The fuss over Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott’s epic battle for National Hunt supremacy last season tended to overshadow the fine showing of Nicky Henderson and Jessica Harrington.
But while Henderson and Harrington’s combined half-dozen winners at Cheltenham may have been dwarfed by the big two’s dozen, they did include the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle. That pattern of resistance against the oligarchy continues this week, with Henderson and Harrington saddling the favourites in the two big post-Christmas steeplechases.
Henderson’s Might Bite starts favourite in today’s King George VI Chase at Kempton. His front-running victory in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham might have ranked as the most impressive performance of the festival had he not, while leading by several lengths, wandered all over the place on the run-in and just recovered in time to beat stablemate Whisper by a nose.
More conventional victories at Aintree and Sandown since make him a worthy favourite.
This time last year all the talk was about Thistlecrack, whose easy victory in the King George made him one of the hottest Gold Cup favourites in years. But injury ruled Colin Tizzard’s horse out of Cheltenham and a well beaten fifth place on his comeback run at Newbury earlier this month means Thistlecrack has questions to answer today.
The horse which has been attracting the most attention this season is Bristol De Mai, whose 57-length victory over Cue Card in the Betfair Chase at Haydock saw his Gold Cup odds tumble. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse may be the main danger to the favourite, though Might Bite’s old rival Whisper could also be in with a shout.
The top two in Thursday’s Leopardstown Christmas Chase have something in common with Thistlecrack and Might Bite.
Like the former, Sizing John is a striking example of the difference a year can make. This time 12 months ago he was, for the sixth time in his career, a distant speck on the horizon behind Mullins’ two-mile wonder-horse Douvan.
Then came the move up in distance which saw him win the Irish, Cheltenham and Punchestown Gold Cups. On his first run this season, a seven-length victory over old foe Djakadam in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown, Sizing John looked better than ever.
His main rival today, Yorkhill has a lot in common with Might Bite. The Mullins star was also an impressive winner of a big novice chase at Cheltenham in March, the JLT in his case, and he too has a tendency towards eccentricity, his waywardness costing him victory in the Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse in April. Yet Yorkhill is a prodigious talent and a battle royal between him and Sizing John would probably be the highlight of the entire holiday racing programme.
The Gold Cup looks peculiarly intriguing at the moment but the Champion Hurdle looks like a two horse race. In one corner is Henderson’s reigning champion Buveur d’Air, which goes in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle today and should win handily.
In the other is 2015 kingpin Faugheen, whose return from an absence of almost two years may have been the most significant event of the season so far. That he won his first race back was hardly surprising but the 16 lengths he had to spare over Jezki at Punchestown suggested he had lost little form in his time away.
A similar performance in Friday’s Ryanair Hurdle and the chances of Faugheen becoming the first ever horse to retain the Champion Hurdle after a two year inter-regnum will look pretty good.
There are couple of classic Mullins-Elliott battles on the card at Leopardstown, most notably in tomorrow’s Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle. Nothing in 2017 better displayed the changing balance of power in Irish racing than Labaik’s victory for Elliott in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, a race won in three of the previous four years by Mullins.
Elliott has the Supreme Novices favourite in Mengli Khan which easily won the Royal Bond Novices Hurdle at Fairyhouse earlier this month. But this time out he’ll be challenged by two quality Mullins contenders in Sharjah and Real Steel.
Thursday’s Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle also looks pretty mouth-watering, containing as it does three Cheltenham winners from this year. Mares Hurdle champion Apples Jade has been a kind of invincible standard bearer for Elliott yet is up against Mullins’ Stayers Hurdle winner Nichols Canyon and Harrington’s Coral Cup victor Supasundae. Apples Jade accounted for both of them pretty easily in the Hattons Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse but Nichols Canyon, in particular, could make it a lot closer this time.
Some of the most interesting races of the week involve big Cheltenham favourites which will be bidding to confirm their standing. Today, Mullins’ Arkle Trophy market leader Footpad goes up against Elliott’s JLT Novices favourite Death Duty in the Racing Post Novices Chase at Leopardstown in what should be a cracker.
Henry de Bromhead had a fine 2017 and his big Cheltenham hope is RSA Chase favourite Monalee, which is in the Neville Hotels Novices Chase at Leopardstown on Friday where he faces Mullins’ Rathvinden, third to Faugheen in the Neptune Hurdle at Cheltenham as a novice and a four-time recent winner over fences.
One horse which isn’t a favourite at Cheltenham is Min. But the odds on Mullins’ two-miler for the Champion Chase have been shortening rapidly with Douvan apparently out of contention and Henderson’s equally extraordinary Altior having question marks over his fitness.
Min missed last year’s Cheltenham through injury but won by 36 lengths in a comeback race at Gowran Park in November. His performance in tomorrow’s Paddys Rewards Club Chase will be closely scrutinised.
So will the progress of the Mullins-Elliott battle. Last year at Leopardstown Mullins put on an awesome show of power which foreshadowed the subsequent Punchestown tour de force that snatched the trainers title away from Elliott at the death. Yet Elliott’s clean sweep of the three Group One races at Fairyhouse suggested he may be stronger this year.
It’s also possible that while Willie and Gordon are once more putting up the numbers, Nicky and Jessica will take the big-race headlines.
There’s just so much to look forward to in the next four days.