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28 Jan 2015

Usual suspects to fight for Festival trainers' title

The leading trainer title at the Cheltenham Festival has been dominated by three men over the past decade – Nicky Henderson, Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls.
And it’s fair to say that the leading trainer at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival is likely to be one of the trio again. The likes of David Pipe, Jonjo O’Neill and Philip Hobbs are all expected to have fancied runners come March, but those stables lack the strength in depth of their contemporaries.
Here, we take a look at the firepower which Henderson, Mullins and Nicholls can aim at this year’s Festival.

Leading trainer at the Festival on 10 occasions, Henderson sent out only one winner 12 months ago when Whisper landed the Coral Cup. He has suffered a couple of setbacks already in the build-up to this year’s Festival. My Tent Or Yours, runner-up in last season’s Champion Hurdle, is out for the season and Simonsig, who has not run since winning the 2013 Arkle and could have been a Ryanair Chase contender, is also still absent. However, dual Festival winner Sprinter Sacre returned from over 12 months on the casualty list to finish second at Ascot in mid-January. Henderson is confident Sprinter Sacre will benefit greatly from the run and the nine-year-old has a solid chance of regaining his Champion Chase crown. Peace And Co [pictured] is a warm favourite for the Triumph Hurdle and showed his versatility with a win at Cheltenham on trials day. L’Ami Serge will go to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with a live chance and, if Josses Hill can brush up the jumping, then the Arkle is no forlorn hope. Then there is Bobs Worth in the Gold Cup. The 2013 winner of the race floundered in the conditions at Leopardstown over Christmas, but a return to Cheltenham in the spring gives him a chance of landing a blow in a relatively open renewal. Also keep an eye on whatever Henderson runs in the Grand Annual.
The leading trainer at the Festival for the past two years, Mullins will be the favourite to take that title again. He followed up his seven wins in 2013 with four last year as Faugheen, Vautour, Quevega and Don Poli struck. Faugheen will go into this year’s Festival as a warm favourite for the Champion Hurdle, for which Mullins also has two-time winner Hurricane Fly. Don Poli has to be feared in either the RSA Chase or the National Hunt Chase, while Vautour is favourite for the JLT Novices’ Chase. Annie Power, who was second in last year’s World Hurdle, will be very hard to beat in the Mares’ Hurdle as well. And Mullins has an enviable batch of hopefuls in the novice hurdles, with Douvan, Outlander and Black Hercules all to be respected. Un De Sceaux could be his banker of the week in the Arkle Chase and Champagne Fever will go into his fourth Festival with a chance of a third win when he contests the Champion Chase. Mullins has yet to win the Gold Cup and he is likely to send last year’s narrow runner-up On His Own and the progressive Djakadam into battle.
It has been a relatively barren couple of years at the Festival for Nicholls, who was leading trainer for four years in a row from 2006 to 2009. He won just one race in 2013 and the same again last year when Lac Fontana took the County Hurdle on the last day. It is still too early to say who Nicholls will be aiming at the handicaps and his novice hurdlers look to have a bit to find at present, especially compared to those at Mullins’ disposal. However, Nicholls does have the Gold Cup favourite in Silviniaco Conti, who is expected to see out the trip much better than when fourth to Lord Windermere last year. Silviniaco Conti will not run again before the Gold Cup, like Nicholls’ other possible for the race Sam Winner. In the Champion Chase, which Nicholls has won with Call Equiname, Azertyuiop and Master Minded, he has the improving Dodging Bullets. Already a dual Grade One winner this season, Dodging Bullets has to be feared. Big Buck’s gave Nicholls four successive wins in the World Hurdle, and Saphir Du Rheu and Zarkandar will both head to the race with solid chances. Al Ferof will merit respect if he goes for the Ryanair Chase and Ptit Zig is a strong contender for the JLT Novices’ Chase.