A day-by-day guide to the top class Grade 1 races at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival by our in-house horse racing feature columnist, Seymour Biz.
Tuesday 16th March
The highlight of the first day of the Festival is the Champion Hurdle and this year’s looks enthralling and it may very much lead to a changing of the guard. But Epatante, last year’s winner, will not give up her crown without a battle. Nicky Henderson’s star hurdler was disappointing last time out on Boxing Day at Kempton in the Christmas Hurdle in what was a muddling race with only four runners. She made a mistake 3 out and was eased after that finishing second.
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Evan Williams’s Silver Streak won that day coming home six and a half lengths clear of Epatante but he could finish only sixth in this last year after claiming third place the year before. He made mistakes on both occasions and has never won at Cheltenham and seems unsuited by the course.
Henry De Bromhead’s Honeysuckle won the Mare’s Hurdle at last year’s Festival and has won twice in Ireland since latterly at Leopardstown where she won the Irish equivalent of this race. She had Gordon Elliott’s Abacadabras behind her that day and I would expect her to confirm those placings but this is tougher.
Buveur D’Air won this twice in 2017/18 for Nicky Henderson but fell in 2019. He returned to racing in January after a 14-month lay-off but was well beaten in a three runner contest at Haydock. As a 10-year-old, I can’t help feeling his best years are behind him.
But Gary Moore has the new hero in this code with his star Goshen who spectacularly unseated his rider in last year’s Triumph with the race at his mercy. He has since been well beaten on the flat at Haydock and Goodwood. Moore then sent him to Cheltenham in December where he hung badly and finished the last out of ten.
It was onward and upward from there and so it proved when in February he went to Wincanton and sluiced home by 22 lengths from a good field, but he faces top class entrants here. One of which is Willie Mullins’s Sharjah who was second in this last year. He won a Grade 1 at Leopardstown in December and returned there for the Irish Champion Hurdle in February and ran third. He can improve on that.
There are three other Grade 1’s on Tuesday’s card starting with the Supreme Novices where Willie Mullins has the favourite with Appreciate It, but he has Gordon Elliott’s Ballyadam to face.
Harry Fry’s Metier looks a good prospect to trump the pair of them. In the Arkle everyone wants to see the return of Shishkin to the racecourse. He will probably face Dan Skelton’s Allmankind but I expect him to prevail.
The Mares Hurdle is the other Group1 on the card and again Willie Mullins has the favourite with Concertista but she may face Roksana and Honeysuckle, making for fierce competition.
Alan King has been talking up the chances of The Glancing Queen and she may spring a surprise here.
Wednesday 17th March
Wednesday sees the Queen Mother Champion Chase won last year by Politologue and Paul Nicholls’s champion returns to try and repeat the feat. He showed great form to win the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December but was then disappointingly beaten in the Clarence House at Ascot in January.
The favourite here is Willie Mullins’s Chacun Pour Soi who has proved unbeatable in his three races this year, including the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown in February where he quickened clear on the run in to win easily.
It will be very interesting to see how Altior performs after his injury problems which caused him to miss last year’s renewal of this contest. He came back after a 10-month break at Kempton in December but failed to show his old sparkle and finished a very tired second.
The horse that beat him that day comes here with every chance, that is Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra. However, he is another who has only had one race in the last 13 months.
Henry De Bromhead sends over Put The Kettle On, last year’s Arkle winner, he returned to Cheltenham in November to win the Shloer Chase which was his third victory at the course. His only run since was at Leopardstown where he ran third to Chacun Pour Soi. I think he can be forgiven that run and he seems like a horse with the ‘Cheltenham Factor.’
Kim Bailey’s First Flow deserves a mention after winning his last six races, including the Group 1 Clarence House Chase at Ascot where he beat a below-par Politologue. He will have more on his plate here.
Also on Wednesday, we have the Ballymore Novices Hurdle with another Willie Mullins horse at the top of the betting, Gaillard Du Mesnil, who won a Grade 1 at Leopardstown in February.
Henry De Bromhead has a challenger with Bob Olinger who also won a Grade 1 at Naas. The best of the British contenders could be Paul Nicholls’s Bravemansgame, a winner of his last three outings.
The Brown Advisory Novices Chase has Willie Mullins’s Monkfish as a very short priced favourite and on form cannot really be opposed.
Venetia Williams’s Royale Pagaille is entered here but will probably go for the Gold Cup on Friday. The only other worthwhile challenger may possibly be Colin Tizzard’s The Big Breakaway who won at Cheltenham in November.
The Champion Bumper is the last race on Wednesday’s card and again Mullins has the favourite in the shape of the talented Kilcruit. He has romped home in both his races this season and seen off some top opposition but I would like to think the wonderfully named Eileendover can give him a race. She is trained by Pam Sly and is unbeaten in her three starts this season latterly in a Listed Race at Market Rasen.
