The Cheltenham Festival’s place in the heart of jump racing means that everyone that loves the sport will look upon it as a chance to see how well horses that they’ve been following do when the bright lights of the industry’s attention are on them. You can read about our top ten tips for horses to keep an eye on elsewhere on this site, with this page dedicated to the other chief architects of success: the trainers.
There are more than a few names that it’s impossible not to mention, with the success of the likes of Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson during Festival week always so impressive. Indeed, the two are likely to be going head-to-head once again this year for the Champion Trainer title, but the question is whether anyone else can challenge them for the title. In no particular order, then, here’s a look at the trainers to keep an eye on:
It’s a sad thing to have to start with something controversial when we should all be looking forward to an excellent week of horse racing, but questions remain over whether or not Gordon Elliott will even be allowed to send horses to this year’s Cheltenham Festival. The youngest trainer to ever win the Grand National was forced to issue an apology this week after a controversial photograph of him emerged on social media. This then lead to a temporary ban from the BHA, meaning as things stand Elliott can not enter horses into the Festival. He had planned to enter 104 runners over the 28 races.
Elliott appeared to be sitting astride a dead horse, making the ‘peace’ sign to the camera with a slight smile on his face. Though he issued a statement that he hoped would give ‘context’ to the picture, many remained unconvinced and the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board launched an investigation. The Festival is a favourite meeting of Elliott, who has racked up 32 wins during it at the time of writing.
Now the question about whether he’ll even be allowed to enter runners this year rears its head, which is something to look out for for better or worse. Tiger Roll won the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase in each of the years that preceded his Grand National success, for example, so it will be interesting to see if he can win again this time around.
Cheveley Park Stud have already said they are moving all eight of their horses away from Elliott, splitting them between Henry de Bromhead and Willie Mullins. This includes the heavy favourite in the Marsh Novices’ Chase in the undefeated Envoi Allen who will now race under Henry de Bromhead, along with stablemates Ballyadam (who will race in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle) and Quilixios (Triumph Hurdle). Sir Gerhard, who is also unbeaten and set to race in the Champion Bumper, will move under the Willie Mullins flag.
This of course now makes Gordon Elliot perhaps one to avoid. That is if he even gets to the festival, either because he is banned or because most of hist 100-odd entries may move to different trainers. This of course plays massively into the hands of Willie Mullins, who is of course Cheltenham’s most successful and will have a further strengthened hand in 2021 because of all of this, along with Henry de Bromhead – both of whom you can read about below.
Tourist Attraction was the first horse to give Willie Mullins his first win during the Cheltenham Festival back in 1995, with 72 horses having been in the winner’s enclosure for him since then. Un De Sceaux handed him his 50th winner when the French-bred gelding won the Ryanair Chase in 2017. That is proof, perhaps, that Mullins’ longevity is one of his standout traits, but that’s not to do down his achievements as a trainer.
Mullins is the all-time leading trainer at the Festival heading into this year’s meeting, so he’ll no doubt be keen to extend his success if possible. The 14-time Irish Champion Trainer left it late to pull his Cheltenham victory out of the bag last year, seeing four wins coming on the final day to steal the title from Gordon Elliott on account of the fact that he also had more horses finishing in the places.
He heads into the 2021 Festival with a decent array of talent at his disposal, with the likes of Chacun Pour Soi, Monkfish and Kemboy all likely to at least challenge in the races that they’re entered into. It’s arguably one of the best squads that he’s had at the Festival for years, meaning that the combination of his talented horse and the trouble that Elliott is in should see him become the meeting’s leading trainer for the eighth time.With Elliott posing less of a risk this year, while at the same time Willie’s hand is bolstered by inheriting some of Gordon’s best runners, it is hard to see anyone else claiming the top trainer title in 2021.
If Gordon Elliott is unable to challenge Willie Mullins for the trainer’s title then it’s always worth looking to see what Nicky Henderson can do. Aside from anything else, he’s just four wins behind the Irishman thanks to the 68 wins that he’s notched-up to date. Epatante is the current Champion Hurdler and will carry a lot of Henderson’s hopes, whilst Shishkin is another horse that those in the know will be looking out for.
