The Irish, headed by Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, with support from trainers such as Henry De Bromhead, Jessie Harrington and Pat Kelly, have tended to dominate recent Cheltenham Festivals, scooping seventeen races last year, including six winners on the Thursday alone.
Whilst this year the powerhouses of Elliott and Mullins don’t quite look infallible as usual, the emergence of Joseph O’Brien as the new man in town more than makes up for their minor seasonal shortcomings.
Here, we take a look at the Irish raiders who have the best chances of leading Ireland to their fourth successive Prestbury Cup.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – Re-routed from the Triumph in order to avoid running against stablemate Sir Erec, Fakir D’oudairies is the leading Irish hope in the Supreme, bidding to become the first four-year-old to win the race since Hors La Loi III in 1999.
Two-from-two for the Joseph O’Brien-yard, including a thirteen-length Grade Two success on the New Course at Cheltenham, he is of interest receiving weight from his main rival Al Dancer.
Champion Hurdle – What had previously looked a penalty kick for Buveur D’Air in his search for a third Champion Hurdle, the presence of two Irish mares has blown this race wide open.
Apple’s Jade is a winner of a remarkable ten Grade Ones, including three this season by a combined sixty-two lengths. Question marks can be asked about her effectiveness at the track however, with three of her seven worst runs coming here, including when beaten in the Mares’ Hurdle last year by Benie Des Dieux.
Unbeaten in six starts for Willie Mullins, strolling to victory ahead of a couple of stablemates in a Grade Two when last seen, Laurina holds decent claims as an eighteen-length winner at the Festival last season.
OLBG Mares’ Hurdle – Willie Mullins’ self-declared banker of the week, Benie Des Dieux looks sure to go off a warm order to reclaim her title this year. Five-from-five for Mullins, this would be her seasonal reappearance, although her trainer certainly knows what it takes to ready one for the Festival.
RSA Novices’ Chase – Gordon Elliott’s Delta Work, who is three-from-three over fences including two Grade One victories, has been backed into favouritism. An eight-length winner on his first chase start over three-miles, last year’s Pertemps winner has strong claims of furthering his unbeaten chase record.
Queen Mother Champion Chase – Arguably the second best two-miler in training, there is no doubt that Min deserves his place in the line-up. He comes into the race after a couple of Grade One wins this season, although whether he has what it takes to overturn the form with Altior from last year, is another matter entirely.
Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase – Last year’s winner, and subsequent Grand National hero, Tiger Roll made a satisfactory reappearance over these fences, finishing fourth when conceding weight all around, before running out a surprise winner over hurdles in his prep race. He stands a great chance of reclaiming his crown, and getting a fourth Festival win.
Champion Bumper – Irish chances were certainly dented by the season-ending injury that Malone Road suffered. Nevertheless, Gordon Elliott and Cheveley Park still possess a great chance of scooping this prize with the unbeaten Envoi Allen.
A Grade Two winner at the Dublin Racing Festival, he heads the Irish challenge along with the once-raced Blue Sari, who scored by eleven-lengths on debut for Willie Mullins in January.
Ryanair – In light of the defection of Min to the Champion Chase, Footpad heads the Mullins’ challenge. The winner of the Arkle last year, he hasn’t quite been at his best this season, although a step up in trip could be the making of him.
Although stablemate Un De Sceaux is entering the veteran stage of his career, he posted a career-best in the Tingle Creek, on his sole start this season when beaten just four-lengths by Altior. A winner of this in 2017, and placed in the 2018 edition, it would be foolish to ignore his claims.
Henry De Bromhead’s Monalee, who was second in last year’s RSA, doesn’t appear to stay the Gold Cup trip, so connections will target this race. After a facile success in a Grade Two when last seen, he looks sure to come into this race with a live chance.
Another interesting twist to the Irish challenge is the presence of Road To Respect, who appeared to have an outsider’s chance in the Gold Cup, a race in which he was fourth last year. A Grade One winner over two-miles-four, and a winner over two-miles-five at the Festival in 2017, he certainly has the pace to figure, and no doubt the class as well.
JCB Triumph Hurdle – beaten by just two-and-a-half lengths by Stradivarius at Ascot in the summer, Joseph O’Brien’s Sir Erec arrived on the hurdling scene with a huge reputation, and duly obliged, scoring narrowly from another useful prospect trained by Willie Mullins.
He subsequently bettered that with a six-length romp in a Grade One at the Dublin Racing Festival, and comes to Cheltenham as, for many, an Irish banker.
Gold Cup – Presenting Percy had long been the favourite for the week’s showpiece, his reputation cemented with a stroll to victory in the RSA last year, although his failure to have a prep run over fences this season has seen him eased into joint-favouritism with Clan Des Obeaux.
Nevertheless, there are few better trainers than Pat Kelly at prepping a horse for a huge run, and so he continues to have a great chance.
One with a more conventional prep for the Gold Cup is Mullins’ Kemboy, who is five-from-eight over fences, scoring nicely in the Savills Chase at Christmas. He has been the stand-out chaser from over the Irish Sea this season, and looks a player at an each-way price.