The 2023 renewal of the Cheltenham Festival is almost upon us, with around a month to go until the sound of hoofs echo around the iconic Cotswolds racecourse once more. Punters are already rubbing their hands in anticipation of the prestigious four-day meeting, thoroughly studying the form guide and scouring the ante-post markets for the best horse racing odds.
The onus is often on the four championship races — the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Gold Cup. However, that doesn’t always mean they are going to be the best contests of the Festival. In fact, a couple of them look like foregone conclusions with short-price favourites for both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup in Constitution Hill and Galopin Des Champs respectively.
That said, let’s take a look at some of the races that are shaping up to perhaps be the most competitive.
The Mares’ Hurdle is arguably a race that is often overlooked at Cheltenham. It’s late on the opening day’s card and has to follow on in the shadows of the Champion Hurdle. But this year’s two-mile and four-furlong contest is shaping up to be a true classic, with the great Honeysuckle now targeting the Mares’ Hurdle as her swansong.
The Henry de Bromhead-trained star now enters as the favourite ahead of defending champion Marie’s Rock, who was the market leader after a fantastic display at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day — winning a strong renewal of the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle outside of mares’ company.
Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle winner Love Envoi, also two for two this season, and Brandy Love, who won the Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final at Fairyhouse on her last outing in April, are solid contenders.
Despite Nicky Henderson embarrassingly forgetting to enter her in the Mares’ Hurdle, which is now going to cost the veteran trainer in excess of £4,500 in supplement fees, Epatante also brings the star power. The JP McManus-owned horse has won seven Grade 1s, including the Champion Hurdle in 2020, making this an unmissable contest.
Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase
While the Champions Hurdle might as well be given to Constitution Hill, the same can’t be said about the Arkle — where Jonbon looks set to get the ball rolling on what could be a fantastic opening afternoon for Henderson and jockey Nico de Boinville.
Indeed, the McManus-owned horse is as short as 11/8 to win the two-mile contest — and deservedly so after making a smooth transition from hurdles to fences by winning both his races so far this season, including the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown in December.
However, there’s a reason why he’s not odds-on like his stablemate and old rival over hurdles Constitution Hill — and that’s because of the presence of Willie Mullins trio Dysart Dynamo, Appreciate It and El Fabiolo.
It’s unlikely that the Irish trainer will pit three of his best novice chasers against each other in the Arkle, but at least two of them could run — and whichever pair Mullins chooses could be more than capable of chasing down Jonbon.
A race that shares centre stage with the Ryanair Chase on the penultimate day of the Festival, Flooring Porter has won the Grade 1 Stayers’ Hurdle for the last two years in a row. However, two fourth place finishes thus far this season have many pundits and punters alike questioning the Gavin Cromwell-trained horse’s hattrick credentials.
Add to that the fact Flooring Porter will need to turn around the form on second favourite Home By The Lee, who won both the contests Flooring Porter could fare no better than fourth in — including the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle — and this an intriguing encounter.
The onus is now on Teahupoo though. The Gordon Elliott-trained horse is two for two over hurdles this season, beating fellow Stayers’ entry Klassical Dream and Honeysuckle in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle in December before proving himself over three miles in the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle last month.