Last year Ireland’s love affair with the Cheltenham Festival reached its zenith when its trainers absolutely thrashed their Great British counterparts to seize the Prestbury Cup.
The Irish will bid to defend their crown next week when the greatest show on turf returns and they stand a great chance of pulling it off. Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott are the favourites to walk off with the leading trainer award, and their rivalry spells great news for Ireland’s chances of reclaiming the cup. Here are the five Irish-trained horses most likely to take the 2018 Cheltenham Festival by storm:
Elliot’s magnificent mare announced herself on the world stage by claiming a superb victory in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle last year. It developed into a thrilling three-way battle featuring Apple’s Jade and two of Mullins’ runners – Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini – and it went right down to the wire. But Apple’s Jade ultimately proved too strong for her rivals and delivered owner Michael O’Leary his first ever win on the opening day of the Festival. Since then she has gone from strength to strength and extended her winning run to five races. Apple’s Jade was last seen winning the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown on December 28. On that day she beat Supasundae, who is now the favourite to win the Stayers’ Hurdle, one of the biggest races at the Festival, along with Baupume and Augusta Kate. She is now the clear favourite to successfully defend her Mares’ Hurdle crown this year.
Mullins’ six-year-old has been on an upward curve this season and is now given the strongest chance of winning the Grade 1 Arkle Chase on day one in the Sporting Index spread betting lines. Competition is fierce, with Petit Mouchoir, Saint Calvados and Brain Power all in the mix, but Footpad will take some beating. He got the better of Petit Mouchoir to land last month’s Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown with an utterly dominant performance. He jumped his rivals into submission and was hailed as a Cheltenham banker by many observers.
Elliott’s six-year-old has won all six career starts so far and he is the red hot favourite for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle on the Wednesday. He has also been put forward for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and a couple of others, but the target is the Ballymore. If he maintains his level of performance, he should wipe the floor with his rivals in that race. Samcro had all of Ireland talking last season after racking up several stunning victories, and he really delivered on his promise last month by landing the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown in devastating fashion. Elliott pipped Mullins to claim the leading trainer award at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, with six winners. He has a strong hand this time around, and Samcro is arguably his greatest banker.
Un De Sceaux
Mullins also landed six winners last year and only missed out on a fifth consecutive leading trainer award because Elliott had more places on the countback. Un De Sceaux was one of Mullins’ greatest winners last year as he landed the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase in style. He loves the Festival as he won the Arkle in 2015, finished second in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2016 and returned to winning ways last year, performing admirably after Mullins decided to step him up in trip. He has carried on where he left off this season, winning his two starts at Cork and Ascot, and he returns to defend his Ryanair crown in superb shape. He likes heavy ground and rain is forecast in the Cheltenham area in the build-up to the Festival, so that should suit him down to the ground. Mullins has many great runners, including Douvan and Faugheen, but they are struggling for fitness and form, and Un De Sceaux looks more of a banker right now.
Cause of Causes
Another defending champion heading to the Cheltenham Festival this year is Elliott’s Cause of Causes, who seized the Cross Country epic 3 mile and 7 furlong Glenfarcas Cross Country Chase last year. It was a tremendous display of guts and stamina that landed Cause of Causes his third Festival winner during a glittering career at the most prestigious meeting of the National Hunt season. He won the National Hunt Chase in 2015, the Kim Muir in 2016 and the Cross Country Chase last year, and he is bidding to make it four in a row this time around. He will be back in the Cross Country Chase, and currently heads the betting from stablemate Tiger Roll, another winner at Cheltenham last year. It should be a fascinating duel, but Cause of Causes is the one to watch.
Martin Green is an experienced horse racing correspondent and tipster and he has been covering the Cheltenham Festival for many years.