How to host the Greatest Show on Turf

Racing at Stratford gets underway on March 11 this year and, just like years past, a lot of work goes into organising each event, not least after the recent flooding affected our grandstands and track. From rebuilding fences or replacing carpets ruined by floodwater, plus the basic racing tasks to do with the runners and riders and liaising with transport officers, we have to cover a variety of bases each time we put on a show. The same goes for every racecourse up and down the country. From big to small venues, the amount of effort that goes into hosting a meet can be mind-blowing.

One of the best examples of how much goes into a racing event is the Cheltenham Festival. Known as the “greatest show on turf,” our opening fixture is a precursor to the annual festival, a day after we open our racing season. Why is it the greatest show on turf? Aside from hosting some of the sport’s best talent, Cheltenham is a spectacle. In 2023, a total of 68,500 people per day poured into Cheltenham Racecourse.

Many more would have attended, but the venue can only hold so many people, and numbers have been capped to improve the racegoer experience. Those who can’t attend in person watch on TV and online. In fact, almost as many people have a flutter on the Cheltenham Festival. Various prominent bookmaking firms estimated that, in 2023, around £1 billion was wagered during the festival. Around £1,000,000 was bet by punters at the course on each race, which means many millions were wagered online.

Such is the interest in Cheltenham that oddsmakers put up their odds way ahead of time. Ante-post markets for the 2024 Cheltenham Festival already have Galopin Des Champs as an even-money standout for the Gold Cup, and Constitution Hill as the strong 1/4 favourite in the Champion Hurdle. So, to say there’s a swell of anticipation and interest in Cheltenham is an understatement. 

What Goes into a Racing Event?

By these measures alone, it’s a spectacle that, rightly, dominates the British racing calendar. Creating the greatest show on turf doesn’t happen overnight. Here are just some of the things organisers will be working on ahead of the first race on March 12.

The Course

Grounds people have their work cut out in winter. Keeping the track in the best condition possible is the most important thing for any racecourse in attracting the endorsement of the trade professionals. Without something to race on, the whole event can’t happen. That’s why grounds people will be out tending to the track and, in turn, delivering reports on its condition (the going) weeks before the first race.

With three courses to manage (Old, New and Cross Country), there’s a substantial acreage to manage over the four days.

Runners, Riders & Officials

The quality of a race hinges on its participants. That doesn’t mean every horse has to be elite, it simply means that you need to have fair and competitive races. Organisers need to work in conjunction with the racing authority and stables to create the best races possible. Of course, the prestige of winning at Cheltenham, coupled with prize money topping £1 million per day, makes it easier to assemble the best runners, riders, and officials.

Time was when the roar greeted 20 runners in the Supreme Novices Hurdle but nowadays, even the top graded races face competition from alternative races. The phones will be hot in the Cheltenham office ensuring the fields fill well and fancied runners do not take easier options elsewhere.

Pic Steve Davies

Hospitality & Entertainment

Modern racing is more than what happens on the track. Racecourses have teams dedicated to hospitality and entertainment, and Cheltenham’s tented village is the largest at any sporting event in the UK bar none. People who attend any event, particularly the majors like Cheltenham, expect a day out. They want access to food, drink, and, in most situations, entertainment.

Many of the semi-permanent structures comprising the tented village remain in place from the autumn’s big fixture, but they are joined by more. An army of contractors from marquee suppliers, electricians, temporary kitchen suppliers and other facility providers, is on site throughout January and February building and preparing the structures before they are handed over to the racecourse.

Pic Steve Davies

Did you know over 250,000 pints of Ireland’s national drink – Guinness – are consumed during Cheltenham? Supplying bars with sufficient inventory to satisfy Gloucestershire’s thirsty punters is no small feat in itself.

Road & Rail

You can make sure everything inside the venue is set up for a great racing event, but all that effort will count for nothing if people can’t get in. Racecourses need to liaise with local traffic officers to ensure the road network can handle an influx of people. For events such as the Cheltenham Festival, the organisers also have to communicate with railway officials, as Cheltenham Station sees an influx of an extra 18,000 customers per day.

An increasingly popular route in is via the steam train that allows spectators to park at Toddington and take an old-fashioned steam locomotive to reach the racecourse station.

But for many living or staying in Cheltenham, the best form of transport is Shanks’ pony.

