The wait for the 2021 Cheltenham Festival is almost over folks!
As we draw ever nearer to the best four days of National Hunt action on the calendar, the days leading up to Tuesday 16th March will once again be awash with ‘Festival Banker’ talk – therefore, if you can’t beat them............... join them!
In recent years, the layers have probably edged it in their annual four-day battle with punters at the Cheltenham Festival - so, will it be more of the same this year?
During the 2020 Festival, we saw 8 winning favourites (or joint favs) from the 28 races – which is a fair 29% strike-rate, but with big odds-on fancies like Tiger Roll and Benie Des Dieux also getting turned over, then this would have been big blows for punters.
So, what can we expect this year when it comes to the so-called ‘Festival Bankers’?
We can expect many of the so-called ‘bankers’ to be permed up in doubles, trebles and accas all over the place and the bookies will be running for cover should the first batch – running on Tuesday and Wednesday – start to win.
So, with the Ante Post markets starting to settle down, and with it also being a bit clearer which races certain horses are going for, I thought we’d take a look at some of the ‘big-gun’ horses that are either going to make or break most people’s Festival.
DAY ONE, Tuesday 16th March 2021
This Willie Mullins-trained 7 year-old will be a popular choice to get favourite backer off to the perfect start in the curtain-raiser contest at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival and heads here 3-from-3 over hurdles. He was last seen winning the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown in February – beating Ballyadam by an easy 3 ¼ lengths. He’s clearly an exciting hurdler, but those willing to take him on will look to his defeat (2nd) as favourite in the Champion Bumper at the Festival in 2020, while many feel his future lies over longer trips than this 2m. Yes, his proven stamina will be a huge plus up the Cheltenham hill, but will have the pace to be in the mix still in the closing stages. His trainer, Willie Mullins clearly thinks so and who are any of us to doubt last years top Festival handler on that. However, the ground is also likely to be a bit quicker than his been winning his hurdles races (has won on heavy, soft and soft/heavy) in and that may make him vulnerable to something with a tad more pace. It’s a race the Mullins camp loves to win though – winning 4 of the last 8 – but the big trend against him would have to be the age stat – a massive 15 of the last 16 winners of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle have been aged 5 or 6 – therefore at 7 years-old Appreciate It has this big age trend to defy. Add in the fact, he got turned over at the Festival 12 months ago, then I feel he might just be worth taking on in the opener.
Last season’s gutsy Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner – Shishkin – has made a scintillating switch to fences this season – winning all three starts in effortless fashion – and he’s all the rage to add the Arkle Novices’ Chase to his Cheltenham Festival CV. It’s his excellent jumping over the bigger obstacles and high cruising speed that has had punters licking their lips over this Nicky Henderson-trained 7 year-old. Those against him might look to the opposition that he’s beaten so far over fences as not being the strongest. However, it’s still hard to ignore the superior form that Shishkin had over hurdles, while his chance was made even easier with his main rival - Energumene now out of the race. Shishkin’s chase wins have come on ground ranging from good up to soft, so he'll have no concerns underfoot either. It was all set-up to be a fascinating match-up with Energumene, but now it certainly looks Shishkin's Arkle to lose. Some may now look to the free-going Allmankind, who is certainly no back number himself, to serve it up to the hot favorite. This Dan Skelton runner is sure to set a quick tempo up top, but I just feel this will set things up nicely to Shishkin and Nico De Boinville to pick them off up the hill and add this race to his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle victory from last year. It will be all systems go for a rise up the 2m chasing rank and a clash with the likes of Chacun Pour Soi in the coming months/years!
Bolted-up in the Mares’ Novice Hurdles at the Festival last season and is now elevated into this Mares’ Hurdle Group One. She’s built on last season’s success at the Festival too by bolting up at Fairyhouse and then Leopardstown over Christmas – and has now won three of her seven starts over hurdles. The Willie Mullins yard have also won a staggering 9 of the last 12 renewals of this race, so love to ready one for the prize and with her biggest danger – Honeysuckle – heading for the Champion Hurdle that’s made life a lot easier for this 7 year-old. Yes, Roksana, who was fourth in this race 12 months ago will be no pushover, with a two year age gap in favour of the Mullins horse I’ll take the younger legs to prevail here. With little else in the race to worry about and proven Festival winning form then this talented mare looks decent banker material on the opening day and is sure to figure in many accas.
