Four days to go, Jane Mangan sets the tone ahead of Cheltenham

Our racing expert on the talking points ahead of this year's festival
Four days to go, Jane Mangan sets the tone ahead of Cheltenham

Epatante ridden by Barry Geraghty win the Champion Hurdle on day one of the Cheltenham Festival last year. Picture: Getty Images

FOUR days to go. Horses shipping, bag packing, PCR testing, race planning and all with an eye on the sky – what will conditions be like when the tapes go up on Tuesday afternoon?

Final declarations for day one are due on Sunday morning but it seems the pieces are slotting together every hour as we approach take off.

Robbie Power jocked up on Aspire Tower in the Champion Hurdle, Buveur d’Air out of the same race. Quilixios confirmed for the Triumph rather than the Fred Winter, Jack Kennedy rides Minella Indo in the Gold Cup, Letsbeclearaboutit skips the bumper and French Aseel injured in his preparation for the Triumph.

All these elements combined, add to the intrigue of the Cheltenham Festival. Such important factors are thrown into the punters' pot of consideration and could prove vital when the pressure is applied up that hill. Everything is aimed at this target. Nothing spared. Take aim and employ the right person to fire!

The omission of Buveur d’Air reaffirmed my confidence in Epatante in her attempt for back-to-back Champion Hurdles. Nicky Henderson has won this race a record eight times and the only person to have won it more is JP McManus who has owned nine Champion Hurdle winners!

Combine the pair and you get the most potent combination for this race and if they feel that their former dual Champion Buveur d’Air isn’t necessary as a back-up for the reigning Queen, then that confidence speaks volumes to the wider racing public.

We have come to learn that asking Willie Mullins questions in advance of declarations is a fruitless task. 

He’s a last-minute man. Wait until we can wait no longer. Know as much as possible, factor in all the variables before making any final decisions. So we wait. On jockey arrangements, for final race targets and which horses won’t even travel. We wait.

What we do know, is that Willie Mullins is the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history with 61 winners produced from Closutton since 1995 – just 1 ahead of Nicky Henderson. As of today, Mullins is responsible for over 10 favourites next week and considering he has won 14 of the 18 mares only races ever run at the meeting, one would expect the Carlow trainer to extend that lead.

Monkfish, Appreciate It, Energumene, Concertista and Kilcruit will all be short odds for Mullins but what of the highest-profile athlete of them all? Al Boum Photo has been slipping under many radars as he goes in search of a third consecutive Gold Cup. 

Florida Pearl missed, as did Hedgehunter, On His Own and Djakadam but here we have a reigning Gold Cup heroine sailing across the Irish Sea with a less recognizable face than some novice stablemates.

Having won a stamina-sapping Gold Cup in 2019, Al Boum Photo adjusted accordingly to prevail in a falsely-run renewal last year. One would argue that they weren’t exactly the strongest of renewals but ultimately he won both despite circumstances.

Al Boum Photo and Paul Townend win The Savills New Year's Chase.  Picture: Healy Racing.
Al Boum Photo and Paul Townend win The Savills New Year's Chase.  Picture: Healy Racing.

Whatever happens next week, Mullins’ world will revolve around this horse. 

A third Gold Cup would probably be considered his finest ever training achievement and considering this man has won top races from Saudi Arabia to Japan, that is saying something!

Understandably, all eyes will be focused on Prestbury Park but I’m on duty for Racing TV at Limerick this Sunday where Colreevy should prove the star attraction. A Grade 1 winner at the track over Christmas, connections of this Champion bumper winner have decided to stay at home instead of travelling next week, opting to run in the Grade 2 Charleville EBF Mares Novice Chase instead.

Interestingly, ratings suggest that Court Maid is the superior mare in this race and considering Colreevy must concede 7lbs to the Tom Mullins trained mare, one could make a case that this is no penalty kick.

That said, it will be a brave punter who would bet against Colreevy on ground she relishes and, in a season where she remains unbeaten. Fences may have improved her form but now an eight-year-old, time and maturity have played a vital role in making her one of the best mares in training.

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