The Cheltenham Festival remains the premier jumps horse racing event in the British Isles, and there are valuable prizes on offer for winning the championship contests there.
National Hunt racing prize money might not be as huge as that given on the Flat at big galas like Royal Ascot or the Ebor Festival, but it is still significant. Top horses target races at all these meetings not just for the prestige of winning them, but because of the pot on offer as well.
With that in mind, we look at the most valuable races at the Cheltenham Festival and who are leading contenders to win them in 2019.
After a decade between 2002 and 2012 where multiple winners like Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s dominated it, the Stayers’ Hurdle has become more open in recent years. This three-mile contest run on St Patrick’s Thursday (14 March) at the Festival has gone to Emerald Isle raiders in the last two renewals.
Penhill came to Cheltenham 12 months ago after nearly a year off the track and won the Stayers. Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins clearly can get him race fit at home and he goes well fresh and as of January 30, he is 13/2 to retain his title. Stablemate Faugheen, now a veteran aged 11, joins last year’s runner-up Supasundae as 10/1 chances to scoop the first prize in excess of £180,000.
The hot 15/8 favourite with Betway, however, is the emerging English up-and-coming stayer Paisley Park, who ran out an impressive victory in the Cleeve Hurdle – the official trial for the Stayers over the same course and distance. Besides that Grade 2 success, Emma Lavelle’s stable star has a victory at the highest level after landing the JLT Long Walk at Ascot just before Christmas.
There’s an even more valuable race on the Thursday of the Cheltenham Festival in the 2m 5f Ryanair Chase. While this event lacks the prestige and history of the other championship contests, this year’s renewal promises to be stellar, because so many horses seek to swerve Altior, who we’ll come back to later.
A bumper first prize of almost £197,000 is on offer for the Ryanair – a race won by Irish raiders in the last three years. Betway are 9/2 the field some six weeks out from the Festival, and heading their market is John Durkan winner Min for Mullins.
This wide-open betting heat sees stablemates Kemboy (7/1), Footpad (6/1) and Un De Sceaux, who won the race two years ago in really taking style, all prominent in the betting alongside the Henry De Bromhead trained Monalee.
The home team could include the likes of Waiting Patiently (5/1) for Ruth Jefferson, who was unbeaten until being brought down in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day; Nicky Henderson’s Top Notch (9/1), from Paul Nicholls pair Politologue (8/1) and Frodon (9/1).
Queen Mother Champion Chase
You would thing prize money of £225,000 would be incentive enough to ensure the two-mile Champion Chase on Wednesday, 13 March was a competitive race. The betting suggests otherwise, however, as Altior is unbeaten in 17 starts over hurdles and fences and odds-on at 1/2 to retain his crown.
Many of the aforementioned Mullins mounts are behind him in the market, but most will surely avoid meeting him again as the Henderson trained stable star has them well held on previous form. Some horses will take Festival specialist Altior on of course, but the likelihood is barring accidents they are playing for the place money.
Over £253,000 goes to the winner of the Champion Hurdle – a big race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. Favourites have a 50 per cent success rate in the last 20 years, and Buveur D’Air has landed the spoils in each of the last two seasons for Henderson and leading Irish owner JP McManus.
While the highly-regarded Samcro was expected to lead the Irish challenge, that has petered out and Buveur D’Air left as the 11/8 favourite for a hat-trick of Champion Hurdle crown. His own three-year unbeaten run came to an end in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, however, when collared close home by stable companion and good ground mare Verdana Blue (10/1).
It’s the mares who may throw down the biggest challenge to Buveur D’Air this year with Mullins’ Laurina second-favourite at 4/1. The improving Sharjah (9/1) is another from Closutton with claims.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
Winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup is worth £351,688. It’s an open looking event this year with last year’s RSA Chase hero Presenting Percy heading the market at 3/1.
Pat Kelly’s stable star has only run over hurdles since, but may go to Gowran Park for a prep run after defending his Galmoy Hurdle crown. Kemboy, also entered in the Ryanair, is another leading Irish contender at 8/1 after landing the Savills Chase for Mullins at Leopardstown.
A clutch of other Emerald Isle raiders will doubtless line up too, and the British challenge now appears to be led by improving Nicholls stayers Clan Des Obeaux (8/1), who won the King George, and Cotswold Chase victor Frodon (14/1).
Last year’s Gold Cup hero Native River (9/2) is prominent too, but may need softer ground to turn up come the middle of March in order to be seen to best effect on the Festival’s final day.