#UK RACING: Cheltenham Festival: Three races to savour


The Cheltenham Festival, jumps racing's showpiece meeting, starts on Tuesday (March 14, 2023) with over 250,000 spectators -- many of them Irish on their annual pilgrimage -- expected over the four days.

Such is the historic rivalry between British and Irish trainers at the Festival that in 2014 organisers decided it was worthy of a trophy -- the Prestbury Cup.

The Irish won it for a sixth time last year winning 18-10.

Ireland have swept the three most historic races in the past two editions and here AFP Sport provides pointers as to how they might unfold this year:

Champion Hurdle

The brilliant Irish mare Honeysuckle's two year reign is over as she is diverted to the Mare's Hurdle largely due to the sheer brilliance and younger legs of the favourite Constitution Hill.

If successful, he would give the doyen of jumps racing trainers Nicky Henderson a record-extending ninth win in the race.

He may not be the most striking looking of horses but does not do things by halves, winning the five hurdles races he has contested by a minimum of 12 lengths.

"This isn't a beauty parade so it doesn’t matter," Henderson told Racing TV.

"If it was I'm afraid they would finish in front of him, but he is growing into a fine horse and he is starting to get the idea that he is a bit different."

Irish challenger State Man looks the likeliest threat to his coronation. The Willie Mullins-trained raider has won six on the trot and last time out beat Honeysuckle by over four lengths.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Energumene returns to defend his crown. Willie Mullins may have trained a record 88 Festival winners -- Nicky Henderson is second on 72 -- but Energumene will always have a special place in his heart.

Energumene finally filled the void for the Irish training legend by securing him his first Champion Chase by an impressive 8 1/2 lengths.

However, a disappointing outing at Cheltenham in January with two bad jumping errors saw him finish third in the Champion Chase behind Editeur de Gite and Edwardstone.

Mullins and stable jockey Paul Townend believe they can turn the tables.

"Paul was very keen on him after the race and said come March, he wouldn't swap him for the two that finished in front of him," sad Mullins.

Edwardstone is seen as his principal rival but the surprise, if there is to be one, could be from three-time Champion Chase winning trainer Henry de Bromhead.

His Captain Guinness is progressing nicely and given the popularity of Ireland's most famous drink at the Festival, he could prove a most apposite winner.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

Henry de Bromhead is seeking to become the first trainer since Paul Nicholls (2007-09) to win the blue riband of steeplechasing three years in a row.

The Irish handler is two-handed with last year's winner A Plus Tard and his 2021 champion Minella Indo. The latter, if successful, will become the first horse since Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009 to regain his crown.

A Plus Tard, who will be ridden again by Rachael Blackmore, is the more favoured of the two with punters despite having run poorly in his one race this season. Minella Indo by contrast won his one start.

"A Plus Tard has had a tricky season," de Bromhead told AFP.

"He did not run well last November but he seems in good form.

"Minella Indo had a great run at Tramore (when he won) and it is his best preparation for Cheltenham, including the year he won the Gold Cup."

Minella Indo ended Al Boum Photo's two year hold on the race but the latter's trainer Willie Mullins could avenge that with his Irish Gold Cup winner Galopin des Champs.

An interesting contender is another Irish runner, last year's Grand National winner Noble Yeats.

Only two horses have won a Gold Cup and a National: Golden Miller did the double in 1934 and L'Escargot won the Gold Cup in 1970/71 before winning the National in 1975 -- Noble Yeats would be the first to do the double the other way round.



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