The Finished product

The finished product is always worth the effort. Cheltenham has become one of the most watched events in racing and the level of organisation is second to none. From the competitors to the post-race entertainment, nothing gets left to chance at these events, which is why British racing sets the global standard.

We’ve five weeks until the roar that greets that opening race at 1.30 on Tuesday March 12, and for many, that week will begin at Stratford the previous day.

Dan Skelton Could Be Set For A Big Cheltenham Festival

Warwickshire-based trainer Dan Skelton is on course for one of his best seasons as a trainer. He remains in contention for a maiden Trainers’ Championship, and he is set to go into the Cheltenham Festival with a strong team of horses.

Here is a look at some of his best chances of the 2024 Cheltenham Festival meeting.

Protektorat – Cheltenham Gold Cup

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the race at the Cheltenham Festival that all owners and trainers dream of winning. It is the feature race of the week, and also the most lucrative. As the assistant trainer to Paul Nicholls, Skelton was involved in the success both Kauto Star and Denman enjoyed in the race between 2007 and 2009.

Now with a licence of his own, Skelton’s best chance of Gold Cup success this year comes through Protektorat, a horse part-owned by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. 

Skelton’s chaser finished third in the race in 2022, while last March, the British horse came home in fifth place. As of the 17th of January, he is 40/1 in the Cheltenham Festival odds to prevail in the latest renewal of the Blue Riband contest.

The nine-year-old won one of the leading Grade I races in his division at Haydock last season. If he reproduces that form at Cheltenham, he could be a major player in the business end of the contest again, especially if the racecourse going is ‘Soft’ during the week of the Festival, as his best form comes on ground with give in it, but he came out worst in a prep against l’Homme Pressé in the Fleur de Lys Chase at Lingfield this month, so there may be alternative options. 

Grey Dawning – Brown Advisory Chase

Novice chaser Grey Dawning took a big step forward last time out at Warwick when he won the Grade II Hampton Novices’ Chase. He was faultless in that race, scoring by 14 lengths to put himself in the picture for some of the leading novice chases at the Cheltenham Festival.

Grey Dawning has entries in both the Brown Advisory Novices’ and Turners Novices’ Chase, but given how well he fared over 3m, the former of those two options looks the most likely.
Skelton will be keeping a close eye on the fixture list over the weeks before the Cheltenham Festival. The seven-year-old could have his first shot at a Grade I chase in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown in February. Gerri Colombe won that race last season and is now a Cheltenham Gold Cup contender. Skelton will be hoping his horse can follow the same path. 

Langer Dan – Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle

This year is set to be Langer Dan’s fifth appearance at the Cheltenham Festival. The hurdler has consistently fared well at the meeting. He finished second behind Galopin Des Champs in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle in 2021, while last season, he claimed his first success at the meeting.

Langer Dan is set to have multiple entries at this year’s Festival and Skelton will decide on which race he participates in closer to the meeting. The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle may represent his best chance of success this year. He is now racing off an official mark of 141, which is just 6lb higher than when he was second in the race.

Nube Negra – Queen Mother Champion Chase

In 2021, Nube Negra was less than a length away from winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase, one of the four Championship races at the Cheltenham Festival. In what was a close finish to the day two feature contest, he finished second behind Put The Kettle On.

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The two-time Shloer Chaser winner has an excellent record at Cheltenham and his connections will be encouraged by his latest performance on the track, as he was second behind Editeur Du Gite in the Desert Orchid Handicap Chase at Kempton.

The Queen Mother Champion Chase looks set to be one of the strongest races of the week this year, as last season’s Arkle winner El Fabiolo, leading British 2m chaser Jonbon and Dinoblue are all expected to feature. Skelton still believes his horse can be competitive in this race, as he bids to go one place better than he did in 2021.

Skelton has had four Cheltenham Festival winners to date in his career. With the runners he has this year, he will be very disappointed if he does not add to that tally across the four days.

When to come racing at Stratford again

The nights are drawing in and the winter winds are beginning to blow. While it is one of the best times of the year in Stratford-on-Avon as the Victorian Christmas Market comes to life and a festive glow falls on the town, there is a noticeable absence in the air: horse racing. At Stratford Racecourse there is a pause in proceedings over the winter months, with fixtures only resuming again in mid-March. Mark that date now – Monday March 11th.

Looking ahead to next Spring’s restart

People often ask what we do at the racecourse during the closed season. “I suppose you must be getting busy now,” they say as our first March fixture hoves into view. Certainly, the mid-winter period is one of some reflection on events past, but idle time is scarce. Creating a calendar of race fixtures, and delivering them is a full-time occupation!

