Cheltenham Festival favourites: Which ones you should back - and oppose

Each year, the Cheltenham Festival is full of favourites who will be relied upon up and down the lengths of Britain and Ireland, but this year it seems there are more short-priced than ever aiming to leave the sacred racecourse as a festival winner. So, should you hop on the bandwagon and follow the favourites, or will they whimper on the biggest stage of them all?

Saturday, 6th March 2021, 2:00 pm
Updated Saturday, 6th March 2021, 2:17 pm
Shishkin is likely to be a well-backed favourite at the festival / Picture: Getty

Supreme Novices’ Hurdle: APPRECIATE IT 7/4

With bookmaker offers galore and aspirations aloft, the curtain raiser for the four day festival is undoubtedly a huge race for punters. This year, we are met with a well-fancied favourite in the form of the Willie Mullins-trained Appreciate It, who will be aiming to get favourite backers off to a perfect start.

The son of Jeremy was nearly faultless last year, winning two of his three bumpers, and arrived to the festival with similar hopes as the 15/8 favourite for the Champion Bumper. Unfortunately he found his stablemate, Ferny Hollow, one too good and returned to Closutton empty handed.

This season, the seven-year-old has gone from strength to strength winning all three of his starts, including two Grade one victories at Leopardstown.

It wasn’t evident until this campaign that he would have the speed needed for the minimum trip in the Supreme, but he’s made it explicitly clear that he’s the one to beat over two miles.

Of the opposition, both Metier and Ballyadam are Grade one winners in the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle and Royal Bond Novice Hurdle respectively, and Soaring Glory comes here from a commanding win in the Betfair Hurdle a fortnight ago.

There are serious question marks surrounding the Harry Fry-trained Metier as his form doesn’t compare to either of his close competitors and the ground may not be suitable on the day. Up against a different calibre of opposition, he may find it difficult to live up to his market position.

However, Ballyadam and Soaring Glory could be slightly overlooked to lay down the gauntlet to the strong favourite, with the ever-drying conditions looking to be favouring them rather than Appreciate It.

The former has been beaten twice by Mullins’ recruit on his last two starts, but had to travel three wide and was at the mercy of the pace dictated by the favourite.

The latter illustrated he was miles better than the handicapper thought in the Betfair Hurdle and, although he will have to improve to get in the ring with his market rivals, that victory suggests he may be able to go the distance in this bout.

Verdict - OPPOSE - Of course, Appreciate It is the one to beat in this affair but, considering he may have had it his own way on his last two starts, I wouldn’t want to advise backing him at such a short price.

Arkle Novices’ Chase: SHISKIN Evs

A mere thirty-five minutes after one short-priced favourite has waged war, the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin will be attempting to triumph in the Arkle Novices’ Chase to return even money.

If you asked the majority of horse racing experts at the turn of the year who was the most likely winner of the festival, I can guarantee nearly all of them would’ve nailed their colours to the mast of this son of Sholokhov.

But, since the beginning of the year, a new challenger has emerged from yet again the yard of Willie Mullins to set up one of the duels of the meeting. That challenger is Energumene, who is a perfect four from four over obstacles.

After failing to win on debut for the yard in November 2019, the son of Denham Red went about his business relatively under the radar, notching up two wins in bumpers before a sole win over hurdles in March last year.

It was only when switching to the larger obstacles that the seven-year-old began to be noticed by horse racing fanatics far and wide.

Even those who first dismissed him after he destroyed his opponents by eighteen lengths in his Beginners Chase win at Gowran Park were forced to acknowledge his talent when comfortably beating Arkle hope Captain Guinness next time at Naas.

At the beginning of this year it looked like the Arkle wasn’t on the agenda for Energumene, being run over two and a half miles on chase debut, but the drop back to the minimum trip has been a revelation.

Allmankind also goes with a good chance having made it three from three over the larger obstacles, and you’d think on any other year he’d be a strong favourite for this.

He loves to rattle along at a strong pace and will undoubtedly go from the front, although his jumping raises huge question marks.

Verdict - BACK - Indeed, Energumene is a top-class opponent for Shishkin to overcome, but I think the quick gallop that will be set by Allmankind will suit Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old to a tee and his inch-perfect jumping will come to the fore to make it seven successive wins.

Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase: MONKFISH 8/11

We now fast forward to the second day of the festival, where, at 1:55pm all eyes will be glued to Monkfish who is trained by - you guessed it - Willie Mullins.

Costing more than a brand new Lamborghini Huracan at £235,000, this son of Stowaway has given the Closutton-based trainer a different type of horse power and, one would argue, a lot more enjoyment than an Italian supercar.

Joining Willie Mullins as a five-year-old back in 2019, Monkfish failed to win on his first two starts, finishing second to both Longhouse Poet and Dior Kel and Punchestown and Fairyhouse respectively.

