The pinnacle of the National Hunt racing season is on the horizon. That’s right, all the hard work of trainers, jockeys and horses so far this season boils down to the four-day Cheltenham Festival next month and with fans back in attendance for the first time in two years, the atmosphere is going to be electric at Prestbury Park from the curtain-raising Supreme Novices’ Hurdle right through to the closing number, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
If all that isn’t enough to get you excited for the Festival, then surely some talk of big rivalries being reignited over the course of the week will — after all, fierce competition is one of the main reasons we all love horse racing and sports in general, right? So, take a break from scouring the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting markets for a couple of minutes and let’s take a look ahead at some of the big rivalries set to take place next month!
Rachael Blackmore vs Paul Townend
With Ruby Walsh’s decade of dominance, when the Irish rider won the Top Jockey award nine times in a 10-year stretch, coming to an end, the race for the personal accolade has been blown wide open with four different jockeys having taken home the award in the last four years — Davy Russell, Nico de Boinville, Paul Townend and Rachael Blackmore. The latter two look set to go head-to-head again this year.
Blackmore set the bar incredibly high in 2021 as she rode an impressive six winners and she’ll be hoping to replicate that success this year, while Townend, 2020’s winner, will be out to make up for a somewhat underwhelming renewal last March — when he gained access to the winners enclosure just three times and drew blanks in the five Championship races.
Willie Mullins vs Henry de Bromhead vs Gordon Elliott
The battle between Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead for the Leading Trainer award went down to the wire. After winning the showpiece race, the Gold Cup Day tips would have had De Bromhead down as the favourite to win the award, but Galopin Des Champs won the Jockeys’ Conditional Handicap Hurdle to sway the title in Mullins’ favour right at the death. That victory meant both Irish trainers finished the week on six winners, but Mullins’ seven second-place finishes heavily outweighed De Bromhead’s three.
Many would argue that De Bromhead still had the better Festival though, as he completed the triple crown (the Queen Mother, the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup), while Mullins had to settle for just the Ryanair Chase in terms of Championship victories. The pair will be more than ready to reignite their battle again this year, with Mullins favoured to come out on top, but the return of Gordon Elliott throws a spanner in the works and we could see a three-way battle for the Leading Trainer accolade.
Shishkin vs Energumene
There are plenty of top-class races with some quality horses going up against each other over the course of the four days, but none look to be as exciting as Shishkin vs Energumene in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. It’s a rarity for two horses of this magnitude to go head-to-head prior to the Festival, but Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson treated racing fans to a cracker in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January — which Shishkin won by a length.
That outing only whetted the appetite though and there’s no doubt everybody will be looking forward to round two in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Ladies Day. From what we saw at Ascot, Henderson’s Shishkin will likely come out on top once again, but if it’s anything like that first meeting, then we certainly won’t be complaining — and hey, the British could do with a big victory over the Irish at Cheltenham after the last couple of years!