The Cheltenham Festival over the years has tended to be dominated by the powerhouses of National Hunt racing, and the current period is no different, with the five winning-most current trainers possessing 212 winners between them. Here we take a look at those five trainers, reflecting on their finest moments and looking at their best chances of success this year.
The Master Of Closutton has long been heralded as a genius, and last year he ascended to the top of the list of the winning-most trainers in Cheltenham Festival history, past or present, when Laurina strolled to victory in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle to give Mullins his 61st Festival winner.
As is customary for the Mullins’ stable, he comes to this year’s Festival with a fleet of fancied runners, most notably Benie Des Dieux, who will attempt to reclaim her Mares’ Hurdle title, and give Mullins his tenth winner in the race in eleven years, in what should be a weaker field, with the likely absence of Apple’s Jade this year.
It is something of a quirk of history that despite the vast number of winners he has had, he is yet to win the Gold Cup. He has shouldered the runner-up in the race on six occasions, including with Djakadam in 2015 & 2016.
This year, he once again is armed up to the teeth to end that hoodoo, with Savills Chase winner Kemboy looking the pick of his six entries, ahead of Irish Gold Cup winner Bellshill, and the progressive Al Boum Photo.
Henderson will be looking to wrestle back the top-spot on this list, and with a raft of live chances, he looks sure to add a few winners this year to his total of 60. He is a man who excels at the Festival, scooping seven Champion Hurdles including four of the last ten, six Triumph Hurdles and five Champion Chases over the years.
He will be looking to reclaim the Champion Hurdle once more with Buveur D’Air seeking his third victory in the race, and the Champion Chase with the imperious Altior, who is unbeaten over obstacles, a race which he has won four of the last seven editions.
His quest to reclaim the lead is also helped with favourites’ chances in the National Hunt Chase with Ok Corral, Champ in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, and Epatante in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.
A forty-three time Festival-winner as a trainer, Paul Nicholls has suffered something of a glut in recent years in the Festival’s highest prestige races, his last Grade One success coming courtesy of Dodging Bullets in the 2015 Champion Chase.
Winning just the Grand Annual and Foxhunter Hunter Chase last year, Nicholls was in the shadow of Elliott, Mullins and Henderson, who regularly scoop the highest-quality races at the Festival. That looks markedly different this year, after the Ditcheat-based trainer has enjoyed a fantastic season at the highest-level.
Nowhere does his chance look better of adding to his impressive tally than with King George winner Clan Des Obeaux, who swept into favouritism for the Gold Cup after a facile victory in the Denman Chase. He would give his trainer a fifth win in the race and would draw him level with Tom Dreaper for the most wins in the Blue Riband event.
The former Champion Jockey has been just as successful at Cheltenham in his training career, training twenty-six winners at the Festival, most notably Synchronised who won the Gold Cup in 2012. He is without a win since 2016 however, when Minella Rocco won the National Hunt Chase.
It is that horse who appears to have the best chance of adding to his trainer’s tally, the 2017 Gold Cup-third the second favourite for the Ultima Handicap Chase. He, along with Sky Pirate who figures prominently in the betting for the Kim Muir, spearhead this trainer’s challenge, which looks the weakest of the five.
Elliott has wasted no time since training his first winner at the Festival in 2011, winning the Gold Cup in 2016 with Don Cossack, taking his record to twenty-two wins at the Festival with eight successes in 2018 alone, which included a four-timer on Thursday.
He, along with Henderson, looks to have one of the strongest series of challengers at this year’s Festival, with Champion Hurdle-hopeful Apple’s Jade, RSA favourite Delta Work and the double-seeking Tiger Roll in the Cross Country leading the way for Gigginstown and Gordon Elliott.
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