Cheltenham Festival – 5 Toughest Decisions for Trainers

Nicky Henderson - Copyright

Ante post betting on the Cheltenham Festival can be a nightmare for punters but it can also be a complete headache for some of the trainers, who have some huge potentially financially crucifying decisions to make. One such example in the past few months was Colin Tizzard, trainer of last years’ World Hurdle winner Thistlecrack.

OK, it has to be said that a lot of the time it is the owner who makes the ultimate call but they will sit down and have a meeting with their respective trainer to discuss what the best option is. They made the brave decision to go down the Gold Cup route with Thistlecrack this season and although he won the King George, if he doesn’t win the Gold Cup, this season could be said to have been a failure as he had a penalty kick in the World Hurdle and could have won the race for a number of years in the future too.

Let’s move on and take a look at the top 5 toughest decisions trainers’ and owners will have to make for the 2017 Cheltenham Festival. Make sure you tune in for our Cheltenham Festival tips which have full previews and trends provided.

ALTIOR – Nicky Henderson

Well, what an absolute beast of a horse Altior is, there really is no getting away from it. An absolute tank in build, the Seven Barrows horse has won his last nine races, a run which started in October 2015 at Chepstow. Sent off the 4/1 second favourite behind the well fancied Willie Mullins hotpot Min in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 2016, he went on to beat his rival by a staggering seven lengths, an eye-watering display.

The form has been franked time and time again, none more so by Buveur D’Air who was back in third that day. He beat Petit Mouchoir twice last season and is now favourite for the Champion Hurdle this season. If form is to be taken literally, Altior would win the Champion Hurdle by about half a furlong. So why is he running in the Arkle this season then? Connections decided he would go chasing at the end of last season. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. With Anie Power, Faugheen and co all out of the Champion Hurdle reckoning, it must be causing Nicky some sleepless nights to stick with the novice option.

It would be a last minute change to throw the season’s plans out the window, but the Champion Hurdle is – with full respect to the Arkle Trophy – a far more prestigious race. With little looking likely to beat him over the bigger obstacles until he faces the Willie Mullins’ superstar Douvan next season, it could well turn out to be a schooling session, and opportunities at a Championship race don’t appear to get much easier than this looking at the entries.

VROUM VROUM MAG – Willie Mullins

The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of the equine world is the best way to describe her, with a total of 6 races across both hurdles and fences.. Annie Power was the super sub last season, and this could be the year Vroum Vroum Mag steps into her shoes and repeats the feat. Without doubt the most versatile horse in training at present, Rich Ricci’s wonder-mare has won Grade 1 races ranging from two miles, all the way to three miles. She ran terribly at Doncaster against average horses when last seen but it was a messy race in testing conditions. Before that, she won the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and would be in receipt of seven pounds from the boys. It looks like she is Rich’s only hope for a Champion Hurdle winner this year so don’t be surprised if she turns up on the day.

She could also go for the Mares’ Hurdle, the race she won with ease last season. Rich Ricci may want to turn her into the next Quevega but the word on the street is Limini is their Mares’ Hurdle horse and will take that option. Limini will more than likely run in the Mares’ Hurdle and Rich isn’t a fan of running his good horses against each other. She could also run in the Stayers’ Hurdle as she won the Christmas Hurdle in Ireland in good fashion. Unowhatimeanharry would struggle to give a mare of her class seven pounds and her Doncaster run suggests she may need a step back up in trip.

Here at, we think her best trip is two and a half miles or two miles and five furlongs. Sometimes she lacks that extra bit of acceleration over two miles and she came to a stop near the line in the Christmas Hurdle, suggesting a stiff three miles at Cheltenham might find her stamina out. If that is the case, the Ryanair Chase is the perfect race for her. However she also has an entry in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, amazingly.

YORKHILL – Willie Mullins

It has been an awful few months for Willie Mullins who lost his Gigginstown House Stud runners due to his increased fees and he was dealt more blows since as both Annie Power and Faugheen are both ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival amongst many others in the yard. He usually has a very strong hand in the Champion Hurdle but Yorkhill may be his best choice – if he decides to send him there.

A winner of the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last season, he was sent over the larger obstacles this year. Although he hasn’t set the world alight over fences, he is still the rock solid favourite for the JLT Novices’ Chase, a race he should win doing handstands if he is at his best. However, now that Min is also out of the Arkle  Chase, connections have a headache. Should he run against Altior in the Arkle? That seems the least likely option.

However, the more pressing question is: should he run in the Champion Hurdle? Willie Mullins hinted soon after his latest Leopardstown run over fences that he may well revert back to hurdles, but he didn’t state when that may be. He beat one of the leading Champion Hurdle contender’s Yorkhill in the Neptune last season and as we have already mentioned, the leading starts of the race are no longer running. Willie has since come out to say that Yorkhill will stay over fences this season so it looks like he is JLT bound but it’s not unusual for connections to change their mind late in the day as we saw with Vautour last year!

CUE CARD – Colin Tizzard

Connections of Cue Card have already stated that their horse will be running in the Gold Cup again this season but it is still a tricky decision to make for both the owners and trainer Colin Tizzard. Now an eleven year old, he is unlikely to win the Gold Cup. He has been a sublime servant to everybody involved and they have to be admired for believing he can win the race but it probably is not their best chance of a Festival winner. It is a little surprising connections didn’t opt for the Ryanair Chase, which looks an easier race – and one he has won before.

He was well beaten by stablemate Thistlecrack in the King George, who is now favourite for the race, even after his defeat to the amazing Many Clouds, RIP. Granted, he probably would have won the Gold Cup last season but for a fall three out which gifted the race to Don Cossack but a year is a long time in horse racing, especially as those legs start to get older. We hope he runs an absolute screamer in the big race on the Friday and make us eat some humble pie.

FINIAN’S OSCAR – Colin Tizzard

Between Thistlecrack, Cue Card and Finian’s Oscar, Colin Tizzard must have a hefty pharmacy bill for the amount of migraines he has had in the past twelve months. The new kid on the block in the yard is Finian’s Oscar and he looks a real star too. Ann & Alan Potts purchased the former Irish point to pointer for a hefty sum and he didn’t disappoint over the extended two miles and five furlongs at Hereford on debut, leaving the well regarded Acting Lass in his wake by seven lengths.

Interestingly, he was then dropped back down to two miles at Sandown for the Tolworth Hurdle but he impressed there, beating Capitaine by five lengths, pushed out to the line. So where does he go next? He has the speed for two miles but has the speed and stamina for much further. His options are either the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle or the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle. We think the decision will be made late on, depending on the ground. If the ground has soft in the description, it should be ideal for him to run in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, with nearly identical conditions to his Tolworth victory. If the ground is good, he may need a more suitable stamina test so the Neptune would then probably be the best call.

See all our expert Cheltenham Festival tips here including previews of every race at the Festival and antepost tips for all the big races already.

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