DAY TWO, Wednesday 17th March 2021
Another from the powerful Willie Mullins yard and another runner that is hard to fault. This 7 year-old is probably in most people’s ‘super banker’ category too after winning all three of his starts over fences – including most recently when beating the useful Latest Exhibition by an easy 11 lengths in the Flogas Novice Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival last month. Many are already talking about the 2022 Gold Cup for this exciting chaser and having landed the Albert Barlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival last year, is another that’s already tasted the hustle and bustle of this big meeting. His jumping has been foot-perfect too and if you include his hurdles wins heads into this race unbeaten in his last six – it will be a brave man that says if can’t extend that record to seven!
Conclusion: SUPER BANKER
Did you know – top Irish trainer, Willie Mullins is yet to win the Champion Chase? Well, if you didn’t – you do now! It’s a surprising record really, but there is every chance he can put that hoodoo to bed here with his talented 2m chaser – Chacun Pour Soi. Last season he was a late scratch from this race, but the Mullins horse has returned this season with three facile victories that included the Group One Dublin Chase last month at Leopardstown. He’s now won 6 of his 8 races over fences and even though he’s a 9 year-old now is very lightly-raced – this will only be his twelfth career start. The layers that will be looking to go against him will cling to this being his first run at Cheltenham and, therefore, the Festival too, but his jumping has been terrific this season and there isn’t any real reason to suggest Cheltenham won’t suit him. It’s also a race that his main rivals have a bit to prove, including former winners – Altior and Poltologue. Last year’s Arkle winner Put The Kettle On has a good record at Cheltenham, so that will help her, while Nube Negra and First Flow have improved this season to throw their hats into the ring too. However, Chacun Pour Soi still sets the standard and he’s taken to give Mullins his overdue first success in this race.
Last year’s Cross-Country winner – Easyslands – is back for more this season and he’s another that should have a big chance of adding to that success. He firmly put the two-time Grand National winner – Tiger Roll – in his place in the race 12 months ago, with a facile 17 length win and at just 7 years-old has a lot of time still on his side. Yes, he was beaten here in the Cross-Country race at the November Meeting on his only run since, but that was a handicap and he was giving away a shed-load of weight to the three horses – Potters Corner, Beau Du Brizais and Kingswell Theatre – who finished ahead of him that day. He’s not been seen since that November race, but is a horse that’s gone well fresh in the past and now back on level weights and if in the same mood as last year – don’t forget there was 35 lengths back to the third too – then he’s going to be hard to beat.
DAY THREE, Thursday 18th March 2021
Another that will probably be in most people’s ‘Super Banker’ list and it’s easy to see why. He’s now 11 races unbeaten and has already bagged two Festival wins after taking the Bumper back in 2019 and then adding the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle to his Festival haul 12 months ago. He’s been switched to fences this term, but that’s not stopped this winning machine – he’s won all three races over the biggest obstacles and looks set to go to the very top. Those looking to go against him – and there probably won’t be many – might look to the fact he’s had to change stables in recent weeks as he got caught up in the Gordon Elliott debacle. Some may feel a change of scenery and maybe routine, as each trainer does things differently, might impact him. However, he’s gone to another high-profile yard in Henry De Bromhead, who are no strangers to getting Festival winners themselves, while his regular pilot – Jack Kennedy – has kept the ride. You’d also like to think that the De Bromhead yard would have tried to keep things as close to his Gordon Elliott routine as possible – even as far down as his feed, straw, bedding and exercise times. Of course, horses can’t talk and Envoi might be homesick, but it’s unlikely and given his overall race record plus his proven Festival form, he’s another that is hard to oppose.
Conclusion: SUPER BANKER
DAY FOUR, Friday 19th March 2021
The winner of the last two Cheltenham Gold Cups – Al Boum Photo – will be trying to cement his name in the ‘all-time greats’ hall of fame for this race by landing his third and emulating Best Mate’s feat of three wins between 2002 and 2004. After several near misses in this race, the Gold Cup looked like being another of the high profile Cheltenham races that trainer Willie Mullins was never going to win – then all of a sudden, two wins on the bounce come along……..with the same horse. Photo has been given a similar prep for the race as in previous years too and has only been seen on the track once since last March. That resulted in an easy win at Tramore on New Year’s Day – a race he also won in 2020. He’s now won 7 of his 12 starts over fences and is 2-from-3 at the Festival. Let’s be clear, he’s got a big chance of defending his title for a second time and winning his third Gold Cup, but I just feel the race is a stronger one this time around. 12 months ago he only just beat Santini (neck), with Lostintranslation only 1 ¾ back in third. The point is, that pair have hardly done much to advertise that form since and both have been pretty average in their races since. Add in a few new players this year to the race in the likes of Champ and A Plus Tard, not to mention this season’s King George winner Frodon, then you feel the two-time winner has got a bit more of a solid challenge this time.