The Spring is the same time that Jump racing around Britain generally comes into full view for folk who don’t follow racing on a daily basis, with some of the biggest festivals in the United Kingdom taking place in early spring. Indeed, the bulk of the year’s horse race bets are placed over this time as the Cheltenham Festival and Grand National fall within a month of each other.

To that end, all eyes will be on Corach Rambler who has been priced at 20/1 to defend the title he won at Aintree in mid-April. His first run this autumn proved him less than match-fit, but the key destination is Aintree, not Kelso in November, so trainer Lucinda Russell has left something to work on.

If you’re a horse racing enthusiast, however, then these opening events at Stratford, and the festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree might seem like an age away with the bulk of the winter still to come. The good news is that there is still plenty of top flight horse racing to savour over the chillier months.

The Season is now in full swing

In fact, jump racing – which is often referred to as ‘National Hunt’ racing, accelerates throughout the festive season and only recedes to a specialist cadre of tracks – Stratford included – during the warmer summer months. 

The reason for this is that the winter conditions make the ground softer which is more forgiving on horses as they land. And boy, has it rained already this autumn, allowing trainers like Venetia Williams, a traditionalist who needs mud on her riders’ breeches to run her horses, to get going earlier than usual.

This is why you’ll often hear terms used like heavy, soft, and good to soft when the surface is being described before a race in the colder months. This terminology is referred to as ‘the going’ and provides punters with a good idea of how the race might play out on account of the condition of the actual racecourse. In fact, ground conditions this autumn to date have been so dire that an abnormal number of fixtures have already hit the buffers.

Flat racing continues over the winter

Unlike jump racing, the majority of flat racing fixtures stop over the colder months as the neatly manicured turf needed for sprints is more susceptible to the winter elements. Essentially, this makes flat racing unsafe with frost and ice posing the biggest dangers to horses. The international calendar continues throughout for the elite, November having seen the Breeders’ Cup then Melbourne Cups, whilst February and March are dominated by high value races in Riyadh and Dubai.

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While very cold conditions can also affect jump racing, flat racing is more about blistering speed over shorter distances as opposed to stamina and endurance over a few miles. Overall, the elements are far harder to negotiate at high speed.

As a result, some 30 years ago, the innovative Muddle family introduced synthetic surfaces at Wolverhampton and Southwell so that the flat racing season could go ahead all year round. This has been a lifesaver for smaller trainers whose stock is not competitive enough to go close on turf, but in lower quality all-weather races, finds their winning place.

A la prochaine

So there you have it, while lovers of horse racing certainly won’t be starved of action, Stratford Racecourse will fall silent over the next few months. However, that famous roar that echoes around Warwickshire will soon return as another season of thrilling racing at Stratford begins again on March 11th 2024, precursor to a breath-taking week at the sport’s spiritual home of Cheltenham.

We’ll see you back here in no time.

Mole Court produces emotional win for ailing owner

Stratford winner Mole Court stepped up on Friday to give part owner Ed Hoddell a magic moment as Cheltenham launched back into life after a five month break, with a 1/2l staying-on victory in an amateur riders chase.

The six year old gelding has now won five races in the calendar year, and his last four outings at Worcester (twice) and Stratford in August.

But as with almost every winner at the home of the sport, the back story is as interesting as the horse itself. Horrell is the building contractor at Ben Pauling’s Naunton yard, having built much of it from scratch through his Hartpury Construction business. And whilst this would vest him deeply in Pauling’s ongoing success, there is more. Wife Tina fell ill during the course of the build, and was ill enough to miss this latest success, with the prognosis for a recovery not good. No surprise therefore that a winner in that most precious of Winner’s Enclosures should be so heartily received.

Pauling meanwhile enjoyed his best ever season in 2022-23; just as well considering the investment in the Naunton Downs Golf Club and new racing set up. Over 70% of Pauling runners have won or been placed since the off of the new term in May, and at this pace, he stands every chance of growing again and passing the £1m marker.

We’ve been lucky to see 3 of those winners here at Stratford this summer where his 10 runners to date have scored an impressive 33% strike rate, which could yet be improved this week for our final fixture on Thursday.

Will it be Rachael Blackmore’s Festival a second time?

