Cheltenham Festival: Questions to ponder for 2023

March 9th, 2023

Nothing grabs the attention of racing fans in Britain and Ireland like the Cheltenham Festival. The four-day event for jumps horses in Gloucestershire is the second-biggest betting event in Britain, behind only the Grand National — and unlike that event, which attracts more once-a-year punters, this is one for the purists.

That’s because it’s the Breeders’ Cup of British and Irish jumps racing. Of the 28 races, 13 are Grade 1 events held at set weights. As with the Breeders’ Cup, if you win a Grade 1 event at Cheltenham, you are 90 percent likely to be regarded as the champion horse in your division for the season. In other words, you will be watching the best of the best.

Here are some posers to watch for as the festival unfolds.

1. How much will the Irish horses dominate?

For many years, anyone walking around Cheltenham during Festival week might wonder if they are in Ireland, given the accents you hear on the streets. The Irish have always added color to the occasion, but in recent years the Irish stables have been more dominant than ever before.

In 2021, Irish dominance was almost total: they won 23 of the 28 races. Last year, the Brits fought back, but there were still 18 Irish victories compared to 10 for the locals, including all seven races on the last day.

Britain will still produce some good winners, with Nicky Henderson, in particular, having some exciting prospects, but the Irish scene is incredibly strong and is likely to dominate again.

2. How many winners will come from the Willie Mullins stable?

One of the main reasons Irish stables have dominated in recent years has been the strength of the Willie Mullins stable. He already holds the Cheltenham record of 88 total festival wins, and last year set a record with 10 individual winners. This year, he has the pre-post favorite or joint-favorite in 10 races at the time of writing — more than the British-trained contingent combined, who have seven favorites or joint-favorites. That number may increase by starting time.

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility for him to get the 12 wins he needs to reach the 100 mark. His most exciting horses to watch will be Gold Cup (G1) favorite Galopin Des Champs and Champion Hurdle (G1) second favorite State Man.

3. What will the longest-priced winner be?

There’s always a chance of a big price in a Grade 1 event — there have been 100-1 winners of the Gold Cup — but the best chance of a big price will be in the handicaps.

Like Royal Ascot, the Cheltenham Festival has a number of highly competitive handicaps, many of which are outstanding betting races. Often you will get favorites starting around 6-1, so if you get your tips right in these, you could be in for a big payout.

With fields well in excess of 20 horses in some of these, there’s always the potential for a serious outsider to come in. Last year, Commander Of Fleet took the Coral Cup (G3) at 50-1, while the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup for amateur jockeys went to 40-1 chance Chambard.

My preference for handicaps is to find a young, unexposed horse on the way up that the official handicapper hasn’t quite caught up with. But that doesn’t always work, so if you have a longshot you like, don’t be afraid to support it!

4. Will Constitution Hill prove the hype?

Twelve months ago, novice hurdler Constitution Hill put up a performance for the ages when winning the Supreme Novices Hurdle (G1). It was so impressive that ratings gurus thought he was better than that year’s Champion Hurdle (G1) winner Honeysuckle, who was unbeaten at the time. She has since suffered a couple of defeats, while Constitution Hill has put up two exceptional winning efforts. Many think he could be one of the greats, and the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday will be the time to prove it.

5. Can Galopin Des Champs atone for last year’s bad luck?

Willie Mullins’ novice chaser Galopin Des Champs had blown away his opponents in the Turner Novices Chase (G1) approaching the last fence, only to fall with the race totally at his mercy. Since then, he’s raced three times, all in Grade 1 company in Ireland, and hasn’t been seriously troubled. He seeks to put his name into history in the biggest race of the festival, the Cheltenham Gold Cup (G1). He has some good horses to beat, among them last year’s winner A Plus Tard. Friday’s big race will give us a clue just how good he might be.