He can be reasonably confident of something like four winners coming his way, especially given the fact that multiple Festival winner Altior is in his armoury. When he can rack up any more than that remains to be seen and will be largely based on luck rather than judgement at this stage. That being said, four winners is nothing to be sniffed at and when he managed that many in 2019 it was his best Festival performance since 2013.
Of the 31 winners that he’s managed over the past ten years, 23 of them have cone in Grade 1 races. During the same period he’s had no Grade 2 winners and only one of his 20 entrants in those events has finished in the places. If you’re going to be betting on Henderson’s horses, therefore, it probably makes sense to have a look to see which of them are in the higher class of races.
In the previous four Festivals, Paul Nicholls has only managed six winners. It’s unlikely, therefore, that he’s going to be challenging Willie Mullins for the top trainer award any time soon. He only had one winner last year, which was the same as he managed in 2017, with two coming in each of the other Cheltenham Festivals during that time. He’s seen horses that he trained win 19 times over the past decade.
Of those 19 wins, 11 of them have come courtesy of his hurdlers. When you consider that he went into the 2019 Festival with a record of zero wins from 32 attempts in non-handicap novice chase events, it suggests a man who knows where his strengths lie. He’s recorded six handicap hurdle winners, so that’s worth remembering when you’re considering placing a wager on one of his horses this week.
Another thing to think about when you’re looking at horses trained by Paul Nicholls is that 12 of his 19 winners came within the first two places in the final race that they ran in ahead of the Festival. He’s a trainer that knows how to ride the positivity of good form, which is always good to know for punters that like to do a bit of research ahead of the main event. Next Destination did just that and should run in the National Hunt Challenge Cup.
Henry de Bromhead
Six winners of the previous four Festivals means that Henry de Bromhead can’t be ignored in terms of a trainer to look out for. Those wins took his total number of Cheltenham Festival victories to nine, meaning that he’s unlikely to be challenging Willie Mullins any time soon but is at least heading in the right direction. At least one winner during each of the past four years also suggests a man not overawed by the occasion. His hopes will also be bolstered by taking on board the big favourite in the Marsh Novices’ Chase, Envoi Allen, who moved to his stable at the last minute following the ban on Gordon Elliott, which you can read about further up this page.
Seven of his nine total wins at the Festival have been in Grade 1 events, so it’s not as if he’s only there to soak up the lesser-thought of races. He’ll almost certainly send Honeysuckle and Put The Kettle on back to Prestbury Park after their wins for him last time out, so they’ll be the ones to watch as far as de Bromhead is concerned. Minella Indo is also one of the horses to look out for as far as the Gold Cup is concerned.
If none of those horses provide him with a win then it’s likely to come from A Plus Tard, who could yet join his stablemate in the Gold Cup or else be put forward for the Ryanair Chase. The Cheveley Park Stud horse came third in the Ryanair at the last time of asking, but won the Savills Chase at Leopardstown in December and so comes into this year’s Festival in a confident mood.
Kim Bailey is, to many, something of a blast from the past in terms of trainers. She notched up a Grade 1 win when Master Oats won the Gold Cup for her in 1995, promising a bight future, but didn’t win another top-level jump racing event until First Flow won the Clarence House Chase at the end of February. That she has once again notched up a Grade 1 win means that she’ll be feeling confident at exactly the right time.
First Flow will be entered into the Champion Chase for Bailey, meaning that an Each-Way bet wouldn’t be the worst decision you could make on that front. At the same time, Imperial Aura is likely to ask questions of the leaders when the Ryanair Chase comes around, having won the Novice Handicap Chase here back in 2020. She’s not a trainer that’s likely to push the big guns, but she’s definitely one to keep an eye on.
Happygolucky has experience of winning at Cheltenham thanks to a previous victory in the National Hunt Chase, whilst the same thing can be said of Vinndication in the Ultima Handicap Chase. Bailey would need a lot of things to fall her way in order to see as many as four winners standing in the winner’s enclosure for her, but stranger things have happened and this promises to be a very strange Festival year indeed.
