The 2021 Cheltenham Festival is just around the corner, and whilst the lack of a boisterous 70,000-odd crowd was a formality due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the potential absence of Ireland’s finest horses was far from expected. Well, that was until now.
There are growing fears that travel bans enforced due to the virus uncontrollably sweeping its way back across the country, along with Brexit border rules, could result in a lack of Irish horses at the iconic Prestbury Park meeting, but what would the Cheltenham Festival look like without them?
Some of jump racings finest horses are from the stables of Irish trainers Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, and it will of course come as no surprise that many of those names are the early favourites for this year’s biggest races – including the Gold Cup.
Between Mullins and Elliott, they have won the Leading Trainer accolade for the last seven years, and this year was expected to be no different, with Mullins the heavy favourite in the bet exchange, whilst Elliott is just behind as the second favourite – ahead of the likes Nicky Henderson and compatriot Henry De Bromhead.
Last year, Mullins and Elliott racked up seven winners each, with the former taking home the personal award on the basis of more placings, whilst De Bromhead also picked up two victories, with more expected from him this year.
Of the 14 Grade 1 races this year, a whopping nine are being tipped to be won by Irish horses. Mullins’ Appreciate It is the heavy favourite to win the Festival’s opener, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, whilst De Bromhead’s unbeaten Honeysuckle is expected to win the Mares’ Hurdle later in the day.
On day two, Monkfish is being tipped to pick up Mullins’ second Grade 1 victory of the Festival, whilst Chacun Pour Soi, who is also from the 64-year-old’s yard,is the favourite in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. It could be a day riddled with Irish winners as Elliott’s Sir Gerhard is the favourite in the Champion Bumper.
Elliott’s first Grade 1 favourite is on day three, with Envoi Allenthe 10/11 market leader in the Marsh Novices’ Chase, whilst Min is yet another favourite for Mullins in the day’s showpiece, the Ryanair Chase.
Elliott and Mullins are being tipped to pick up another Grade 1 winner each on the final day of the Festival, with Elliott’s Zanahiyrthe favourite in the Triumph Hurdle, whilst Al Boum Photo is heavily expected to land Mullins a hattrick of successive victories in the Gold Cup.
Of course, it would be a monumental shame to see these horses not taking part in this year’s Festival, especially Al Boum Photo who is aiming to make history, and it will undoubtedly weaken the field should they not travel to the Gloucestershire course in March.
Horses were prohibited from travelling between Ireland and the UK throughout December and that ban has been extended to at least the end of February. However, with no signs of the virus letting up in either country, there are fears that the travel ban could be extended further.
Thankfully, the head of Horse Racing Ireland, Brian Kavanagh, has given us a glimmer of hope ahead of the meeting, saying: “I would be positive about Cheltenham. Obviously, it all depends on how things go in the bigger picture between now and then. But it is 10 weeks away.
“During the summer we found ways, and in some ways, it was one of the most successful seasons on the flat ever, internationally.
“Okay things are more restrictive right now. But we will apply Government guidelines, work with trainers, and I would be positive that we’ll find ways when the time comes to get Irish participants over there.
Here’s hoping that Irish horses can participate come March, as it’s safe to say the Cheltenham Festival simply will not be the same without them!