(Photo by Cheltenham Racecourse under CC BY-SAY 2.0)
The Cheltenham Festival is just over a month away, so it’s time to start working out your top tips. The Cheltenham Gold Cup takes place on Friday, March 13 and is one of the biggest races not just in the UK but the world. This article looks at the top contenders for the 2020 race, which one will find that Friday the 13th can be very lucky indeed.
Al Boum Photo bids for repeat win
Not since 2004 has a horse retained the Gold Cup. That was when Best Mate won the race. Can Al Boum Photo also win the race two years in a row? His win gave trainer Willie Mullins his first victory in one of the few big races he hadn’t won, and it was only the horse’s second appearance at the festival. 2018 had seen Al Boum Photo fall in the RSA Chase but last year he won the Gold Cup by two and a half lengths.
Two months later, he made several mistakes when finishing second to stablemate Kemboy in the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup. His only race this season was a comfortable win in the Grade 3 Savill New Year’s Chase at Tramore. He is reported to have recovered well from that race and will next line up at Cheltenham. More rain will be helpful as his wins have come on soft, good to soft and heavy ground.
Already, Al Boum Photo is favourite with the bookies, priced at 4/1 to win the Gold Cup.
Santini photo source unknown
Trainer Nicky Henderson has won the Gold Cup with both Long Run and Bob’s Worth. He bids to make it a hat-trick with Santini who will be taking part in his third Cheltenham Festival. 2018 saw him finish third in the Albert Bartlett Novice’s Hurdle. He got closer last year when second in the RSA Novice’s Chase, half a length behind Topofthegame. He might have won but for losing a left fore shoe.
The last year has seen him make steady progress winning a listed race at Sandown in November. Soon after that, he had wind surgery but returned to the racetrack in late January winning the Grade 2 Paddy Power Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham. If there is further progress, then this runner has a good chance of winning the Gold Cup.
Delta Work in good form
With six wins in eight races over fences, Delta Work is very much a live contender this year. Trained by Gordon Elliott, he won the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle two years ago. Last year, Delta Work was third in the RSA, just behind Santini ending a run of three wins, including two Grade 1 victories.
Since last year’s festival, Delta Work has won two more Grade 1 races including winning the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup from Kemboy. He’s another that likes soft ground but has won on good. A visit to the SportNation website sees Delta Work at odds of 11/2.
Lostintranslation on the comeback trail
Winner of the 2019 Betfair Chase, Lostintranslation went on to be pulled up in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. A breathing problem was the reason for that happening, and wind surgery took place at the start of 2020. It’d be a big story if he could come back from that and win the Gold Cup and is currently 7/1.
Native River chasing second Gold Cup
Native River source unknown
The 2018 Gold Cup winner will have another crack at the title next month. He made his seasonal reappearance with a 33-length win at Aintree. It would have been a lot closer if Might Bite hadn’t unseated his rider. February saw his final race before Cheltenham at Newbury. Native River made all to win the Betfair Denman Chase and the ten-year-old (fourth in the Gold Cup last year) will make a bold bid to win his second Gold Cup. 11/1 makes Native River a decent each-way bet.
Clan Des Obeaux going for the double
Fifth in the Gold Cup last year, this Paul Nicholls trained contender won the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day for the second successive year. Before that he’d finished second behind Road to Respect in November’s Champion Chase at Down Royal. He did finish ahead of Delta Work though and had been off the track for 212 days. You can get 17/2 on his doing the King George/Gold Cup double.
This year’s race looks a fascinating one. The last six Gold Cups have only seen one favourite win (Don Cossack in 2016). This year looks a very open one, too.
The battle to be named top trainer always provides an intriguing subplot as the Cheltenham Festival unfolds. It is the biggest event of the season and all the leading lights are desperate to secure winners, so the resulting contests are intense and the celebrations are wild. These are the big names vying to be named top trainer at the famous festival in 2020:
The Irish maestro became the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history when Laurina seized the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in 2018. He pulled even further away from the chasing pack when he was named top trainer at last year’s meeting, with four winners. That fell some way short of his record of eight winners, secured back in 2015, but he was delighted to land the biggest prize of all when Al Boum Photo won the Gold Cup.
Mullins has been named top trainer at Cheltenham six times since 2011 and he will have another formidable collection of runners this year. Benie Des Dieux is the favourite to win the Mares’ Hurdle at top betting sites like https://www.marathonbet.co.uk/en/betting/Horse+Racing, while Saldier is among the leading contenders for the Champion Hurdle and Panic Attack heads the betting for the Champion Bumper after delivering an impressive victory at Market Rasen.
Classy veteran Douvan could also be set for a return to action at Cheltenham and he could be an interesting each-way option in the Champion Chase. Yet the most attention will be reserved for Al Boum Photo, who is the favourite to win the Gold Cup for a second year running. Stablemate Kemboy is the second favourite, so Mullins will have a very strong hand in the big race. It is unsurprising to see him installed as the favourite to be named top trainer at the festival for a record-breaking seventh time.
Elliott has enjoyed an extremely fruitful partnership with Michael O’Leary in recent years, saddling several winners for the Ryanair boss at the Cheltenham Festival. That will all end soon, as O’Leary announced a shock decision to begin winding up his Gigginstown Stud operation by 2024, so Elliott must make hay while the sun shines.
He secured six winners in 2017 and equalled Mullins’ record with eight in 2018. That saw him crowned top trainer at both meetings, but he struggled last year and ended up with just three winners. All three of them will be back in 2020 and they all have a great chance of securing more success.