There will be all sorts of headlines being written if Paul Nicholls’ former assistant manages to get more winners than him this year, but that’s certainly what Dan Skelton’s aim will be heading into the Festival. He’ll be especially keen to impress after missing out on the meeting last year, with some tipping him to be the next big trainer to consistently appear on the winner’s list at Prestbury Park.
At some point you’d assume that both of Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson will look to retire from the sport of racing, meaning that younger trainers are going to be given a chance to step into their shoes. Skelton certainly has the talent to do so, with his Warwickshire yard being filled with quality horses over a quantity of them. Roksana handed him his first Grade 1 win in the Mares’ Hurdle in 2019.
He’ll be looking to build on that success and Cadzand is a horse that he’ll be hoping can help him to do so. He’s had four winners at the Festival to date and three of them have been in the County Handicap Hurdle, which is the race that he’s entered Cadzand into this time around. Other ones of his to keep an eye on are the likes of Nube Negra in the Champion Chase, whilst Roksana might go for either the Stayers’ Hurdle or to reclaim her Mares’ title.
Colin Tizzard has undergone something of a barren spell lately, but he still has a number of decent horses running from his stables. Even those with just a passing interest in horse racing will recognise the names of horses such as Native River and Lostintranslation, with the former winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2018. Other well-known horses like Cue Card and Thistlecrack developed under Tizzard’s training too.
He works with his son Joe, who attended a Cheltenham Festival press conference and warned those in attendance not to rule out the chances of their horse The Big Breakaway in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, which many have already as good as awarded to Monkfish. He finished fourth at Cheltenham last year and the Tizzard crew are hoping that he can improve on that this time around and put them in the winners’ enclosure.
The key thing for Tizzard this time around is that he’s got a number of decent chances across a variety of races. That is something that not everyone can boast, given the challenges of Brexit mean that there are a number of horses who won’t be able to make it to Gloucestershire this time around. Lostintranslation and Native River will both be looking to add another Gold Cup to Tizzard’s trophy cabinet and might be worth Each-Way wagers.
If you’re the sort of person that always likes to bet on the underdog then you’d do a lot worse than look to place a wager on Joseph O’Brien when it comes to the Champion Trainer market. The former jockey is only 25-years-old, but he rode 31 Group 1 winners as a jockey, with many of them coming for his father, Aidan O’Brien. Now he’s looking to follow in his dad’s footsteps as a Cheltenham winning trainer.
When Ivanovich Gorbatov won the JCB Triumph Hurdle in 2016’s Cheltenham Festival, Aidan O’Brien was quick to give all of the credit for the success to his son. He might not have officially been his trainer, but it suggests that he knows what it takes to win at Prestbury Park. He got his own licence later in the year and racked up four winners at his first meeting, meaning that he’s a very talented trainer indeed.
In terms of which horses of his to look out for, you won’t do badly if you take a punt on Fakir D’oudairies in the Triumph Hurdle. Sir Erec, meanwhile, is a four-year-old that is also looking to be entered into the Triumph, so it will be interesting to see the pair of them up against each other.
If David Pipe is likely to see a winner this year then there’s no doubt that his best entry comes in the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. That’s where four-year-old filly Heure de Glorie is likely to be found, though there’s also a chance that she could be put into the Triumph Hurdle as she has entries into both. She won her only start when she took place in a race in France, suggesting that she’s in good form heading to Prestbury Park.
There are other options available for the trainer though, including Remastered who might end up in either the Ultima Handicap Chase, the National Hunt Challenge Cup or the Brown Advisory, depending on things such as the Going. Indeed, there are a number of horses that Pipe will be hoping to get a tune out of when the Festival rolls around, with numerous different events covered by his yard.
The Pipe family has a good history with the Cheltenham Festival, with David’s father Martin having trained 34 winners. David himself is on the same path, having trained 14 winners at the time of writing. He’ll be hoping that he can take a step closer to his dad this time around, with the horses coming out of his stables offering him a chance and certainly making him one to watch when events kick off at Prestbury Park.