Cheltenham countdown begins with two weeks to the first race

Barry Drake looks at some of the top fancies for this year's festival
Cheltenham countdown begins with two weeks to the first race

French Aseel and Denis O'Regan clear the first hurdle in style to win for owner Paul Holden and trainer Ellmarie Holden. Picture: Healy Racing.

EXCITEMENT is building here for this year’s Cheltenham Festival. 

Two weeks tomorrow, the great and the good of the National Hunt world descending on Prestbury Park for four days of glorious racing.

The Gold Cup is always a highlight and this year’s renewal looks set to be a blockbuster with a host of top chasers going head-to-head.

The reigning champ Al Boum Photo is the ante-post favourite in his quest to become the first horse since Best Mate in 2004 to win the race three years on the spin.

The likes of Coral and Paddy Powers go as short as 5-2 for Al Boum Photo to take main event despite Champ's encouraging return at the weekend.

Nicky Henderson's star is now his main challenger according to the bookies at 5-1.

And the market is slowly developing into a two-horse race. A Plus Tard is solid at 13-2, while Kemboy and Royal Pagaille are both 8-1.

Coral’s John Hill said: "Only a handful of horses have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on three occasions but Al Boum Photo is the favourite to join that club when he returns to Prestbury Park for the Blue Riband event of the meeting.

Jockey Paul Townend on Al Boum Photo after winning the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase last year. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Jockey Paul Townend on Al Boum Photo after winning the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase last year. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

"Champ is the biggest challenger to Willie Mullins’ runner according to our betting. They've been our two in the betting.

Trainer Nicky Henderson was delighted with Champ’s showing after being switched from the longer Denman Chase.

“He’s enjoyed himself there and he’s clearly not slow,” said Henderson.

The great thing was his jumping – it was deadly – and that will have done him the world of good.

"We boxed him over to Henrietta Knight’s the other day and he’s gone three times either way in the loose school. That (his jumping) needed ironing out and it clearly worked."

“He’s an exciting horse and much better on a racecourse than at home. You wouldn’t give two and sixpence for him on the grass gallop, but when he gets to the racecourse it’s like flicking a switch and he’s on the case full wallop!

“He’s got so much natural pace and he’s versatile. It was better to give him a kinder race today than go three miles, but on the evidence of the RSA last year, we know he stays.” 


Confidence is high about the Willie Mullins-trained Appreciate It in the opening race of day one, the Supreme Novices Hurdle. 

“I had him down as a stayer so the fact that he has that turn of foot is good too. He owes me... he destroyed a pair of sheepskin gloves of mine on Saturday evening! But we’re here with him, and his two performances have been good so far, so we’re pleased with him.

“What he did at Christmas was terrific, and I’m wondering whether he was as good in himself at Dublin or was it a better race? He did what he had to when he had to and we all thought he was in trouble turning for home, but when Ballyadam came to him he got the job done – which was the sign of a good horse, and he’s been in great form since.”

On Gaillard Du Mesnil (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle), Mullins said: “He hasn’t done much wrong. We ran over 2m 6f last time because we didn’t want to go back to two miles with him. I prefer this distance, and I think the pace there will suit us. He’s a horse that I like a lot and I think he’s improving all the time.

“Danny (Mullins) was very good on Stattler (at Leopardstown last month). He got the fractions right and nearly stole the race himself, but when push came to shove, Gaillard Du Mesnil showed what he’s made of and hopefully, he’ll be able to do that at Cheltenham too."

Looking at Kilcruit (Weatherbys Champion Bumper): “He ran a terrific race (at Leopardstown in February) and I was as stunned as you were, as I thought the grey horse Ramillies would improve a lot, but I was stunned when I saw Patrick (Mullins) coming and never moving on him.

“He’s a tall horse but he’s very light-framed and I don’t train him that much at all, and Patrick has huge confidence in him as well. Whatever feel he gets is the one we all saw coming down the straight at Leopardstown. He’s been very good since, and he takes very little training.” 

Speaking about French Aseel, Willie Mullins said: “Where he came from at Ellmarie Holden’s is only down the road, so he only had to move about 20 miles. They have a similar type of woodchip gallop to what we have, so a lot of things are the same and he’s settled in here well.

“I took the view that I didn’t want to run him in the Dublin Racing Festival because he’d only just arrived here, and to instead wait and go to Cheltenham.

“He started his work three weeks ago doing little bits and now he’s up to full work and I’m very happy with what he’s done. He was very fit the day he won, he jumped very well, so I’m going to take that all on trust and just have him cherry ripe for the day.

“He looked a super horse on the day (when winning at Leopardstown over Christmas), so we’re giving him every chance not to fluff his lines before it and appear there on the day.”

French Aseel is a leading fancy for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.

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