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British or Irish: who are the most likely winners at the Festival?

This month’s Cheltenham Festival showcases the top equine talent in National Hunt racing with the best of British and Irish clashing against an occasional Frenchman. Trainers like Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins have achieved significant success at the event, thus becoming closely associated with the four-day meeting based on their records in winning graded and handicap races.

However, many local fans are often looking to their fellow countrymen in hope rather than expectation for more British success than Irish by 6pm on Friday March 15th.

Unfortunately, Britain’s dominance at the Festival has waned for the last decade, and that’s because Irish-trained horses have been unstoppable, pumped with high quality and high value bloodstock, often financed by British owners. With that said, let’s take a closer look at the British effort for Cheltenham Festival 2024 and whether or not the hosting nation can rediscover its dominance of the past.

Cheltenham ’24: UK vs Ireland

The subheader suggests that Britain’s biggest opponent at Cheltenham has been Ireland, but let’s be clear: it’s more like the UK vs. Willie Mullins.

Since the beginning of his career, the Closutton maestro has coached an astounding 94 Cheltenham Festival champions, including three Gold Cup winners (thanks to last year’s champ, Galopin Des Champs and the relentless Al Boum Photo).

Mullins was named the Leading Trainer at the Festival in 2023, and several of his protégés, including El Fabiolo, Galopin Des Champs, Lossiemouth, Gaillard Du Mesnil, Impaire Et Passe, and Energumene, are anticipated to be present in the victors’ enclosure at this year’s renewal.

Mullins vs GB

The single biggest threat to Britain’s success at the Cheltenham Festival is Willie Mullins, so much so that some bookmakers believe there is almost a 50/50 chance that he will outperform all trainers in Britain combined at the most significant Jump racing event of the year.

Yes, you’re reading this correctly: punters can find a wager that puts Mullins at even money to win more races than every British trainer combined.

While Ireland has essentially streamlined the Prestbury Cup into a one-horse race, the cross-channel team has made some progress in the last two years by winning ten of the twenty-eight Festival races at stake.

Nevertheless, Mullins gained the admiration of fans on both sides of the Irish Sea for amassing an unprecedented ten victories in 2022, culminating in an extraordinary 1,518-1 five-timer on the Festival’s final day.

Does Britain stand a chance?

The man who has revolutionised National Hunt racing has achieved a total of 94 festival wins, with six additional victories last year. His 100 runners made up a quarter of the stable strength waiting their turn to run.

Even by his high standards, the Irishman seems to be entering the forthcoming Festival with the strongest depth he has ever brought to Cheltenham.

With the defending Gold Cup champion Galopin Des Champs leading the squad and the strong favourite El Fabiolo in the Champion Chase, he is expected to win eight or more races this time at odds of 1-3 at the best horse racing betting sites in the UK. And with doubt cast over the participation of Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle, he is well placed to capitalize on his absence with second favourite State Man.

Could his superiority be so great that he wins more awards than all of Britain’s top competitors? This includes notable UK figures like Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson, and Dan Skelton.

The Cheltenham drought for British trainers

Constitution Hill and Sir Gino, among others, will lead the British battalion in the Champion Hurdle and the Triumph, respectively, provided the former recovers from his infection in time.

Dysart Enos is a heavy favourite for Fergal O’Brien in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, whereas Ginny’s Destiny competes for preference in the Turners’ Novices’ Chase. As joint-favourites at odds of 8-1 for the Coral Cup, Stage Star and Stay Away Fay are in contention for the Ryanair and Brown Advisory Novices’ Chases, respectively.

However, the host team last won the Anglo-Irish feud in 2015, but a 14-14 draw occurring in 2019 wasn’t the worst result. 2021, though, was the lowest point in cross-channel success with a well-known 23-5 victory for Ireland.

It is significantly different from fifteen years ago when Paul Nicholls was last named the top trainer at the event.

Paul Nicholls is renowned in the National Hunt racing world for his stable’s substantial size and strength, which also has great influence at the Cheltenham Festival. So far, the trainer from Somerset has accumulated a total of 48 wins at the March meeting.

Last year, he had successful horses like Stay Away Fay and Stage Star at the Festival. This year, the trainer from Ditcheat has a substantial group of prospective runners entered for the four-day event.

Britain’s leading handler is close to achieving a personal milestone at the Cheltenham festival, requiring two more wins to reach a total of 50.

Nicholls, who managed the careers of famous horses like Kauto Star, Denman, and Master Minded has had to develop another set of young horses in recent years but at least achieved success last season with Stage Star and Stay Away Fay.

Final thoughts

If all of Britain’s top competitors, including horses like Constitution Hill, perform at their peak, the betting lines still indicate that the home team will struggle to achieve double-digit numbers across the four days. Mullins is expected to outperform the whole British National Hunt racing industry single-handedly.

Racegoers at Cheltenham are unlikely to be very bothered by the nationality of the winning horse as long as they have chosen wisely. Let’s be honest: Britain has not dominated the Festival since 2016, and the fans continue to return and pack out the rafters.

Perhaps more tellingly, the real winners may be the French, breeders of almost all the best stock running, and more than content to sell to the highest bidder – British or Irish.

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