The Prestbury Cup is the trophy given to whichever of the two nations, either Ireland or the UK, has the most winners at the Cheltenham Festival. A relatively new initiative started in 2014, it is named after the nearest village to the racecourse.
Enhancing what was already a competitive rivalry, Ireland has claimed the last three trophies, with fifteen winners in 2016, nineteen in 2017 and seventeen last year after the British won the inaugural prize with fifteen in 2014.
Headed by the powerhouses of Gordon Elliott, who won eight races last year and Willie Mullins, who scooped seven, the Irish are usually a sure bet, as reflected by this year’s prices, available at around 4/5 and the UK a best-priced 13/8.
This year, however, is far tighter than the odds suggest, with the Mullins’ stable having a quiet season, unable to roll out the litany of bankers with which the yard is associated. The UK challenge, usually spearheaded solely by Nicky Henderson, is a two-pronged attack this year, with Paul Nicholls enjoying a fantastic season at the highest level.
The Irish certainly hold a strong hand with horses that can be classed as bankers. Tiger Roll looks a sure thing to retain his Cross Country title, and the classy Sir Erec is rightfully at the head of the Triumph market after a facile success in Grade One company in February.
Despite the likely absence of Laurina and Apple’s Jade from the Mares’ Hurdle, the stranglehold that Willie Mullins holds over this division is likely to see Ireland take this once more, with last year’s winner Benie Des Dieux heading their challenge.
The UK has the banker of the week with Altior, who is odds-on to reclaim his Champion Chase crown. He, and Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle, in light of the absence of Penhill, are solid bankers for the UK and are both in our Cheltenham Antepost Accumulator.
With the star novice chaser of the season Le Richebourg ruled out, the British have a decent chance of reclaiming the Arkle, with Lalor and Glen Forsa available at shorter prices than the nearest Irish challenger in Duc Des Genievres.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Al Dancer is the right favourite for the Supreme, although it will be no easy task giving Fakir D’oudairies weight. The JLT is edged by the UK, with Lostintranslation, Topofthegame and Defi Du Seuil ahead of Real Steel hailing from Mullins’ yard.
The chance of Epatante in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle was certainly made easier by the withdrawal of Honeysuckle, and the same yard holds a narrow advantage for the Ballymore with Champ.
Even less clearcut is the National Hunt Chase, which looked a penalty kick for the UK after Ok Corral won at Warwick. The facile success of Ballyward on his second chase start saw him emerge as a challenger, although narrow preference is for the UK and Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old.
Whilst the Champion Bumper isn’t a race in which to rely on favourites, it is a race at which the Irish have a lot of arrows to throw, including the unbeaten Envoi Allen for Gordon Elliott and Mullins’ Blue Sari, in contrast to a British challenge headed by Harry Fry’s Get In The Queue.
The Ryanair is rather more complicated given the differing direction that a few of the runners could take, but with Min, Footpad, Monalee and Road To Respect the Irish contenders, this one looks likely to go the way of Ireland.
The recent drift of Santini has sent Delta Work into favouritism for the RSA, and Enda Bolger’s Stand Up And Fight is narrowly preferred to the prolific Road To Rome in the Foxhunter, although both sides have a raft of live chances in this.
With the disappointing season had by the majority of Britain’s leading staying chasers, the Gold Cup was shaping up as an Irish banker. Having said that, the emergence of Clan Des Obeaux, and what can only be described as a lack of emergence by Presenting Percy, who is yet to race over fences this season, has seen the market carved wide open.
The reverse has occurred with another of the Championship races. Buveur D’Air looked sure to saunter to a third Champion Hurdle after accounting for Samcro in the Fighting Fifth, although defeat to stablemate Verdana Blue, and the emergence of two leading Irish ladies, in Laurina and Apple’s Jade, makes this another race that cannot be split.
Additionally, the recent market support for Rebecca Curtis’ Lisnagar Oscar leaves the Albert Bartlett wide-open, the Irish challenge led by the Gigginstown duo of Battleoverdoyen and Commander Of Fleet and the UK aided by Henderson’s Dickie Diver and Birchdale.
Elliott’s Dallas Des Pictons in the Martin Pipe and Sire Du Berlais in the Pertemps, Mullins’ Uradel in the Coral Cup, and Charles Byrnes’ Wonder Laish in the County Hurdle have been supported, whilst Nicholls’ Give Me A Copper in the Ultima and Magic Saint in the Grand Annual are prominent in their respective markets.
The UK narrowly edge the Brown Advisory whilst the Irish are favoured in the Close Brothers’, Kim Muir, the County Hurdle and the Fred Winter.
It isn’t wise to view one side having a better chance than the other one given the prominence of their runners in the market, however, as just four handicap favourites have won in the past six seasons. As a result, it’s best to assume, like last season, that they will be split evenly.
If splitting the handicaps five apiece, and adding bankers, strong favourites and races in which narrow preference can be made, the UK are favoured in thirteen races, and Ireland in twelve, leaving three races that are too open to call.
Whilst racing is rarely as simple as this, it would appear that on the face of things, the British hold a narrow advantage and that the value bet is to either side with the home-nation, or take a punt on the draw.
Things will no doubt materialise differently, but it certainly appears the Irish have a weaker hand than usual, and are no great certainties to win the Prestbury Cup for the fourth year in a row.
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