The hooves are pounding the grass, the glasses are getting cleaned and the fences are being clipped, such is the extent to which the Cheltenham Festival is very early upon us. Look elsewhere on this site and you’ll be able to find articles looking at the likes of the best ante-post wagers that you can place on horses for the meeting itself, but on this page we’re taking a closer look at who is most likely to compete for the Top Trainer and Top Jockey titles, trying to think outside the box where we can.
It is always worth thinking outside the box for the simple reason that the odds on Willie Mullins to be Top Trainer aren’t going to be all that exciting, such is the extent to which the Irishman is going to be well-fancied by everyone to win the title. Things are a little bit more interesting when it comes to the Top Jockey title, given the manner in which Rachael Blackmore put the cat amongst the pigeons with her performances last year. Prestbury Park had never had a female Top Jockey before, with Blackmore unlikely to be keen to give up her title without a fight.
Think About The Horses
It seems like an obvious thing to say, but Top Trainers and Top Jockeys don’t get given the award because they’ve been well-behaved during the four days of racing. Instead, it is all down to how many winners they train or how many times they cross the finish line before any other jockey. As a result, you would do well to take a look at the horses that you think are going to be successful in the various races that take place during the Festival and then have a look to see if there’s a pattern when it comes to who is training them and riding them.
There are plenty of interesting options in the running for a lot of the races this year, as well as some dark horses, no pun intended, that might be able to shake things up. Regardless, the best place that you can start when you’re thinking about which jockeys are likely to do well is by having a look at which horses will win. Overall, there are 28 races to be won and even on his best ever performance Willie Mullins only won eight of them. That means that there are plenty of other events to look out for and think about before placing your wager.
We need to be honest about the top trainer award: it is going to be won by Willie Mullins. At the time of writing, he is as short as 1/3 with some bookmakers, so they are relatively confident that the Irishman is going to repeat his success of previous years and get the award in the bag as quickly as possible.
He was aided in that charge last year by the fact that Gordon Elliott was issued with a ban by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, meaning that the horses under his care were transferred to Denise Foster.
Gordon Elliott is back this year and will therefore needs to be at least part of the conversation, but he’s also suffering the fallout from the photograph that got him suspended in the first place. Elliott was photographed standing astride a horse that had died, doing the peace sign whilst also talking on the phone, which was enough to ensure that some owners decided to remove their horses from his care. Cheveley Park Stud were the first owners to remove their horses from his training regime, moving them to Henry de Bromhead and Willie Mullins.
That means that he will be without some big name horses heading to the Festival, so the likes of Envoi Allen and Sir Gerhard will be under a different trainer’s name. The good news for Elliott is that a number of likely winners stuck with him. Michael O’Leary confirmed that Tiger Roll will almost certainly be retired after his running in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, which he holds the record number of wins in. In other words, there are enough horses running for Elliott to mean that he stands a chance if everything works in his favour.
Henry de Bromhead
Though Willie Mullins was once again crowned the Top Trainer at the end of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, it came thanks to a countback that included how many second and third-placed finishes his horses had enjoyed. The trainer that took him all the way was Henry de Bromhead, who had the same number of winners as his fellow Irishman. Given the fact that he’s got horses like Minella Indo and Honeysuckle in his stable, there is little question that de Bromhead will at least be hoping to get his name on the table once again.
We shouldn’t speak of de Bromhead in patronising tones, either. He became the first ever trainer to see his charges win all three Festival championship races in the same season, which is something that Mullins can only look on him full of envy over. The big question is about whether or not his big guns will all be firing, but in Honeysuckle, Minella Indo, A Plus Tard and Telmesomethinggirl, the Irish trainer has options all over the field. If they run to the best of their ability then they’ll be able to notch up enough wins for him to challenge Mullins at least.
In one sense, it would be wrong to talk about the Top Trainer odds for the Cheltenham Festival and not mention Nicky Henderson. After all, there is an argument that he is the biggest hope for English trainers and he’s won the title three times this century. The problem is, he hardly has enough runners to compete even if they all went out and won their races, let alone any room for misfires. Even when you look at the likes of Constitution Hill and Jonbon, they are both likely to be running in the same race in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Though Shishkin is the odds-on favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the rest of Henderson’s entries are more like solid hopes than outright chances. The mixed form of Champ from past Cheltenham Festivals means that few people will be considering him a banker, least of all Henderson himself. Chantry House won the Paddy Power Cotswold Chase in January, which means that a few people will be looking to him in the Gold Cup, but the Blue Riband event is one that others will also be targeting. The odds offered for Henderson are also more generous than he deserves.
