It’s an exciting time of year for horse racing fans with a plethora of top class contests taking place during the opening three months of 2019. In the US, the third staging of the Pegasus World Cup takes place at the end of January whilst in the UK, punters are beginning to put together their ante-post selections ahead of the Cheltenham Festival which gets underway in mid-March. The Gloucestershire track stages the four-day festival each year and it is considered to be the highlights of the National Hunt season. Sports fans around the world will tune into the so-called “greatest show on turf” to follow the progress of their fancies and many of the usual suspects will be heavily involved in the big races. There are a number of trainers who target the lucrative prize pots on offer and we pick out three of the handlers who are undoubtedly worth following at this time of year and who are likely to feature prominently in mid-March.
Irish trainers have enjoyed plenty of success over the past couple of years and Gordon Elliott is one of the many handlers who have made a name for themselves at this iconic meeting. He ended the 2018 festival as the top trainer and is likely to have another strong string of runners this time around. The County Meath-based trainer fired in two winners on the final day to secure the gong and edge out Irish counterpart Willie Mullins. Elliott described it as “…a dream come true” and picked out Samcro as his personal highlight of the festival. He ended with eight winners and will be hoping to surpass that total in 2019. His other successes included Delta Work, Veneer of Charm, Shattered Love and the irrepressible Tiger Roll who went on to win the Randox Health Grand National at Aintree. Many of his winners are likely to return to the track this year with the aforementioned Shattered Love gunning for a second successive Cheltenham triumph when she tackles the Gold Cup on the final day of the festival. The seven-year-old finished second at Down Royal on her comeback run but is expected to improve over the longer distance. She will be joined by stablemates The Storyteller, Don Poli, Mala Beach and Noble Endeavour who are amongst the yard’s early declarations for the blue riband contest. The trainer is also likely to keep Samcro over hurdles this season but admitted that he is very unlikely to feature in the Champion Hurdle despite being prominent in the early betting markets.
Apples Jade is one of the yard’s most popular runners and the multiple Grade 1-winner is likely to feature in the Mares Hurdle at this year’s festival. She was a 26-length winner of the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown, producing an eye-catching performance which prompted a flurry of betting activity.According to Oddschecker, she’s been cut to 4/5 favourite to make amends for last season’s defeat in the Grade 1 hurdle event and could potentially shorten further prior to the race getting underway.
Elliott is a trainer who has an extremely strong hand and also has a knack of placing his horses perfectly. He’s won 14 races at the Cheltenham Festival in the last two years and his charges need to be taken extremely seriously.
Willie Mullins was Gordon Elliott’s nearest challenger in 2018 but could only fire in seven winners across the four days. He trained eight winners in 2015 and also became the first trainer to secure a 1-2-3 in the Champion Hurdle four years ago. The yard has suffered a couple of setbacks over the last couple of years but Mullins is guaranteed to send an extremely talented string to Cheltenham once again in 2019.
He’s already made his intentions clear by entering several runners into the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo, Bellshill, Kemboy, Invitation Only and Killultugh Vic all expected to take part in the contest which will round off the four-day extravaganza.
Every year, the media speculates over whether Mullins’ stable is gradually losing power but the County Carlow-based trainer continually proves them wrong and 2019 looks set to be another vintage year for his stable. His Gold Cup entries will be augmented by high-class competitors such as Footpad who is priced up favorably for the Champion Chase despite finishing behind Simply Ned at Leopardstown on December 27th.
There is always one horse hailing from the Willie Mullins yard who receives plenty of hype and Annamix appears to fit the bill this time around. The five-year was ruled out last year by injury but is expected to take to the turf in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on the opening day of the festival. She went off as the odds-on favorite in the Future Ticketing.ie Maiden Hurdle but could only finish second behind Jessica Harrington’s Press Conference who had started the race as second-favorite.
Willie Mullins will not be short on numbers at this year’s festival and he is likely to notch up a minimum of five winners at Prestbury Park in March. He may be playing second fiddle to Gordon Elliott at the moment but his charges should not be discounted.
The Cheltenham Festival often throws up an alternative narrative of Ireland vs the UK. There are several betting markets to reflect this recently created head-to-head duel and television pundits will often make their predictions on who will come out on top ahead of the festival getting underway. Nicky Henderson is one of the top UK trainers and always sends strong representation to Gloucestershire. He’s been firing in winners at the Cheltenham Festival since 1985 and is an astute operator when it comes to the big races. The four-time Champion Trainer’s standout chance in the Gold Cup comes in the shape of Might Bite. The ten-year is a household name on the UK racing scene but could only finish seventh in the King George on Boxing Day and has recently undergone an operation to assist his breathing. He will be joined by stablemate Terrefort in the contest and Henderson will be hoping one of his two representatives can see off the strong Irish charge in the race and add to the UK’s tally.
Altior is another horse synonymous with success at the Cheltenham Festival and Nicky Henderson is likely to enter his star-chaser into the Queen Mother Champion Chase once again this year. After beating Min fairly comfortably in 2018, Altior went on to secure victories in the Tingle Creek and the Desert Orchid Chase which preserved its perfect record over the fences and he has already been well-backed by ante-post punters ahead of a return to the track in March.
Verdana Blue and Buveur D’Air are also likely to go head-to-head once again in the Champion Hurdle with the latter likely to go off a shorter price despite being beaten by his stablemate in Kempton Park’s Christmas Hurdle at the end of 2018. The talented pair spearhead a typically-resolute Nicky Henderson charge ahead of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival and the Seven Barrows trainer can be quietly confident about his chances of competing for top honours at Prestbury Park this year.
There are an abundance of trainers who have terrific National Hunt pedigree and are likely to make the headlines in March but the likes of Gordon Elliott, Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson are always at the forefront of proceedings throughout the four-day sporting extravaganza. The trio are likely to dominate the Cheltenham Festival in 2019 and although it’s not possible to back every single one of their representatives, their chances should never be written off. It’s set to be another high-quality meeting and ante-post bettors are already snapping up the early value available on some of these key competitors.