Henderson can lay down the law as Constitution Hill has the look of a real CHAMPION
Racing Correspondent MARCUS TOWNEND brought together PETER SCUDAMORE, the eight-time champion jockey, RICHARD JOHNSON, a four-time champion, and history-making female rider LIZZIE KELLY, who between them won 38 Cheltenham Festival races, to discover who they think will be making the Festival headlines.
MARCUS TOWNEND: The British are outnumbered and look to be outgunned by the Irish over the four days so the home team has a lot invested in Nicky Henderson’s Champion Hurdle odds- on favourite Constitution Hill. Can anything beat him?
RICHARD JOHNSON: I don’t think so. If you had to guarantee a winner at the meeting it would be him. He doesn’t mind making the running and if they go fast he can take a lead. He jumps well and his form is incredible. LIZZIE KELLY: That’s the key. He is incredibly talented but he is versatile. From the other jockeys’ point of view, there is not much they can do to make him struggle. PETER SCUDAMORE: That’s a fair point but the intensity of the races at the Festival is different from anywhere else. It worries me that he was won his two races this season so easily. I can’t see it being easy in the Champion Hurdle against opponents like the Willie Mullins-trained State Man. I think Constitution Hill will win and the British will have a better meeting than some think but I wouldn’t want to be taking stupid short odds about him. MT: Richard and Scu, you have both ridden Champion Hurdle winners. People are saying Constitution Hill could be one of the greats, are they right? PS: He has the potential to be but he has to prove it. Come back to me when he has won three Champion Hurdles and tell me he is an all-time great. If was having a bet in the race, I Like To Move It at 16-1 is the each-way bet. RJ: There does look a fairly big gap between Constitution Hill and the rest and nothing has been good enough to give him a really hard race. He has beaten stablemate and 2020 Champion Hurdle winner Epatante easily this season and you ask yourself just how good is he? For me, it is a race to savour rather than bet in. MT: The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the feature of day two. Willie Mullins-trained Energumene won it last year having been beaten in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot. He was beaten again in this season’s Clarence House so can he successfully bounce back again? LK: Energumene deserves to be favourite. This season’s Clarence House was a case of a horse who was not expected to win, in Gary Moore-trained Editeur Du Gite being allowed to do what he wanted in front as Energumene and his biggest rival, Edwardstone, watched each other.
Niall Houlihan, Editeur du Gite’s jockey, gave his mount the perfect ride. He kicked off the home turn and both Energumene, who walked through the second last and did well not to fall, and runner-up Edwardstone had to run their race to just get to him. But I didn’t come away from the race thinking the wider picture had changed. RJ: You’re right, Niall got it spot on in that race on a horse which loves Cheltenham. It wasn’t a fluke win and he will not be far away again. But I still think Energumene and Edwardstone are the main two, although that race showed us they are not as far in front of the rest as we may have thought.
Edwardstone impressed me when he won last year’s Arkle. It should be a faster, harder-run race and that will suit him. It’s two miles but you need to stay twoand-a-half miles. Edwardstone does that and excels off a fast pace. Energumene is very good but last year’s Champion Chase fell apart a bit when Shishkin was pulled up and there is more depth in this season’s race.
PS: Tom Cannon had to make up a lot of ground quickly in the Clarence House on Edwardstone and that used up a lot of energy. I agree with Richard about needing to stay. LK: Gentleman Du Mee is also an interesting one here. He is a frontrunner, which will affect how easy it is for Niall to ride a controlling race on Editeur Du Gite. He won well at Leopardstown on his last run. I am hoping Danny Mullins rides him again because they get on very well. He could be a fly in the ointment.
MT: Shishkin bounced back to form with a win in last month’s Ascot Chase. Will he win the Ryanair Chase on day three?
PS: Nicky Henderson deserves a lot of credit for getting him back to form after he was pulled up at Cheltenham last season when a rare bone condition was blamed, then running fairly flat in the Tingle Creek in December. He’s then had a small procedure to aid his breathing. He was magnificent at Ascot. He is another banker bet for the meeting now.
RJ: With Allaho, the winner for the last two years, out of the race, I don’t think the second favourite Blue Lord and third favourite Fury Road are in his class. Shishkin’s jumping was immaculate at Ascot.
He has always looked like a horse who would step up in trip at some point and if he gets to Cheltenham in the same form I don’t think there is a horse in the Ryanair which can give him anything to worry about. We wanted to see he retained his enthusiasm and that Ascot run showed he did.
LK: He was brilliant. Horses change and sometimes need to go up in distance. That has clearly worked with Shishkin. It will be hugely popular if he can win after what has happened to him.
MT: The climax of the meeting is the Boodles Gold Cup and it looks like a very strong field.
RJ: Irish Gold Cup winner Galopin Des Champs looks more settled this season and in the Gold Cup you need a horse to relax because ones such as Florida Pearl and One Man showed just how tough it is to stay 3m 2f. He will have more chance if he can relax. I think Willie Mullins is pleasantly surprised how much he has grown up.