Thursday 18th March
The Stayers Hurdle is the highlight on Thursday and Emma Lavelle will send Paisley Park to try and repeat his success of 2019. He went into last year’s renewal as the odds-on favourite but came home a poor seventh. He lost two shoes during the race and that may have contributed to his defeat. Since then, he was defeated by Thyme Hill at Newbury in November but avenged that the following month at Ascot prevailing by a neck in a hard-fought contest.
Thyme Hill, trained by Phillip Hobbs, won the Ballymore here in 2019 and is a proven Cheltenham performer.
Top of the Irish challengers is Gordon Elliott’s Sire Du Berlais who won last year’s Pertemps Network Final. His latest run was in the Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle where he could finish only third when well fancied.
Nicky Henderson’s Champ is entered here but is more likely to run in the Gold Cup but Dan Skelton’s Roksana may be a runner. She ran fourth in the Mares Hurdle last year but if making this her preference this time around she can put in a good performance on the strength of her latest victory at Ascot.
Just two other Grade 1’s on Thursday beginning with the Marsh Novices Chase which is dominated by Irish trained horses.
The favourite here is unsurprisingly Gordon Elliott’s Envoi Allen, a 7-year-old gelding who is unbeaten in all eleven of his contests to date, including the Champion Bumper in 2019 and the Ballymore last year. His three wins this season have come at Down Royal, Fairyhouse and latterly at Punchestown in January. He will take all the beating and comes here as odds on favourite.
Willie Mullins has a challenger in the shape of Energumene who is unbeaten in five contests since November 2019, the latest victory was in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown.
The best of the British contingent may be Sporting John trained by Phillip Hobbs who was a fine winner at the beginning of February at Sandown.
The other Grade 1 is the Ryanair Chase which is a very open contest as usual. Willie Mullins has the top two in the betting with Min and Allaho, the best of which could be Allaho whose latest win was at Thurles in January. Min on the other hand jumped poorly and was pulled up in the Dublin Chase in February.
Kim Bailey’s Imperial Aura won here at Cheltenham last May then came out this year and won his first two outings decisively. I can forgive his latest run at Kempton where he unseated his rider early on.
Mister Fisher is entered for Nicky Henderson after winning the Peterborough Chase here at Cheltenham in December where he kept on strongly to take the spoils.
Friday 19th March
Today is of course the Gold Cup day, the Blue Riband Day of the meeting and as usual, it looks to be a really exciting contest.
Willie Mullins’s Al Boum Photo returns to the scene of his greatest triumph and will try for his third win in the race having only had one run since last year’s victory. That was on New Years Day at Tramore in a Grade 3 race. He romped home easily at short odds and Mullins considered that was enough preparation for this event.
He is only a 9-year-old and may be able to dominate this grade for a couple of years yet. Mullins also has Kemboy in the race. He fell early on in 2019 in this race and last year his jumping was not wonderful and he came home seventh. He won the Irish equivalent of this race in February and his trainer will have him trained to the minute.
Nicky Henderson has his stable star Champ entered here after he won the RSA at last year’s festival- he is another who has had only one run since- that was a 2-mile chase at Newbury where he ran second.
Henry De Bromhead has a very good pair of chasers entered, Minella Indo and A Plus Tard. The latter seems the better of the two after running third in the Ryanair last year. On his latest run, he won a Grade 1 at Leopardstown beating Kemboy by just half a length.
A very interesting entrant is Venetia Williams’s Royale Pagaille who has carried all before him this season winning all three of his outings, the latest of which was at Haydock where he thrashed a very good field and came home by 16 lengths.
Frodon won the King George in December for Paul Nicholls after being given a very easy lead. That won’t be the case here.
The 2018 hero, Native River, had a setback and was unable to run in this last year but he has bounced back this season with a fine victory at Sandown in February beating a couple of hopefuls for this race, including Nicky Henderson’s Santini and I would expect him to confirm those placings.
The big hurdle race for 4-year-olds is the Triumph and Gordon Elliott has the pretty warm favourite, Zanahiyr, a winner of his three outings this season the latest of which was on Boxing Day at Leopardstown.
Tritonic has pushed himself up the betting after his fine win at Kempton at the end of February. He has been a revelation this year for trainer Alan King, after his two fine wins this year.
Willie Mullins has French Aseel in the lineup, he has not been seen since winning a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown at the end of December. Mullins will have him trained to the minute.
The other Grade 1 on the card is the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle, the Potato Race. Willie Mullins has the favourite here with Stattler who won at Leopardstown at the end of December but has since been beaten on his return to the course in February.
Gordon Elliott has a really strong hand here with Fakiera, Torygraph and Farouk D’alene. Whichever he runs must have every chance in this.
The best of the British challengers would seem to be Barbados Buck’s trained by Paul Nicholls, a winner of his last three outings, the latest of which was at Kempton in January where he came home comfortably.