Tiger Roll will be a star attraction as he bids for a third consecutive Cross Country Chase triumph en route to his attempt to win an unprecedented third Grand National in a row at Aintree the following month. Envoi Allen will also carry plenty of hype after embarking on an exceptional run of form. He is expected to run in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and he will be the clear favourite to prevail. Sire Du Berlais is also the favourite for the Pertemps Network Final.
There are also high hopes for a number of emerging stars within Elliott’s stable. Speed merchant Abacadabras is the favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the first race of the festival, while Easywork could also contend for that one. Andy Dufresne and Fury Road have plenty of potential, and Delta Work is a potential Gold Cup challenger.
Henderson has loomed large over the Cheltenham Festival in recent years. Altior won the Champion Chase and Buveur d’Air landed the Champion Hurdle in 2018, and then Altior secured another Champion Chase victory last year.
Buveur d’Air is now out injured, but Altior will aim to make it a Champion Chase hat-trick this year. Henderson decided to step him up in trip in an effort to win the King George on Boxing Day this season, but preparations did not go well and he struggled in the Christy Chase at Ascot, so he is now going back down to 2 miles.
Elsewhere, Henderson has an exciting Gold Cup contender in Santini, viewed by many commentators as the one to beat in the big race. Delta Work is another major Gold Cup hopeful from the Henderson stable. Champ is the favourite for the RSA Chase and talented youngster Shiskin is tipped to land the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle after an eye-catching win at Newbury.
Henderson was made an OBE in the New Year’s honours and he has enjoyed plenty of Cheltenham Festival success over the years, having been named top trainer in 2000, 2010 and 2012. The bookies see him as the only Brit capable of challenging Mullins and Elliott for the award this year.
Henry de Bromhead
De Bromhead saddled two winners at last year’s Cheltenham Festival as A Plus Tard seized the Close Brothers Novices’ Chase and Minella Indo defied odds of 50/1 to win the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. This time around A Plus Tard is favourite to win the Ryanair Chase and also one of the key contenders for the Champion Chase, presenting the Irish trainer with a dilemma.
Minella Indo is expected to battle Champ for RSA Chase glory. Monalee will be de Bromhead’s big hope for the Gold Cup. Honeysuckle is also the second favourite for the Mares’ Hurdle so it could be a strong festival for de Bromhead.
Once upon a time Nicholls was the dominant force at the Cheltenham Festival. He was the top trainer in 1999 and 2004, and then he had the most winners four years in a row between 2006 and 2009. He would turn up at Prestbury Park with legends like Kauto Star, Denman, See More Business, Master Minded, Silviniaco Conti and Big Buck’s, and clean up.
Nowadays his star has waned somewhat, as Mullins has emerged as the one to beat, but he managed two winners at last year’s festival. Frodon won the Ryanair Chase and Topofthegame landed the RSA Novices’ Chase. Frodon will return this year and we could be in for an epic battle between him and Min for the Ryanair Chase.
Gold Cup hope Topofthegame is out for the season with a leg injury, but Nicholls has plenty of good options at the Cheltenham Festival. He regained the Trainers’ Championship last season, clinching it for an 11th time, and he will have the likes of Cyrname, Pic D’Orhy and Magic Saint gunning for glory in March.
Lostintranslation has a fantastic chance of winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup after his stunning victory in the Betfair Chase in November. He was pulled up during a disappointing performance in the King George on Boxing Day, but he has since had his palate cauterised and he has plenty of time to return to top form in time for the main event at Cheltenham.
Native River is a former Gold Cup winner and he can never be written off. The Big Breakaway is another exciting runner from Tizzard’s stable and he could run in either the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle or the Albert Bartlett. The veteran Thistlecrack has been ruled out, but the likes of Master Debonair, Slate House and Fiddlerontheroof show plenty of promise and Tizzard will be another key trainer to watch at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Granted his lengthy association with Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls, the fact that Ruby Walsh is, far and away, the most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival is no real surprise. Mullins has saddled 61 winners at the March showpiece meeting, Nicholls has saddled 43 and, between them, they have won the leading trainer award 11 times.
Coincidentally, Walsh has also won the leading jockey award 11 times, including five years running between 2013 and 2017. Indeed, he was favourite to do so again in 2018 but, after two early wins – which took his career total to 58 – aggravated a leg injury, sustained at Punchestown the previous November, when Al Boum Photo fell at the penultimate fence in the RSA Chase on the second day, and missed the rest of the Festival.
Walsh rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner, Alexander Banquet, trained by Mullins, in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper in 1998, as an 18-year-old amateur. Having turned professional, he had to wait a few years for his second, Blowing Wind, trained by Martin Pipe, in the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup in 2002 but, thereafter, has ridden at least one winner at every Cheltenham Festival.
His notable successes include the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009, the Champion Hurdle four times, on Hurricane Fly in 2011 and 2013, Faugheen in 2015 and Annie Power in 2016, the Queen Mother Champion Chase three times, on Azertyuiop in 2004 and Master Minded in 2008 and 2009, and the Stayers’ Hurdle five times, on Big Buck’s in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and Nichols Canyon in 2017. The four ‘championship’ races aside, together Walsh and Mullins have ‘farmed’ the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, winning all bar three of the eleven renewals – including six in a row between 2009 and 2014, with Quevega – since it was added to the Festival programme in 2008.