Which trainer will emerge on top at the Cheltenham Festival next week. Will Hayler analyses the squads of all the leading players and gives his verdict.The Mullins contenders will include Min in the Champion Chase (Racingfotos)
By Will Hayler
Cheltenham Festival winners: 54. Best odds: 6-4
There’s no denying that the Mullins aura of invincibility has been dented a little this season, and the strike-rate remains down overall compared to the same months of the past two or three campaigns.
However, time and again Mullins has shown himself to be a master at tuning his team up for the big occasion. Furthermore he has quality across the divisions and plenty of chances for the handicaps too, so another huge Festival looks on the cards.
Winningmost trainer at Cheltenham from 2013 through to 2016, the eight victories he managed two years ago could prove beyond him, but seven or possibly even six might well still be enough to win the title again.
Cheltenham Festival winners: 58. Best odds: 9-4
Leading trainer at this meeting for the first time back in 1985, Henderson has kept moving forwards in more than 30 years since and again has a team packed with strength, including three winners from last year’s meeting bidding to strike again.
Where he may struggle to keep the tally moving this year is in the handicaps, though, as there are question-marks over Gold Present at this track (despite his second at the Festival last year) and there are surely better treated horses than Theinval in the Grand Annual, while other possible contenders could just struggle to make the cut.
It isn’t hard to see him having at least four or five winners, but will that be enough?
Cheltenham Festival winners: 14. Best odds: 9-4
Leading contenders: Samcro, Apple’s Jade, Cause Of Causes.Elliott had six winners at The Festival last year (PA)
Top Cheltenham Festival trainer 12 months ago and it’s no surprise to see Elliott strongly fancied to excel again given his excellent overall form this season.
Samcro effectively gives him a head-start of one of the rest (although the same has been said before about several past Festival flops) and Apple’s Jade is also likely to go off at odds-on for the OLBG Mares’ race, in which market leaders have a particularly good record.
The question seems to be more whether Elliott can find four or five winners elsewhere and although he has some eyecatching contenders in the handicaps, even the most obvious such as De Plotting Shed, Glenloe and The Storyteller have holes in their profiles.
Furthermore, there’s a hint of a suspicion he might just have kept a couple back for Fairyhouse and Punchestown in a bid to shore up a first trainers’ title in Ireland.
Cheltenham Festival winners: 41. Best odds: 50-1
Leading contenders: Black Corton, Modus, Politologue.Nicholls will be looking to Politologue to shine (PA)
It cannot be easy for a man as driven as Paul Nicholls heading into the Festival with a team not just lacking champions, but also numbers.
However, there are a couple of very interesting contenders in among his possible starters and Movewiththetimes has been expertly placed to get the perfect mark for the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, a feat in itself a reminder of Nicholls’ talents.
Soft ground is not ideal for Black Corton, while Politologue surely requires a miracle to reverse form with Altior from Newbury, but Nicholls last had a Festival blank in 2002 and that trend probably won’t be ending this season.
Cheltenham Festival winners: 5. Best odds: 50-1
Leading contenders: Native River, Finian’s Oscar, Cue Card, Elegant Escape.Tizzard's team could be suited by the likely soft ground (PA)
The number of interesting and unexposed novice hurdlers and chasers among Tizzard’s possible squad compared to handicap contenders is a sign of shifting times and he’s highly unlikely to manage more than a couple of Festival winners with most of his runners trading at meaty double-figure prices in the ante-post books.
However, in contrast to 12 months ago, the stable has suddenly hit some form at just the right moment and it certainly would not be a huge surprise to see such as Lostintranslation, Vision Des Flos and Ainchea outrun their odds, especially as they could be better suited to softer conditions than normally seen at the Festival in contrast to the speedier ex-Flat types lining up in the big novice hurdles.
Will Hayler’s verdict:
Given the fact that the Irish-trained handicap entries look to have been given a slightly more sympathetic hearing this year than has been the case more recently, we can expect Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins to find a winner or two from that sphere.
Mullins looks a solid favourite, although it could be make a break for the bet on the first day if Getabird and Footpad are turned over in the first two races of the week.
A slightly more appealing bet could be backing Mullins, Elliott and Henderson to score 15 or more winners between them over the week at 6-1 with William Hill. They achieved that number last year and the betting market suggests little has changed in terms of the overall power of their teams in the interim.
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