Top Trainer: Why this year’s Cheltenham Festival promises a titanic tussle between Ireland’s best
The days of the big British names winning the prestigious Leading Trainer award at the Cheltenham Festival appear to be well and truly over. In fact, rather worryingly, the days of the hosts winning anything at the iconic Prestbury Park meeting appear to be wearing rather thin as they came away with a mere five victories out of the Festival’s28 races last March with the Irish delivering their most dominant Prestbury Cup success yet.
The statistics are damning to say the least. The 2022 renewal of the Cheltenham Festival will mark 10 years since Nicky Henderson was crowned the meeting’s top trainer for the third time in his career, and with Paul Nicholls boasting six triumphs in the decade between 1999 and 2009, nobody could have predicted that the pendulum was going to swing so heavily in favour of the Irish for years to come.
In hindsight, Willie Mullins had given a glimpse of what he was, and still is, capable of when he ended a dominant era for British trainers by winning the Leading Trainer accolade in 2011, becoming the first Irishman to win since Jonjo O’Neill in 2003.But Henderson regaining his crown the following the year with seven wins, which was a record that time, perhaps poured cold water on any hint of a potential Irish takeover.
It proved to merely paper over the cracks in British racing’s foundations though, as Mullins has gone on to win the award seven times in the last nine years — with only successive victories for Gordon Elliott in 2017 and 2018 enough to make the 65-year-old take a back seat.Mullins set his own record for number of winners in a single year with eight, which was later matched by Elliott, while he also boasts the most wins at the Festivalwith a mammoth 78.
Unfortunately for the likes of Henderson, Nicholls, who didn’t land a single winner at Cheltenham last year, and Dan Skelton, it looks set to be another dominant year for the top Irish trainers. Henry De Bromhead burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere last March, winning six races at the Festival— including scooping an unprecedented Triple Crown as he landed the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup.
That still wasn’t enough to knock Mullins off his proverbial throne in Cheltenham Racecourse’s prestigious winners’ enclosure though, as while the County Carlow-based winner had to settle for just one Championship race triumph — with Allahobreezing home in the Ryanair Chase —he also racked up six victories and pipped De Bromhead to the award on the basis of more second-place finishes (7) than his Irish rival (3).
What will have the Brits quaking in their boots ahead of next month’s meeting is the fact that the Irish were their most dominant yet last year without the presence of Elliott. The 43-year-old received a 12-month ban, six of which were suspended,just one week prior to the 2021 Festival after a picture of him sitting on a dead horse on his gallops surfaced online.
However, he returned to the sport in September, and while he lost some of his best horses to Mullins’ and De Bromhead’s yard this time last year, including the very highly-rate Envoi Allen and Sir Gerhardfrom the esteemed Cheveley Park Stud, Elliott has still had a fantastic season thus far.
He has already racked up over 100 winners and has landed his fair share of Grade 1s, most notably when Galvin beat Cheltenham Gold Cup favouriteA Plus Tard in the Savills Chase at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival. Elliott will be sending a very strong contingent of horses across the Irish Sea to Prestbury Park next month, including the likes of Ginto, Run Wild Fred, Tiger Roll and the aforementioned Galvin, and he will undoubtedly be out to make up for lost time.
Last year’s two-horse race for the Leading Trainer award, which went right down to the final race on the fourth day, is set to be extended to three. Mullins is the unsurprising odd-on favourite to take home the trophy for the fourth successive year in the horse race betting, matching his run of victories between 2013 and 2016, and for good reason with the likes of Blue Lord, Sir Gerhard, Galopin Des Champs and Allaho all favoured in their respective ante-post markets.
Elliott and De Bromhead will not allow Mullins an easy victory though. While the latter is the third favourite in the Leading Trainer betting market, he proved last year that he can certainly spring a surprise and with top quality horses like Honeysuckle, Bob Olinger, Envoi Allen and A Plus Tard it would be foolish to rule out De Bromhead from registering a good handful of victories again this year.
One thing is forsure, it’s a titanic tussle that could go any one of three ways and will definitely go down to the wire on Gold Cup Day, with the winner of the showpiece race potentially even deciding the winner of the Leading Trainer award as A Plus Tard, Galvin and Al Boum Photo are just some of the potential entries from the Irish trainers.