In this March’s Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, Rachel Blackmore will defend her crown after a spectacular win in 2022. Starting the race as the favourite, she rode the seven-year-old A Plus Tard to a memorable triumph. Returning to the fold on the same mount, we discuss her chances at this year’s event.

A Plus Tard

Trained by Henry de Bromhead, in 2022 A Plus Tard pipped previous winners Minella Indo and Protektorat in third. This year, the horse remains up there with the favourites. In the Cheltenham betting A Plus Tard is generously priced at 8/1. If there are any concerns, it would only be that the horse has run very little since last year’s win. A single run in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November left the de Bromhead team much deflated after a below-par run behind Protektorat. That horse has also been beaten since, and other contenders have appeared, like Galopin des Champs and Conflated for the Irish, and Bravemansgame for the home team.

The French-bred A Plus Tard has shown considerable talent for trainer Henry De Bromhead. The horse was a consistent performer in his early career, winning several maiden and novice races in France including first place in two out of three first-year races. He then moved to run in the UK and Ireland, where he won several graded races. While a favourite, he is not the only horse Henry de Bromhead is likely to have among the Cheltenham tips, as one of this trainer’s favoured outings. 

In 2020, he showed consistent improvement in form, ending the year with a win at Leopardstown. The next year saw a win at Haydock in November with two more second places, before his win in March at Cheltenham.  As any race enthusiast will know, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is one of the most important races in the calendar and both Blackmore and Henry de Bromhead will be looking to get A Plus Tard back to the scene of his greatest triumph in peak form.

Previous winners

The Gold Cup was first run in 1924, and since then it has been won by some of the most famous horses in steeplechasing history. Horses that have won over the years include Golden Miller, Arkle, Best Mate and Denman. The recent record for the most wins by a horse is held by Best Mate, who won the race in 2002, 2003, and 2004. Arkle won the race three times in a row from 1964 to 1966 and the last two-year consecutive winner was Al Boum Photo. If A Plus Tard returns to form for this year, it can be easy to see the stable chasing the three-time win with a horse so young and full of promise. 

While the Gold Cup is the main event at the Cheltenham Festival, there are many other top-class races in the four-day meeting. Other Grade 1 races at the event include the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, and the Stayers’ Hurdle providing a full meeting of action. De Bromhead is a realist; after his dream treble in 2022, a single winner would be as much as he can hope for. 2022 capped a terrific season when Honeysuckle, Put The Kettle On and A Plus Tard each won their respective Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup. Each race at the Festival offers the best horse in their class and are worth your time and effort. Check your odds, get the best prices, and enjoy watching the best racing the world has to offer.

Nicholls on the Festival comeback trail

When you think of Paul Nicholls, the mind is instantly drawn back to his superstar horses Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded, and See More Business, to name just a few. The master trainer swept up all around him when it came to the season’s biggest races back then, with superstars winning pretty much every Grade 1 race on the calendar.

Since then, however, the 12-time Champion trainer has struggled to find horses anywhere near as talented as that team of legends. Nicholls hasn’t won a Gold Cup since 2009 or a Champion Hurdle since 2012, albeit that he has made the King George at Kempton his own through Frodon, Clan des Obeaux and this year’s performance by Bravemansgame. The paucity of success at the Festival however is scarcely credible when you think of his former embarras de richesse

He has even started to bypass the Cheltenham Festival in recent years, instead waiting for the Aintree Grand National meeting the following month.

Ditcheat has found another gear

But times are changing at Nicholls’ Ditcheat stables this season. He has started to form a formidable squad full of talented young horses now ready to take on the best in the game. Betting markets and the latest betting tips are now full of Nicholls runners, including Bravemansgame with odds of 9/1 for the Gold Cup and Greaneteen available at 16/1 for the Champion Chase. Could it be time for the trainer to hit the summit of National Hunt racing once again at the meeting where it all counts?

Horses such as Bravemansgame and Greaneteen have put the Ditcheat stable back in the limelight this season with their Grade 1 successes and, with the Cheltenham Festival now fast approaching, it must be an exciting time for everyone involved with team Nicholls.

The new star squad

Bravemansgame

Bravemansgame is Nicholls’ new stable star. A Grade 1 winner as a hurdler, the 8-year-old has come into his own since being sent chasing, winning six of his seven starts. Two of those successes have come at the top level, most recently a 14-length win in the King George VI Chase at Kempton at Christmas.

