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Last year’s Cheltenham Festival turned out to be four days of embarrassment for British racing. In the most dominant display from the Irish on record, the hosts were thrashed 23-5 in the race for the Prestbury Cup. It was a rampant display from those from the Emerald Isles, with victory in all five of the Festival’s Championship races and leaving the Brits to pick up the scraps in just two of the 15 Grade 1s — the Arkle Challenge Trophy and the Marsh Novices’ Chase.
It was Nicky Henderson who spared those involved with British racing some of their blushes, as Shishkin won the Arkle — the top race for juveniles — by a comfortable 12 lengths clear of the Colin Tizzard-trained Eldorado Allen, while Chantry House caused somewhat of an upset to win the Marsh Novices’ Chase from 9/1 — finishing three lengths ahead of his stablemate Fusil Raffles. Perhaps more proof that despite arguably being past the peak of his powers at 72 years of age, Henderson is still British racing’s main man.
Questions have been asked of the British Racing Authority for a couple of years now, with real concern starting to bed in when Ireland won the Prestbury Cup 17-10 in 2020 — the last time the Festival welcomed racegoers to Cheltenham. But it seems like not enough, or nothing at all, has been done to really try and bridge the gap between the standard of racing on either side of the Irish Sea.
Looking at the Cheltenham tips 2022, it looks set to be another damning year for British racing, with the bookmakers predicting the visitors to once again run rampant at Prestbury Park — with the odds of the Irish trainers racking up over 20 winners for the second year on the trot now as short as 5/4. Still, 11-time Top Jockey Ruby Walsh isn’t convinced that his compatriots will wipe the floor with the hosts quite as badly this year.
“I just don’t think the top performers from the English challenge are as weak as some people would have you believe,” the former Irish rider said. “The strength in depth is not where it was, but everything is cyclical and I don’t think the wins for Ireland last year will be the same this year.
“To get it back to where it was [British dominance in 2009/2010] will take a while to come back to that sort of form, but I do think the wheel is starting to turn back to the British. I think there will be more Irish winners at the meeting, but not such a big amount. There are good contenders for the British.”
It must be said that there are certainly some fantastic contenders for the hosts this year — arguably none more so than Shishkin. There were fears at the start of 2022 that the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene was going to knock Henderson’s horse off his perch as they went head-to-head in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, but Shishkin prevailed despite being far from his best on the day and he looks like a real banker for the Brits in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle ante-post market is also looking promising for the hosts, with the Henderson-trained Constitution Hill the favourite alongside Sir Gerhard, who is more favoured for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, while Jonbon, another from the esteemed Seven Burrows yard, is also a short-priced option in the opening race of the Festival.
Interestingly, it could be a rapid start to the meeting for the Brits as the in-form Edwardstone, trained by Alan King, is the 2/1 favourite for the Arkle Challenge Trophy — which follows directly on from the Supreme. Paul Nicholls, who didn’t land a single winner last year, will be hoping that Bravemansgame can end his drought in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, where he is the second favourite, and with Mullins already hinting that Galopin Des Champs could be diverted to the Turners Novices’ Chase, the seven-year-old could yet set off as the favourite.
They are four very strong contenders and when you throw the likes of Does He Know (Ultima Handicap Chase), Good Risk At All (Coral Cup), Celebre D’Allen (Paddy Power Plate) and Protektorat (Gold Cup) into the mix, it is very possible for the Brits to put on a better show than last year’s embarrassment. But they will certainly need some luck on their side as Shishkin is the only one who they can really count on.