CORK jockeys look set for a record-breaking Cheltenham Festival with Paul Townend chasing a third consecutive Gold Cup aboard Al Boum Photo in the colours of another Cork man Joe Donnelly.
Townend will ride a galaxy of stars and Chaqun Pour Soi is now an odds-on chance for the Champion Chase after his latest victory at the Dublin Racing Festival. There is a good possibility that Cork jockeys can complete the Grand Slam as Aidan Coleman will ride the defending Champion Hurdler Epatante and the Stayers Hurdle favourite Paisley Park who is looking to regain his crown after losing out to Lisnagar Oscar in last years renewal.
Victories in the big four championship races will be far from easy but Townend and Coleman will fancy their chances.
He is riding out of his skin right now and his association with Champion Trainer Willie Mullins has gone from strength to strength.
Punters will be hoping that Townend can get off to a flyer with Appreciate It in the opening race of the festival which is the Supreme Novice Hurdle. A mouth-watering clash awaits in the Arkle Novice Chase with Townend linking up with Energumene and taking on the Joe Donnelly owned Shiskin who is trained by Nicky Henderson.
Both horses have won three times this season although Shishkin won the Supreme at last year’s Cheltenham Festival. Townend is likely to ride Sharjah or Saldier in the Champion Hurdle although the aforementioned Epatante and Honeysuckle will be difficult to beat here.
The Townend/Joe Donnelly team will re-unite for the Ballymore Novice Hurdle with the 5/2 favourite Gaillard Du Mesnil. This looks a red-hot contest with the Henry De Bromhead trained Honeysuckle looking very impressive while top English trainer Paul Nicholls has compared Bravemansgame to the mighty Denman.
Monkfish won the Albert Bartlett last March and has been electric over fences. Min is another strong chance for Townend in a very competitive Ryanair Chase. The final day of the meeting will see Townend and French Aseel take on the Gordon Elliot trained Zanahiyr in the Triumph while Stattler looks an ideal type for the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle over three miles.
The new Mares Chase presents Townend with a great opportunity aboard the impressive Elimay before his three-in-a-row bid on Al Boum Photo. In total Townend will ride nine favourites in the Graded races which is staggering.
Aidan Coleman will relish the prospect of riding Epatante for Nicky Henderson and JP McManus. Although Honeysuckle has now gone favourite, Epatante should not be underestimated as Nicky Henderson is a master at getting these horses right for the major festivals. Paisley Park has been very consistent all season while Coleman will have plenty of chances in the handicaps.
Gavin Sheehan will have a number of opportunities with St Calvados likely to line up in the Ryanair Chase after finishing up runner-up to Min in the race last year. Doneraile rider Darragh O’Keeffe looks destined for the top and he will ride the Michael Winters trained Chatham Street Lad.
Johnny Burke, Adrian Heskin, Richie McLernon and Denis O’Regan are more than capable of riding winners at the festival while Jodi Townend has looked very accomplished in bumpers this season. Hopefully, Jerry McGrath recovers from his nasty fall as the Waterfall rider will have a number of good rides in the handicaps for the Henderson team.
There will be massive local interest in the fortunes of It Came To Pass who will be defending the Hunters Chase crown for Eugene and Maxine O’Sullivan on the final day of the Festival. The Cork-Waterford point to point crew are one big family when it comes to this race and there were scenes of unbridled joy following this family success last March.
Eugene O'Sullivan said: "Without being too bullish, he's in great order. He's never been better. We took him to the beach a couple of weeks ago and he was as good as ever. He may head to Thurles next week if the ground is good, but if it's testing we won't go there.
"I said to myself this year I wouldn't run him on bad ground and I'm sticking to that. He doesn't have to run before Cheltenham but I'd like to run him as long as the ground is right."
It Came To Pass has been ridden by O'Sullivan's daughter Maxine on each of his last 12 starts, and O'Sullivan is keen to see the current ban on amateur riders competing in Britain lifted in time for the four-day bonanza.
O’Sullivan added: "Last year was brilliant. I just hope the amateurs are allowed back to ride at Cheltenham. It's a bit of a kick in the backside for Maxine at the moment because she puts a lot of work into the horse and obviously gets on well with him.
"He loves Cheltenham, he's run there only twice and showed up very well on both occasions. It's his time of year, he loves the spring. The year before he won at Cheltenham he had a great end of season when he won at Cork and Killarney. We had only got him that Christmas."