The National Hunt race programme for mares in the UK continues to develop with a Grade 2 steeplechase over two-and-a-half miles being run at the Cheltenham Festival for the first time in 2021.
Months of speculation about which race from the packed four-day schedule at the premier jumps meeting in the British Isles would be axed to make way for this new event ended when it was revealed the Listed novice handicap chase had been chosen. That contest will now take place at Sandown Park on the Imperial Cup card the Saturday before Cheltenham starts, so isn’t lost from the pattern.
The Mares’ Chase is pencilled in for Gold Cup day (Friday, 19 March), meaning further changes to the Festival schedule have been made by the organisers. That in turn means the historic Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase first run in 1834 switches to Ladies Day and will take place 48 hours earlier.
In a further tweak to the Festival cards, the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (currently sponsored by jewellery brand Boodles) moves to the opening day of the meeting where the Champion Hurdle is the feature race. It leaves Cheltenham with nine handicaps across the four days.
When it comes to mares competing over jumps under Rules, those trained in Ireland have really dominated at the Festival. The Grade 1 David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, introduced at Cheltenham in 2008, has been only been won by British-based horses twice.
Irish trainer Willie Mullins alone has nine victories in the race, six in a row coming courtesy of the legendary Quevega between 2009 and 2014. He has also saddled the winner of every running of the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle to date too.
That suggests his County Carlow yard could be the place to look for the winner of the inaugural Mares’ Chase. Mullins has a number of leading contenders for the race with Salsaretta the ante post favourite at 6/1 when you use 888sport bet on horse racing, ahead of past Cheltenham Festival winners Put The Kettle On and stable companion Benie Des Dieux.
Those with winning course experience have to be respected. This is because of the undulating nature of Cheltenham which doesn’t suit every horse. Put The Kettle On, an 8/1 chance from the Henry De Bromhead stable, has won both her starts at the track, albeit over a shorter distance.
Benie Des Dieux has black type over both hurdles and fences, but is only one from three previous Festival appearances after taking an infamous final flight tumble under Ruby Walsh in 2019. Mullins also has Elimay at the same 10/1 price, and this younger mare could also target Cheltenham.
If there is to be a British-trained winner of the Mares’ Chase, then 2019 November Gold Cup heroine Happy Diva looks the most likely to cause an upset. This course and distance winner hails from the Welsh Marches yard of Kerry Lee, but 16/1 odds reflect the very strong challenge expected at the Festival from across the Irish Sea.