It’s hard to believe how quickly Cheltenham has come back around. The Festival welcomes spectators back for the first time in two years, with the coronavirus pandemic really overshadowing the last few seasons of horse racing. While some were able to adjust to the eery silence of an empty race track, others found it almost soulless and since mass crowds were allowed back in attendance when changes to restrictions were made back in July of last year, the action has certainly amped up a few notches, making this year at Cheltenham all the more special.
Last year’s showpiece event certainly felt strange. Seeing a champion rock up the presentation podium without the boisterous adulation of spectators just didn’t feel the same, and the whole period of racing behind closed doors gave that extra edge of unpredictability to the Cheltenham Offers. It was a year in which French-bred horses failed to capitalize on the influence they had in 2020, where the likes of Epatante, Al Boum Photo, and Politologue won three major races, but as the new year rolls around, there’s always an opportunity to cause an upset.
You only need to look at the festive period to see how unpredictable the big races can be. There’s always an outside chance of a shock winner — take Tornado Flyer as an example. The Willie Mullins-trained 28/1 shot snatched King George VI Chase from underneath Clan de Obeaux in a race that set the tone for the new year. Now, with Cheltenham on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how many French-breeds can repeat a similar feat.
2021 was not completely lost on them, with Allaho most notably winning the Ryanair Chase but they would do well to find their feet at this year’s Festival, and a plethora of horses have a good chance of going to distance in mid-March — let’s take a look at a few of Cheltenham’s races and see how the French-bred horses fare.
Queen Mother Champion Chase – Energumene and Chacun Pour Soi
The battle between Energumene and Shiskin was a story that dominated the start of the year, with many wondering if their rivalry would boil over to Cheltenham. The duo set the pace for the year in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, where the French-bred was just pipped to first place by Nicky Henderson’s eight-year-old, setting up an entertaining clash in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
“The nice thing is there is going to be a rematch now,” Henderson said: “There’s nothing between them and if we can both get them there it’s going to be fascinating and a lot of fun. But this is an only round one and round two is next – and it is for the championship.”
Then there is Chacun Pour Soi, who after a 64-day break, started the year in style with victory in the Dublin Chase for Mullins, beating fellow French-bred Dunvegan and Captain Guinness, who will also be in the Champion Chase. Despite his only run at Cheltenham coming last year, where he finished fourth, the unpredictability of a big race and the conditions on the day mean you can’t rule the 10-year-old out, especially with Paul Townend aboard.
Cross Country Chase – Easysland, Prengarde, and Ajas
The Cross Country Chase is definitely an interesting proposition this year. While many view it as a final swansong for Cheltenham icon Tiger Roll, especially since he pulled out of the Grand National this year, there are still a plethora of contenders that all have a chance of winning on day two of the Festival. Amongst them are three French-breeds all capable of doing the business — Easysland, Prengarde, and Ajas.
It’s been difficult to judge former Cross Country champion Easyland ahead of this year’s Cheltenham after pulling out of the Handicap Hurdle at Sandown, and making the step back up to Grade Two having predominately run in Grade Three. Guillaume Macaire-trained Prengarde has all the makings of a future champion and having won his last two races with Kilian Dubourg, the six-year-old has every chance of causing an upset. Lastly is Ajas, who after pulling out of last year’s Cross Country Chase will be looking to find his feet again under David Cotton after almost a year’s absence.
Gold Cup – Al Boum Photo and A Plus Tard
Ah yes, the Gold Cup — the pinnacle of Cheltenham success and such a poignant ending for four days of exhilarating racing action. The Gold Cup serves as a shining example of racing excellence, with Minella Indo winning last year for Henry de Bromhead thanks to some good work from jockey Jack Kennedy. As mentioned before, Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo was the last winner to run to glory in front of a packed-out Prestbury Park back in 2020. He made consecutive wins to add to his 2019 victory and will be keen to regain his title this time around. However, it certainly won’t be easy.
There are plenty of top Grand One winners entering this year, including the likes of Galvin and Conflated, so for Mullins to win the Gold Cup and add another accolade to his lengthy list of Cheltenham winners all capable of going to distance.
Then, of course, there’s serial winner A plus Tard. Forced to settle for a podium place last year in second, the eight-year-old will want to take the next step, and to win he’ll need to be at his best, with Galvin just pipping him to the Savills Chase at Leopardstown. However, Rachael Blackmore is set to be aboard, and given the year she just had, there is every chance A plus Tard can snatch victory in what proves to be an extremely competitive race.