But, at this point in his short career some kind of miraculous spark must’ve ignited, as that was the last time he’d see the rear of a rival at the finishing post. His next two victories were by a cumulative thirty-one lengths, before beginning the first chapter in his duel with the Paul Nolan-trained Latest Exhibition.

In what has now turned out to be a very one-sided feud, Monkfish rallied to take last year’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle by a neck and land his first Grade one.

From there, his switch to the larger obstacles has been impeccable, winning all three of his races and dismissing Latest Exhibition twice in the process.

It was his most recent victory over Paul Nolan’s eight-year-old which was most impressive, jumping exceptionally and quickening to a comfortable eleven length victory.

Jockey Paul Townend, who was on board that day, was full of praise for the horse afterwards, admitting that he was merely a passenger, stating “all I had to do was sit there and steer him.”

Of the opposition, the current ante post market is filled with runners who have other plans and, if Latest Exhibition skips the festival to opt for an easier target, Eklat De Rire or The Big Breakaway will most likely be the next challengers.

It would be wrong of me to knock Eklat De Rire, who is two out of two over fences, but it seems that this will be a different kettle of fish in comparison to the Grade three event which he won last time out.

Whereas, the Colin Tizzard-trained The Big Breakaway has failed to live up to the promise which he showed last year over hurdles and also on his chase debut.

If he can improve in the manner he once threatened to, then he could be in contention, but he has an almighty mountain in between himself and victory in the form of Monkfish.

Verdict - BACK - Although the 8/11 available wouldn’t be a price I would personally back, it’s terribly tough to work out who could come through to win this other than Monkfish providing he stays on his feet.

Champion Chase: CHACUN POUR SOI 10/11

Although this article is almost becoming a shrine towards Willie Mullins, Wednesday’s championship race appears to revolve around his top-class chaser Chacun Pour Soi.

It’s fair to say this nine-year-old oozes class and, after being withdrawn at the last minute last year, all toes and fingers will be crossed across the country in the hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Since making the trip over from France to join the master trainer, the son of Policy Maker has gone from strength to strength, winning six of his seven appearances - finding only A Plus Tard one too good in 2019.

He is undoubtedly the one to beat, but there are a few opponents which you wouldn’t be surprised to see challenging him on the front end two fences out.

The first needs no introduction and that is of course Altior. With two Champion Chase’s already under the belt and a record of five from five at Cheltenham, he can never be written off - especially given the Jesus-like reincarnation that was done by Nicky Henderson on Sprinter Sacre.

The reigning champion, Politologue, will be aiming to retain his crown and demands respect, although last year’s affair is nothing in comparison to this year’s.

Nube Negra and First Flow both come here on the back of career best performances for Dan Skelton and Kim Bailey respectively.

The former illustrated an impressive display of jumping when dismissing Altior in the Desert Orchid, and First Flow comfortably beat Politologue by seven lengths to record an impressive victory in the Clarence House.

Verdict - OPPOSE - Although I don’t think his lack of course form will be a problem, Chacun Pour Soi is up against some top-class performers with three Champion Chase titles between them. It would be no surprise to see any of the top five contenders to land the spoils so, at 10/11, I have to oppose the favourite.

Marsh Novices’ Chase: ENVOI ALLEN 5/6

All going well, Henry De Bromhead’s new recruit will be the last leg of a huge amount of accumulators around the country, with many hoping that the seven-year-old can follow up his win in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle last year.

The son of Muhtathir is a perfect eleven from eleven under rules and yet there are still many who attempt to pick holes in him - myself included. But, it seems the task of finding downfalls in this two-time festival winner is becoming a rather laborious and tiresome task.

Yes, he may not have beaten the top-class opposition that he could’ve over fences, and even those wins he has to his name may not have been the most emphatic, but he gets the job done.

Whatever has been put in front of him thus far, has simply been brushed aside with a minimum of fuss and although he doesn’t stretch clear to win by double-figure lengths, he has an aura of arrogance in his class and it seems he will only dig as deep as he needs to on the day.

His most likely rivals at the head of the market are the Dan Skelton-trained Shan Blue and Nicky Henderson’s Chantry house, who will both be aiming for a ‘David vs Goliath’ type victory.

The former’s jumping had been spectacular to watch this year, notching up three wins to his name and dismissing the likes of The Big Breakaway and If The Cap Fits with ease en route to those victories.

Understandably he’s nowhere near Envoi Allen in terms of price, having failed to win the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, but it seems he was on the receiving end of a terrific ride from Richard Johnson on board Sporting John - plus the ground was bottomless.

Chantry House will probably be third favourite and looks to have an incredible amount to do at the ratings if he wants to compete with Cheveley Park Stud’s top performer.

Verdict - BACK - Although Envoi Allen is a very short price at 5/6, it’s a challenging task to see who will get the better of him. With Energumene and Monkfish also at the top of the market (who are going for different races), I would be surprised if the favourite isn’t markedly shorter on the day and it seems he will take the world of beating.