It's been a long 12-month wait, but the pinnacle of the National Hunt season is almost upon us. Once again, we'll be treated to the best of the Irish taking on the best of the British over four days at Prestbury Park during the 2023 Cheltenham Festival. The Irish have undoubtedly had the upper hand of late, with the Brits finding it hard to compete with the firepower the likes of Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, and Henry de Bromhead are bringing over.
Combine this Irish domination with a decline in field sizes, and we have consequently seen an increased number of short-priced favourites pitching up at recent Festivals. As a result, punters have been tasked with picking and choosing which jollies they can trust at horse racing betting sites. Below are some of the favourites that I believe might be worth swerving when the action gets underway on March 14.
The Dublin Racing Festival saw several Willie Mullins hotpots turned over at prohibitive odds, and arguably the biggest bubble to burst that weekend was that of Facile Vega. The 2022 Champion Bumper winner was as short as 4/6 with some betting sites for the Festival opener in the lead-up to Leopardstown, and his defeat has now given the race a much more open look to it.
In his post-race interview, Mullins was critical of the ride given by jockey Paul Townend, who went off like a scalded cat in front, and inevitably emptied when turning for home. Mullins is hopeful that a more conservative ride will see him to better effect at the Festival, and given Mullins’ impressive record in the race, many are sure to share that view.
Personally, I think that it will take a mammoth training performance from Mullins to get Facile Vega to win off the back of that prep run, and it will likely take some time for the horse to get over his Leopardstown exertions. Another nagging concern is how poorly the Champion Bumper form from last year is working out. It is entirely possible that Facile Vega looked a world-beater against substandard opposition last season, and I am more than happy to overlook him in the curtain-raiser.
Honeysuckle holds a special place in the hearts of racing fans - and quite rightly so being a 12-time Grade 1 winner. If the wonder mare were to sign off on her glittering career with a Mares’ Hurdle win it would be a story that would warm even the coldest of hearts. Indeed, it would be a fitting send-off for one of the most remarkably consistent mares we are likely to see for some time. In saying this, I’ve always had precious little time for being sentimental when backing horses, and as much as I’d love Rachael Blackmore and the De Bromheads to win this, I just can’t see it happening.
Kenny Alexander’s mare has looked a shadow of her former self this season, losing her 16-race unbeaten streak in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse, before grimly hanging on for second in the Irish Champion Hurdle. It’s clear to me that she isn’t the force of old, and in a red-hot renewal of the Mares’ Hurdle, she is readily opposed.
This year’s edition is stacked with quality, and if the defending champion Marie’s Rock pitches up here instead of the Stayers’ Hurdle, she is likely to prove very hard to beat. Throw in last year’s Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle winner Love Envoi, and the 2020 Champion Hurdle winner Epatante and you have several rock-solid candidates to take on the favourite with. Honeysuckle is sure to be a very popular choice and go off a short price on horse racing betting apps, which will hopefully give us juicier prices on her opposition.
On the face of it, Hermes Allen has done absolutely nothing to warrant featuring in this article. He has an unblemished record over hurdles, and the form of his Challow Hurdle win is working out phenomenally well. It is well documented that winners of the Challow have a dire record in this race, with the last 19 winners who turned up at Cheltenham all being beaten. However, I think that stats of this nature can be misleading, and I certainly don’t think that Hermes Allen is doomed on that basis. On the other hand, I would be concerned by the man who trains him.
I get a strong impression that Paul Nicholls is very indifferent to how his stable stars fare in their novice hurdle days, with the focus clearly being to nurture them until they go novice chasing. Only two of Nicholls’ 46 Festival winners have come in Grade 1 novice hurdles, and some of Ditcheat’s most well-known flag-bearers such as Denman and Bravemansgame have been beaten in this race before going on to excel over fences. There is a chance that Hermes Allen may follow a similar path.
This is also a race that has been dominated by the Irish in recent times with 11 of the last 15 winners being Irish raiders. It is impossible to know how Hermes Allen’s form stacks up against what is usually much stronger Irish opposition. With some exciting prospects such as Impaire Et Passe, Good Land and Gaelic Warrior en route, there is more than enough depth in this race to oppose the favourite.
Let’s call a spade a spade, the Champion Chase that Energumene won at last year’s Festival was a farce of a race. The swamp-like conditions on the Wednesday would have been right up his street, and he was left with nothing to beat after Shishkin was pulled up with what turned out to be a rare bone condition. Energumene’s subsequent win against a 10-year-old Chacun Pour Soi at Punchestown is another piece of form I wouldn’t get excited about, and his current price of around 13/8 on horse racing betting sites doesn’t appeal in the slightest.
I find it hard to fathom how the horse is currently favourite for this race after being firmly put in his place by both Edwardstone and Editeur Du Gite in the Clarence House Chase. Both of those horses will be reopposing in March all being well, and I’m not sure the Willie Mullins inmate will be sending shivers down the spines of either. Mullins put Energumene’s uncharacteristically poor round of jumping in the Clarence House down to the new white trim on the fences at Cheltenham.
Admittedly, Willie Mullins knows an awful lot more about racing than I ever will, however, I can’t help but feel that this different coloured paint excuse is clutching at straws, to say the least. In terms of finding the winner of this race, I find it hard to look past the 2022 Arkle winner Edwardstone, who I’m confident can reverse the Clarence House form with Editeur Du Gite and make it back-to-back Cheltenham Festival wins.
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