by Harvey Mayson, 24.02.2022
The headline acts at the Cheltenham Festival are usually provided by established stars in the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle. Minella Indo and Honeysuckle will be there to defend their titles for the Henry de Bromhead stable. There is added anticipation ahead of the Queen Mother Champion Chase this year with the rematch between Shishkin and Energumene. However, we can expect many of the superlatives to be saved for the rising stars this year with some exceptional novice chases to look forward to.
The scene is set for some thrilling action in all three Grade 1 novice events. The Arkle Trophy features a rematch of the Irish Arkle 1-2 plus Edwardstone, head and shoulders above the rest of the British challengers. Willie Mullins has indicated that he is leaning towards running Galopin Des Champs in the Turner Novices’ Chase. That means a clash with De Bromhead’s Bob Olinger and the impressive Sandown winner L’Homme Presse. Finally, Bravemansgame sets a high standard in the Festival Novices’ Chase where he could meet old rival Ahoy Senor.
The Arkle Challenge Trophy is the two-mile championship race for novice chasers. It often features an outstanding talent with the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Altior and Shishkin dominating the opposition. This year’s renewal looks exceptional in that there are three horses with sound claims to start favourite.
Alan King’s Edwardstone was a high class hurdler and ran well in many of the best handicaps. He was third in the Betfair Hurdle, fifth in the County Hurdle and third in a competitive handicap at Aintree. He was unlucky to be brought down on his chasing debut at Warwick but has not put a foot wrong since. After getting off the mark at Warwick in November, he won the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase by 16 lengths.
He then won by 10 lengths in the Grade 2 Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase at Kempton Park. The eight-year-old underlined his Arkle claims with an easy victory over the smart Third Time Lucki in the Grade 2 Kingmaker Chase at Warwick. It is impossible to find fault with his preparation but he faces a very strong Irish challenge.
Blue Lord represents the powerful Willie Mullins stable and has won all three races over fences. After easy victories at Fairyhouse and Naas, the son of Blue Bresil beat Riviere D’etel by half a length in a thrilling clash for the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown. The runner-up is a grey mare trained by Gordon Elliott. She also won her first three novice chases before chasing home Ferny Hollow on Boxing Day. The winner was ante-post favourite for the Arkle until withdrawn due to injury.
Opinion is divided as to whether Riviere D’etel would have beaten Blue Lord but for a mistake at the final fence. Rider Jack Kennedy felt that his mount could still had won but for suffering interference on the run-in. It will be fascinating to see how they match up over Cheltenham’s fences and the race has all the makings of a classic.
Bravemansgame is easily the best three-mile novice in Britain but Paul Nicholls had originally been reluctant to commit him to the Festival Novices’ Chase. It can be a gruelling contest and some horses have struggled to maintain their form afterwards. He may also have been influenced by a moderate run here over hurdles in last season’s Ballymore.
Bravemansgame has taken to fences like a duck to water, winning at Newton Abbot against the high class Fusil Raffles on his chasing bow. He then won comfortably at Haydock before beating Ahoy Senor by seven and a half lengths in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton. That rival had beaten him by a similar margin over hurdles at Liverpool last April.
Nicholls has gradually warmed to the idea of running Bravemansgame at the festival and his prospects received a major boost this week. Willie Mullins has gone on record as favouring the shorter Turner Novices’ Chase for Galopin Des Champs, the ante-post favourite. In his likely absence, Bravemansgame has been clipped to a best-priced 2-1 favourite. Ahoy Senor did not jump well at Kempton and was better at Wetherby last time. He could well be the main danger once again at Cheltenham.
Jump racing fans were already looking forward to one classic duel at Cheltenham with Shishkin and Energumene in the Champion Chase. They will now be eagerly awaiting a second festival encounter with Galopin Des Champs and Bob Olinger in the Turners Novices’ Chase.
They represent the powerful Irish yards of Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead respectively. Both horses won comfortably at last year’s festival and are unbeaten over fences. Galopin Des Champs was so impressive on his chasing bow that he was promoted to Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite for 2023.
Assuming Mullins sticks to his current plan, the emphasis will be on jumping rather than stamina over this shorter trip. Bob Olinger had been a clear favourite prior to news of Galopin Des Champs’ possible switch. He won the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in a canter last year and will have the assistance of Rachael Bromhead in the saddle.
The Turners is a relatively new race to the festival but looks to have hit the jackpot this season. While much of the attention will rightly be on the big two from Ireland, Venetia Williams will be hoping that her L’Homme Presse can get in amongst them.
He has won all four races over fences and won the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown with embarrassing ease. The seven-year-old seems to jump for fun and already has useful experience around Cheltenham, winning a Grade 2 chase on New Year’s Day. This certainly looks like a vintage year for novice chasers and hopefully these exciting young chasers will be returning to the Cheltenham Festival for years to come.