He is still progressing at a rate of knots over the larger obstacles and has earned a tilt at this season’s Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup. Will he prove to be as good as Nicholls’ heroes of the past? We will find out in March.

Greaneteen

Another current star of the Ditcheat stable is the Queen Mother Champion Chase hopeful, Greaneteen. Like Bravemansgame, Greaneteen has proved to be a far better chaser than hurdler and has been particularly impressive this season with his Haldon Gold Cup win and second-place performance in the Tingle Creek.

He is currently being overlooked in the betting markets for the Champion Chase but he has all the attributes needed for a race of that nature and shouldn’t be disregarded as an also-ran.

With the likes of Pic D’Ohry (Ryanair Chase), Frodon (Gold Cup), and Hermes Allen (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle) also among Nicholls’ strong Cheltenham squad, this could prove to be a comeback year for the Champion trainer at the sport’s Holy of Holies.

Seeing these Cheltenham classics without a Nicholls runner over the past few years has been disappointing. There hasn’t been enough home-bred opposition to prevent a trouncing by Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott. Together, Nicholls and Henderson present the best chance of rebalancing the old Anglo-Irish rivalry, and Nicholls old adversary in Lambourn also has some impressive firepower. But this is the strongest team Paul Nicholls has possessed since the heady days of Kauto Star and Denman. 

If they prove to be half as good as those two, then the future is bright at Ditcheat.

Dan Skelton is a man on the march

A string of Skelton trained Saturday feature races have brought the season to life, and with it, the Trainers’ Championship. For years, the fight has been two-sided at best, although Willie Mullins did promise to upset the applecart a few years back, taking the tussle with Nicky Henderson all the way to Sandown’s finale meeting. Skelton is a Champion Trainer in waiting; less a question of if, rather when.

Big race wins courtesy of Protektorat, who downed A Plus Tard in the Betfair Chase, Le Milos in the Coral Gold Cup, and last Saturday, Ashtown Lad over Aintree’s big fences in the Becher Chase, who could be aimed at the Grand National, have catapulted Skelton into second place in the Trainers’ table, little more than £100k behind his old boss, Paul Nicholls. Those looking to back Skelton’s chaser in the King George should consider Betfair’s welcome offer. New customers may be able to pick up £30 in free bets to use on the King George. To qualify for the promotion, users need to place a £10 opening bet on the sportsbook.

This has been a rapid ascent by any standards. Skelton is only in his tenth full season training, but a thorough grounding by Nicholls, the horsemanship skills of showjumper and Olympian medal winner father Nick, and riding talent from a brother he legged up to become champion in the 2020-21 season, have all synced into a compelling momentum.

Nicholls is the man to beat

To win his maiden Trainers’ Championship, Skelton must finish ahead of his former boss Paul Nicholls. The Ditcheat trainer lifted the trophy last season, and he leads the way in the current campaign after a strong start to his title defence.

Nicholls has two strong entries in this year’s King George which will come up against Skelton’s Protektorat. Bravemansgame and Hitman will both be saddled by the 12-time winner of the race.

With the likes of Greaneteen, Frodon, Stage Star, Monmiral, Clan Des Obeaux and Gelino Bello also in his yard, Nicholls has another strong stable this season. He will be targeting all the major races around the Christmas period, while at the Cheltenham Festival, he will be in contention for many of the 28 races across the four days.

But Skelton has strong backing for the Championship

To date, 49 individual winners have contributed to Skelton’s seasonal tally of 59, but unlike a few seasons ago, Skelton has eschewed the early season fixtures, preferring to aim for higher quality animals capable of toppling the established ranks. It’s no easy task. The West Country stables of Nicholls and Berkshire fortress that is Seven Barrows have owners with deep pockets, and in spades. However, the policy is working.

Heavyweight owners like Ged Mason and Sir Alex Ferguson, Darren and Annaley Yates and J P McManus all now have horses at the Alcester centre of racing excellence. These are folk invested in success at the elite level. Look among this year’s winners and you will find 16 rated over 140, the basic minimum to qualify for any of the 28 races at the Cheltenham Festival. But that number doesn’t allow for the novices and bumper horses that are the new blood of every aspirant yard.

And there’s plenty of talent yet to score. Precocious novice chaser of last season Third Time Lucki, and Imperial Cup winner Langer Dan, have yet to add to the scoresheet, whilst Shloer Chase winner Nube Negra has a real fight on his hands in the Two Mile division with the emergence of Edwardstone, Saturday’s Tingle Creek victor. My Drogo, Allmankind and Shan Blue have all yet to show their hand.

