Horse racing’s most celebrated event takes place this week, with the 2023 Cheltenham Festival getting underway on Tuesday.
It’s the Super Bowl of American football, the Wimbledon of tennis, the Monaco Grand Prix of F1, the Champions League Final of football, you get the idea. This four-day showpiece has unparalleled repute in the horse racing world, and this week, the starting stalls in Gloucestershire thrust open once again.
Of course, you don’t need to own a pocket square or dress like an extra from Peaky Blinders to enjoy the races. And if your track knowledge is a little hazy, we’ll be breaking down some of the biggest storylines below.
Don’t worry if you have no prior experience with the sport, we’ll be explaining everything through the lens of football…
Who is the Sir Alex Ferguson of Cheltenham?
For a lot of punters and race-goers, the most prominent names to look out for are those of the actual horses, which seems a fairly straightforward observation. But behind every horse is a jockey, a trainer and an owner. And a bit like Sir Alex Ferguson with English football, Cheltenham has a dominant trainer.
Consider this for a second: Ferguson won 13 Premier League titles during his trophy-strewn tenure at Manchester United. It would take Pep Guardiola nine consecutive seasons of winning the English top flight just to match the Old Trafford immortal. ‘Fergie’ really is on a pedestal by himself.
And that could arguably be said of Willie Mullins. The Irish trainer has 88 winners at Cheltenham, which places him above all others, ahead of Nicky Henderson (72 winners) and Paul Nicholls (46 winners). The former jockey is a two-time Gold Cup winner and has led the most winners in the last four Cheltenham Festivals.
His esteemed stable includes Galopin Des Champs, Gaillard Du Mesnil, Energumene, Lossiemouth and El Fabiolo, all of whom will be looking to dominate the tracks this week and consolidate Mullins’ status as the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history.
What about a struggling specialist, say Rafa Benitez or the 22/23 Klopp?
During the noughties Rafa Benitez was one of the finest tacticians on the footballing circuit. The methodical Spaniard was a serial winner who sealed La Liga twice with Valencia, masterminded the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ with Liverpool and reached two Champions League finals in the space of three seasons.
The arch-pragmatist has also had spells (with varying success) at Inter, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Napoli and Newcastle United. His CV is abloom with some of the finest clubs on the continent. And yet, for many, he is now considered a has-been, yesterday’s man, gone to seed after a spell in the Far East and at Everton.
Is there a trainer at Cheltenham with a CV as respectful as any in the sport, but has struggled recently? To a degree. Paul Nicholls is the third-most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history with 46 winners, but he fired a blank last year, which is a long cry from his glory days in the noughties.
A bit like Benitez, Nicholls was at the peak of his powers in the mid-2000s, sealing the Top Trainer award in Gloucestershire in four consecutive years from 2006 to 2009. Back then, he had powerhouses like Kauto Star and Denman. He will be hoping his latest stable of Bravemansgame, Hermes Allen and Pic D’Orhy can rekindle that fire this year.
It may actually be more fair to say he’s comparable with the 2022/23 Jurgen Klopp, who has had a bit of a wobble this term at Anfield. Nicholls’ major successes haven’t been exclusively pigeonholed to the noughties, and last season’s drought may prove to be a one-off. Klopp will be hoping to bounce back in 2023/24, Nicholls will be hoping to do so this week.
Is there a Guardiola-Arteta dynamic?
The master and his protege, a Jedi and his Padawan, Mikel Arteta has emerged as one of the leading tacticians in the footballing world after shadowing Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. He is now taking on his former teacher in this season’s Premier League title race, and he’s getting the better of him thus far.
There is a similar dynamic heading into this year’s Cheltenham Festival. The relatively-young trainer Dan Skelton only started winning Festival races in 2019 and he is now backed to be a key player on the circuit for years to come. Son of British Olympic gold medallist Nick Skelton, the Alcester handler spent nine years mostly as an assistant trainer to the esteemed Paul Nicholls during a period where the ‘equine Galacticos’ of Ditcheat dominated Cheltenham.
At the Lodge Hill in Warwickshire, Skelton is preparing a raft of potential 2023 winners, including Protektorat, who is part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson. The eight-year-old bay gelding finished third in last year’s Gold Cup — where his brother Harry sat on the saddle — and will be hoping to claim the top prize over A Plus Tard this time around.
Of course, we have already mentioned Nicholls. After an iffy 2022 in Gloucestershire, the serial winner will be hoping to banish the ghosts of last year and rule the Cheltenham roost once again. Of course, he has a certain former assistant in Skelton to worry about now, though.
Is Cheltenham bracing itself for a Haaland-like assault?
For the uninitiated, Cheltenham is typically comprised of four days, each of which contains a main event. Day One consists of The Champions Hurdle, Day Two is the The Queen Mother Champion Chase, Day Three is The Stayers’ Hurdle and Day Four is The Gold Cup.
The latter is considered the blue ribband event of the four-day festival, and as such, can almost be considered comparable with lifting the Champions League trophy for jockeys and owners. For horses, it’s tantamount to winning the Ballon d’Or, or the European Golden Shoe, or pretty much any major individual accolade in football.
So, is there a horse who is expected to come in and batter everyone else this year, similar to Erling Haaland’s debut-season assault on the Premier League scene? Well, Galopin Des Champs is very much tipped to play a blinder on Friday, boasting the shortest odds heading into the blockbuster bout.
The seven-year-old has grabbed headlines this season after winning the John Durkan at Punchestown and the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, and is as good as they come at jumping fences. He faces stiff competition this week, but most bookies are backing the equine powerhouse to claim first prize.
What of Haaland’s hero Michu?
For those who somehow don’t know, Erling Haaland’s childhood hero was none other than Swansea’s one-season wonder Michu. The mop-haired Spaniard was a devastating force for the Welsh club in 2012/13, where he netted a quite outstanding 18 goals during his maiden campaign in the Premier League.
Of course, he was unable to replicate that feat and eventually faded to obscurity. The question is: does Cheltenham have its very own Michu, a one-festival wonder who delivered against the odds but is now struggling to replicate the bar-defining heights of a purple patch?
Not quite to that degree, but there is an argument that Minella Indo enjoyed his one major year of Gold Cup success in 2021 and that will be it. He finished second last year in the showpiece event to A Plus Tard, but he is largely being overlooked by most bookmakers to claim the most-coveted gong this time around.
A Leicester City storyline
Leicester City stunned the footballing world when they won the Premier League title in 2015/16. It was script-defying, but it was also a tournament-defining moment, a watershed in the Premier League’s timeline. It was the moment that tore down once-impenetrable barriers and opened the mind to unbridled possibilities.
In 2022, that is exactly what Rachael Blackmore did. She wasn’t quite a ‘dark horse’ heading into last year’s tournament after winning the Champion Hurdle in 2021, but her triumph at the 2022 Gold Cup meant that she became the first female jockey to win the race in the competition’s history.
It was a watershed moment for Cheltenham, and more importantly, for horse racing in general. Blackmore’s horse, A Plus Tard, is once again one of the favourites after being backed at 3/1 last year, and respected Irish trainer Henry de Bromhead will be hoping for further success in Friday’s main event.