The Cheltenham Festival starts on Tuesday with a bumper crowd expected after an enforced Covid absence last year for four days of high-class action featuring the likes of Honeysuckle, Shishkin and Minella Indo.
The Irish, who won 23 out of 28 races last year, are expected to dominate again but there are some great British hopes.
Racing Correspondent Marcus Townend brought together Peter Scudamore, the eight-time champion jockey, Richard Johnson, a four-time champion, and history-making female rider Lizzie Kelly, who between them won 38 Festival races, to discover who will be making the headlines.
Experts Richard Johnson (left), Lizzie Kelly and Peter Scudamore talk race tactics
MARCUS TOWNEND: Richard, you have just had your hip replaced but are walking pretty soundly so will it be strange not riding there for the first time since you retired?
RICHARD JOHNSON: Even the build-up has been strange but with a new hip I will definitely feel a lot more comfortable than I was last year or for the last five of six years.
MT: Your last Festival was dominated by the Irish, with 23 wins in 28 races. What was it like riding last year?
RJ: Pretty miserable. The last couple of years the Irish have got stronger and they will dominate again. We have to rebuild. It will take time but there are a few more British-trained chances.
Richard Johnson, Lizzie Kelly and Peter Scudamore are looking forward to Cheltenham
LIZZIE KELLY: I agree. Runners like Queen Mother Champion Chase favourite Shishkin and Arkle Chase favourite Edwardstone give Britain some hope and there are some open races which could go either way.
MT: Not many will expect Ireland’s unbeaten reigning champion Honeysuckle to get beaten in tomorrow’s Champion Hurdle. Is she a stone-cold certainty?
PETER SCUDAMORE: Each year one or two of the bankers seem to go down but I don’t think that will happen to Honeysuckle. She looks outstanding. She was very impressive when she won the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last month. Her hurdling was fantastic. It is the ability of horses to jump which takes them to another level.
She is up against Appreciate It but he hasn’t run since winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s meeting. Even allowing for the fact that his trainer Willie Mullins is a genius it would be one of the great training performances of all time if he won.
RJ: If I was still riding I’d want to be on Honeysuckle. She is not flashy and exuberant but just keeps winning. She makes other horses look moderate and I agree it is a big ask for Appreciate It.
Lizzie Kelly has high hopes for Shishkin and Edwardstone at the Festival this week
LK: I am a Honeysuckle fan and love her story with Rachael Blackmore. But as a racing fan it is a bit boring. She needs some stronger opposition.
There are a couple of interesting up-and-coming horses in Adagio and Teahupoo. They are each-way hopes but they lack Honeysuckle’s experience and race-craft. You hope they are improving fast enough to get near her.
MT: Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin is one of Britain’s big hopes for the meeting in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday.
RJ: He looked beaten before he got the better of Energumene in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot but the more his jockey Nico de Boinville asked the more Shishkin delivered. That is what you need at Cheltenham in the last two or three furlongs. He fits the right profile for the race and is the best chaser we have in Britain.
LK: I loved the way Shishkin pulled out more when he came under pressure. In the last year he has grown and almost looks braver He doesn’t have anything to prove whereas the other big Mullins-trained hope for the race Chacun Pour Soi has not run well both times he has come to Britain.
PS: I am not saying Shishkin will not win but I wouldn’t back him at 4-7. I don’t think he is a good thing. This is the race of the Festival for me and it will be a race of huge intensity. It may come down to who is firing best on the day. Last year’s winner Put The Kettle On is a bit forgotten and a big price at 16-1. Her form is on a different level at Cheltenham.
Bumper crowd is expected for the high-class action after an enforced Covid absence last year
MT: Thyme Hill is an old ally of yours Richard. Can he win Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle?
RJ: I think he is bang in there in arguably the most open Grade One race at the Festival. You can forgive his run in France this season, it was bottomless ground and way too soft for him. He ran well behind Champ, who has a big chance, in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December.
The horses of his trainer Philip Hobbs — my old boss — are in a lot better form going into the Festival than they have been for the last two years and we have always thought Thyme Hill is a star.
But he is up against last year’s impressive winner Flooring Porter, Klassical Dream and you cannot write off 2019 winner Paisley Park after he won the Cleeve Hurdle after being reluctant to race and giving away 15 lengths at the start.
LK: Klassical Dream beat Flooring Porter when he got a flyer at the start at Leopardstown at Christmas but I don’t think he would have won if he hadn’t pinched a lead and then ran poorly last time.
The Cleeve was crazy the way Paisley Park ran. You would have to be concerned with him, especially as his jockey Aidan Coleman said he had been threatening to do that at the start before. He could win but equally I wouldn’t be surprised if he was pulled up.
PS: If he behaves himself Paisley Park is the best horse in the race for me but there are question marks about him and I would be with Thyme Hill as well.
Philip Hobbs’ Thyme Hill will take on Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday
RJ: If I was a Paisley Park fan, I would wait to back him until after he has jumped the first and back him in-running. At least then you would get a run for your money.
MT: What about Friday’s Gold Cup?
RJ: You always think last year’s winner will take some beating and Minella Indo is still young but I don’t think Al Boum Photo, winner in 2019 and 2020, has looked his old self for the last 12 months.
Galvin is joint favourite. I won a Perth novice hurdle on him. I can’t imagine he is quite classy enough but he stays well.
I like Rachael Blackmore’s mount A Plus Tard — he jumps, travels and was second in the race last year. When he won the Betfair Chase at Haydock, he just cantered round. If his trainer Henry de Bromhead has had a good meeting by then he will be a very short price.
Of the British runners Dan Skelton’s Protektorat has potential to go to the next level.
LK: I’d love to see Protektorat run well. Dan is certain he will stay the distance. You also have surprise King George VI Chase winner Tornado Flyer again seemingly written off.
I was impressed by A Plus Tard at Haydock. He tried to pull the reins out of Rachael’s hands about three out. That is something you expect to see cantering at home not in the middle of the race.
Rachael is one of the most tactically aware jockeys riding at the moment. When A Plus Tard was beaten a short head by Galvin in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown she made a move on the home turn which meant Galvin had to come around the outside and his jockey Davy Russell had to check.
Trainer Dan Skelton has high hopes of Protektorat (right) in Cheltenham Gold Cup
But for that I wonder if Galvin won easier. I like him. He is only eight but it feels like he has been around for ever and he has won at the Festival. It could be a big field, tactics will be important and stamina will come into it massively. I have seen a lot of horses jump the third last in the Gold Cup going well and lose. Cheltenham asks different questions of horses. Some can answer it, some can’t. That is the case in the Gold Cup, where the pace picks up earlier than any other race when everybody thinks they are in with a chance.
I remember a great jockey telling me you don’t make ground going uphill, downhill or round bends —and you are doing that all the time at Cheltenham! You need to stay and Galvin will do that. I think he is the one.
MT: Outside of the big races each day, what horse are you looking forward to watching?
PS: Our horse Ahoy Senor in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase. I am going in hope rather than expectation. I have great respect for Bravemansgame, who thrashed us at Kempton over Christmas but he didn’t jump as well as he could and we believe in him.
LK: I like Stag Horn in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. He was classy on the Flat for trainer Archie Watson and won well at Warwick over hurdles. He’s a good each-way hope at 14-1.
RJ: I’m against you in the Albert Bartlett. I’d love to see Hillcrest win. He is 18 hands, massive. I rode him in a Bumper last year and used to school him at Henry Daly’s stable. There was no way you would have thought he would be this good but he has really clicked.
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