Much of a trainer’s talent is not so much in preparing the equine athletes under their tutelage, but in placing them to best effect, as well, of course, as managing owner expectations. The strength in depth at the Skelton yard offers comfort that there is always another highly rated horse ready to take the place of one on the downgrade. Fuelled by the wealth of owners within the game, and on the doorstep of the country’s second city, that expectation that Skelton will go all the way by April 2023 is tangible.

Nothing could make us prouder in Warwickshire than the success of one of our own.

We’re off again!

Glorious spring sunshine heralded another season’s racing at Stratford this afternoon, the first horses to have appeared on the course since the adieu in November, and 51 horses faced the starter for an entertaining afternoon, a precursor to a feast of top quality Jump racing over the next five days.

Horses take the new white boarded hurdles for the first time in the country on a racecourse at Stratford. 14/3/2022 Pic Steve Davies/Racingfotos.com

For the quick-minded, the reference to five days is not an onward wave to a fifth day of the Festival, but an acknowledgement that there are now superb cards catering for the less than utterly brilliant at Uttoxeter and Kempton that illustrate that our sport is not all about one venue and 28 races. Horses, owners, trainers and riders all have their preferences, which is what makes our sport so rich in variety.

Festival fever allowed for a healthy crowd on this sunny afternoon, bolstered by early travellers from across the Irish Sea. If the Cheltenham roar was absent from the start of the first race of the season, it was yet more muted as Tommie O’Brien brought home Getaway Luv a 3 3/4l winner of the opening Novices Handicap Chase for owner/trainer Clive Boultbee-Brooks. This family operation in Herefordshire has just a handful of horses in training but a 60% strike rate testifies to some sound knowledge of where to place one’s horses.

The output from trainers named Williams in the UK is due to reduce this summer as the likeable Nick Williams ups sticks to expand his stable in France too. He has made a terrific contribution to the Jumps scene, not least with offspring named de Sivola, and produced another in the second, a Juvenile Hurdle, where Interne de Sivola outpaced Silver Shade, diverting from a Triumph Hurdle option to win by 2 1/4l.

There’s a keen rivalry between Nick and his former spouse Jane, who trains from the same premises. The glue that holds them together is the burgeoning career of their son Chester, who rode his step-father’s horse in the second, and made for a quickfire double for mother in the Bobby Brown Retiral Handicap Chase 30 minutes later on Esprit de Samoza. He had to pull out all the stops in a driving finish, in which runner-up Corran Cross lost nothing in defeat.

Esprit De Somoza [left] jumps the last to win at Stratford. 14/3/2022 Pic Steve Davies

Oakley showed a clean pair of heels to the opposition in the feature handicap hurdle, drawing clear two out and galloping to the line despite a renewed challenge from second-placed Osprey Call. The winner weas returning to winning ways for the first time since January 2019, and continued a good run of form for Hampshire-based Richard Bandey with this Philip Hobbs cast-off.

There was a close finish to the pointtopoint.co.uk Novices Hunter Chase where a decent field showed why Stratford continues to appeal to the grass roots of the sport. In recent months, hunter chase fields have rarely exceeded 6 runners, but 10 faced the starter, and there were two in it at the last. Drake’s Well, ridden by Alice Stephens, had been overtaken, but Jaunty’s Well pecked on landing, allowing Stephens to assert under a driving finish, to win by 1 1/4l.

Olly Murphy is still looking for a first Festival winner, but Ukantango flew the flag for the yard in the concluding bumper, winning on the fence as Aiden Coleman scraped the paint all the way round. He was well supported on this debut under Rules.

School Report 2021: must do better…. but can British trainers improve at the Cheltenham Festival in 2022?

The William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Carine06

It is fair to say the 2021 Cheltenham Festival was a dominant week for the Irish, with UK runners disappointing across the board. Of the 28 races, just five were won by horses trained in the UK, which led to a lot of questions being asked about the quality of UK racing at the moment, and the ability of our trainers to get their best horses ready for the big day. Even now, our premier mid season staying chase has been won by a Mullins – trained horse, so our problems haven’t gone away.

The countdown to 2022 is on, and the big question hanging over the Festival surrounds how well the UK runners can compete this time around, and are they in for another drubbing?

