Walk Hurdle that his trainer has opted to keep the one-time Gold Cup hope over the lower obstacles. He was not able to repel a rejuvenated Paisley Park in the Cleeve Hurdle next time, putting the 2019 winner right back in the Cheltenham picture.

Dan Skelton has the ante-post favourite for the Paddy Power Plate in Shan Blue, an unlucky faller in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in October but not seen since. The Pertemps Final and Kim Muir Challenge Cup look certain to be as competitive as ever but Ireland has the upper hand in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.

Day 4 – Ireland look set to dominate Cheltenham Gold Cup

The final day of the Cheltenham Festival 2022 features the Gold Cup and Ireland has the first four in the betting this year. Minella Indo, A Plus Tard and dual winner Al Boum Photo provided the Irish with a 1,2,3 last season and are all on course to return to Cheltenham. They are joined by Savills Chase winner Galvin while King George VI Chase winner Tornado Flyer still holds an entry.

Minella Indo has not won since last year’s Gold Cup but he is known to save his best for Cheltenham. The leading British hope is the relatively unexposed Protektorat. He was an impressive winner at Aintree in December but this will be by far his stiffest test.

It is a similar story in the opening Triumph Hurdle where Ireland’s Pied Piper and Vauban dispute favouritism ahead of multiple winner Fil Dor. Ireland also has some strong stayers lined up for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, notably Minella Crooner and Ginto. The Mares’ Chase and Hunters Chase also have Irish-trained favourites. The best opportunities for Britain on the closing day appear to be in the County Hurdle and Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle.

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