And so we come back round to Willie Mullins, who has a top team heading to Prestbury Park for this year’s Festival. The Irishman is responsible for ten favourites according to the ante-post betting, which tells you plenty about just how fancied he is. Of course, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the head, so other trainers will be hoping that Mullins’ runners start slowly and others fail to come to the rescue. It isn’t always the case that favourites win at Cheltenham, so there is at least a chink of light for those that want to look away from Mullins.
The problem is that there is barely a race taking place at the Festival that Mullins doesn’t have a solid runner in. Whether you look at Ferny Hollow in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, Galopin Des Champs in the Brown Advisory or Allaho in the Ryanair Chase, Mullins’ charges are all looking to bring home the bacon. The County Carlow trainer will fancy his chances to retain his Top Trainer title this season, but so will the bookies. That means that the odds on him are unfavourable to the point that it’s worth looking elsewhere just in case.
Rachael Blackmore made history when she became the first female to win the Top Jockey title at last year’s Festival, so there will be plenty of bets heading her way this time around too. If it isn’t going to be her then you’d be silly to look away from the Irish contingent, considering someone from the Emerald Isle has won the title seven times out of the last eight.
Bear in mind that it isn’t just winners that matter, with second, third and even fourth placed finishes coming into the consideration of the bookmakers if it’s a tie on winners.
You don’t make history and then get ignored the following year, so there really is nowhere else to start but with Rachael Blackmore. The question really will be whether or not she gets similar rides on Willie Mullins’ horses as she did last year, given that it was those winners that saw her find her way to the Top Jockey title last time out. Honeysuckle will be a banker for her and Henry de Bromhead, but that was the only championship race that she won for him in 2021 and it is unlikely that he’ll be asking her to win him any others this time out.
That isn’t to say that she’ll be running on nags the rest of the time, of course. The horse that she chooses to take on for the Gold Cup will be important, having plumped for A Plus Tard last time out only to see Jack Kennedy produce the better ride on Minella Indo. Neither have been overly impressive since, so whether she chooses to look elsewhere could be telling. Telmesomethinggirl looks likely for the Mares Hurdle, but otherwise there are too few runners to get excited about. If you’re betting on Blackmore for Top Jockey, you’re betting against what the bookies think about the runners in general.
Part of the reason why Rachael Blackmore isn’t as fancied this time around is that Paul Townend will be desperate to re-gain his crown. There were a number of things that just didn’t go his way in 2021, such as the likes of Concertista missing out on the Mares’ Hurdle by a head. She will be hoping to put things right in the Mares’ Chase, just as other fine-margin decisions that went against Townend last year might swing back his way this time around. Both Sir Gerhard and Allaho went for Blackmore last year but will probably be his rides this, for example.
There is an argument that Townend could have four winners on the opening day of the Festival, which would put him in a commanding position before some riders have even gotten their boots on. Appreciate It will be looking to back up his Supreme success in the Champion Hurdle, for one, whilst Galopin Des Champs might be a ride for him in the Brown Advisory. The only surprise is that he’s unlikely to be putting up a fight for the Gold Cup, given that Al Boum Photo is Mullins’ only real hope in it and he’s now past his best.
If there’s one rider that can upset the apple cart then it might well be Davy Russell. The long-term Gordon Elliott collaborator has stuck by the trainer’s side, so will be given a few decent runners this year. Jack Kennedy is his rival for the seat on some of the bigger names, but Russell knows what is takes to get a Top Jockey title, having won it in 2018. If information comes out ahead of time about which of the two riders will be given Galvin in the Gold Cup, that might be enough to sway the decision of some bettors.
The bookies certainly think that Russell is more likely to win than Nico de Boinville, who is the only British rider with any sort of chance of claiming the title. That tells you everything you need to know, such is the extant to which the Irish are likely to run away with the Prestbury Cup once more. With riders such as Richard Johnson and Ruby Walsh having all long-since retired, Davy Russell is something of an elder-statesman in the weighing room. Age often signifies experience, so he might just have the smarts to get over the line.