If you look at the odds ahead of Cheltenham, then you will see a number of races where Irish horses are amongst the favourites, but even with that, it would be a stretch to say they are capable of performing at the same level as last season again. As it stands, Ireland is at 1/6 and the UK 6/1 to take the Prestbury Cup, the inter country tally to see which side of the Irish Sea fares best over the four days. While the racing betting UK odds certainly favour Ireland, the hope is that the UK can move in the right direction and get double-figure victories on the board. 

For that to happen, the UK would essentially need three winners on two of the four days of the meeting, with two winners on the other two days, but who are the main contenders?

The British best hopes for the 2022 Festival

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle kicks off the Festival, a race that often goes to Ireland, but hopes are high in the UK this season. Henderson – trained Constitution Hill and Jonbon lead the market, after the recent Tolworth Hurdle victory of Constitution Hill, a race that he won by 12 lengths.

On the second day of the meeting, all UK eyes will be on one runner and that is Shishkin, a horse that is likely to turn up as one of the UK bankers of the week, assuming preparations go well. He won the Arkle Chase in great style last season and would love to follow that up by taking the premier two-mile chase event this season.

On Thursday, the most interesting runner on the whole card is more than likely going to be Champ. A Gold Cup hopeful last season, he was expected to go down that route again this season, but an impressive win over hurdles on seasonal debut has seen trainer Nicky Henderson open up a new option in the Stayers Hurdle.

The meeting rounds off on Friday and the headline race on that day is of course the Gold Cup. This is a race dominated by Irish runners, with the likes of Minella Indo, A Plus Tard, Galvin and Al Boum Photo all fancied to go well.

From a UK point of view, Protektorat, Chantry House and Champ, if he doesn’t run on Thursday, lead the way, but so far, all of them are outsiders in the race.

The disappointing total of five winners last season should not be repeated, but the strength of Irish racing right now means that low double figures is the best that the UK can hope for in 2022.

If you’re already salivating at the thought of the sport’s 4 day bonanza, consider also adding the Monday of that week here at Stratford. Our competitive card gives riders and trainers a pipe-opener to get in the winning mood before the tense moments of the subsequent four days.

Skelton and Murphy tune up for seasonal gear change

The Skelton machine has been quietly winding up to full speed, and this weekend’s full-blooded card across two days at Cheltenham and the Old Roan Chase at Aintree allowed some of that pent-up energy to be released. With a winner at Cheltenham on Friday and Allmankind’s seasonal debut at Aintree today, there was an indication of the latent firepower shortly to be released from the Alcester championship challenger.

Friday was the first day’s racing with any sort of crowd at Cheltenham since the infamous 2020 Festival, which brought the course plenty of brickbats given the level of infections that ensued afterwards as the first of our three lockdowns came about. Some 10,000 attended for what amounted to a normal day’s racing, although hand sanitiser and the odd mask were still in evidence. The overpowering atmosphere though was one of relief that racing can once again be enjoyed in the bucolic surroundings of Jump racing’s headquarters.

Even at this early stage in the autumn season, conversations are already hinting at March, and Third Time Lucki, last seen beaten 3 1/4l and 14 1/2l respectively behind Belfast Banter in the County Hurdle and Top Novices and the Festival and Aintree, did nothing to dispel such speculation with an impeccable chasing debut in the squareintheair Novices Chase over the minimum trip. 8 1/2l separated him from Irish challenger Buddy Rich, one of several runners from Gordon Elliott, at the line. His owner Andrew Newbould has the patience of Job, seemingly; he’s waited 30 years for a Cheltenham winner, and his horse is now quoted as short as 14/1 for the Arkle.

It looks like Skelton’s other winner of the weekend may skirt Cheltenham in March and endeavour to repeat today’s success in the Melling Chase at Aintree. Allmankind, winner of 4 races in his novice season including the Grade I Henry VIII Chase at Sandown, showed his liking for an extended trip in the Old Roan Chase over 2m 4f, beating fellow Warwickshire trainer Olly Murphy’s Itchy Feet by a length. There are further big races in store for both of these for certain.

Olly Murphy didn’t leave Aintree empty-handed however. French-bred Mackelduff, under Aiden Coleman, kept on strongly to win the £20,000 Jewson Wallasey Handicap Hurdle by 3 1/4l from Pouding Poet from Tom Lacey’s, and looks capable enough to win again.

Stratford may be winding down to its conclusion, but in every other sphere, the sport is girding up to full momentum.

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