I do think he is very good but I would not write off last year’s winner A Plus Tard, ridden by Rachael Blackmore. He hasn’t looked the same horse this year, having one run when pulled up at Haydock in November. But they found a reason for that and I’d be particularly keen on him if Henry de Bromhead’s horses have run well over the first three days.
LK: The word from Ireland is Henry’s horses are starting to look really well and spring is when horses can be transformed. But my vote goes to Galopin Des Champs as he has everything you could want in a racehorse.
I would always try to find a reason why a favourite cannot win, rather than why it can, but he has it all. He has speed, stays and jumps well. He fell at the last when poised to win the two-and-a-halfmile novice chase at last year’s Festival and the Mullins stable
think that experience made a man n of him. It’s a great Gold Cup and last year’s Grand National winner Noble Yeats will be interesting with the cheekpieces refitted.
Stattler is the likely front-runner and I wouldn’t rule out Protektorat after his impressive win in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November.
PS: You see so many horses going well two furlongs out in the Gold Cup but it is the final quarter mile which sorts them out. That never changes. I still think that has to be the question mark against Galopin Des Champs, despite his win in the Irish Gold Cup over three miles.
I am biased because I am involved in the training of Ahoy Senor with my trainer partner,
Ian Botham. If he gets it right it goes out of the ground. If he gets it wrong he is caught at slip. If he jumps well he clearly has the ability to run a big race but it all has to come together.
It is not always the best horse which wins the Gold Cup, it is the one who turns up fit and well on the day. I think it’s tough for Noble Yeats. He clearly stays well but seems to hit a flat spot over this distance and gets outpaced. That will give him ground to make up.
The one I worry about most is Bravemansgame. He has done nothing wrong this season. He beat an excellent rival in L’Homme Presse in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing
Day. You push him out of your betting slip at your peril.
RJ: My worry with him is stamina — so many King George winners don’t stay. I think that was his Gold Cup.
MT: Pick out a novice hurdler from either side of the Irish Sea to follow fo at the meeting. RJ: Nicky Henderson’s Luccia in Thursday’s Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. She won the big mares’ bumper at Sandown last season, she is unbeaten and she has won against some decent horses. She looks to have a lot of natural ability. LK: Barry Connelltrained Marine Nationale in Tuesday’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He has done everything right and he was given a great ride by Michael O’Sullivan when he won the Royal Bond at a Fairyhouse in December.
PS: My pick would be Gordon Elliott-trained Three Card Brag. He has h a couple of options but I hope he lines up in Friday’s Albert Bartlett. I was impressed with the win at Fairyhouse in January. That was over 2m 4f but he looks the sort who could grind out a win in the three- mile Festival race.
MT: What about a novice chaser for the meeting?
RJ: I am very biased and am hoping my old boss Philip Hobbs can win w the three- mile Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase with Thyme Hill. It’s a great shame Tom O’Brien is injured and cannot ride him. It was very fast when he got beaten by McFabulous at Newbury in November. They flew up the straight and Thyme Hill was a bit flat-footed.
I told Tom he would be better with a truer-run race and that is what happened when he won the Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. Other runners were coming back to him and that gives a horse confidence when he is passing them without having to try too hard. It’s the same if you go jogging and you pass a few slower runners!
LK: Dysart Dynamo in Tuesday’s Arkle Novices’ Chase. I love him.
He isn’t the shortest-priced Willie Mullins-trained horse in the race and he is a bit of a bull in a china shop. But Cheltenham suits frontrunners like him and the Old Course provides more of a speed test — another plus for him — than Leopardstown, where he was behind stablemate El Fabiolo on his last run. He is a bit of a wildcard but he has talent and his jumping could make ground for him.
PS: Banbridge in Thursday’s twoand-a-half-mile Turners Novices’ Chase. He jumps really cleanly. He ran really well and finished strongly in the Irish version of the Arkle over two miles and the longer distance will be ideal.
MT: Give me your big fancy for the meeting.
RJ: Shishkin in the Ryanair Chase. He looks better than anything else in the race.
LK: Marine Nationale in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the opening race of the meeting.
PS: Stumptown in the Kim Muir Handicap Chase on day three. Trainer Gavin Cromwell took him to Sandown last month and he beat one of our horses Your Own Story without coming off the bridle and Your Own Story has won well since.
MT: And what is your best outsider for the meeting?
LK: Jamie Snowdon-trained You Wear It Well in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle.
PS: I was going for last year’s Ultima winner Corach Rambler in the same race. I ride him most days and he is fit and well. But he is too short a price now so I’ll put up Galia Des Liteaux in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.
RJ: Back On The Lash in the Cross Country. He is a course specialist and has won twice over the track, including in January. He has a good chance of hitting the frame.
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