As the national hunt season beings to really get going, it may be worth a look at some of the possible contenders for the 2017 Cheltenham Festival. Indeed, bookies are already providing odds for the likely candidates in Cheltenham future races markets. Sadly, one horse who will not be taking part in Cheltenham in 2017 is the three-time Festival winner Vautour, who was put down earlier this week after a freak accident at his training ground. While that is sad news, it hasn’t altogether dampened the expectations of an exciting national hunt season ahead. The buzz around Cheltenham has started early this year, with so much star quality in national hunt at the moment; all that is left is for punters to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
As ever, it is always worth looking at the horses who were 2016 winners - click here for more information - before making your Cheltenham selections. There promises to be quite a few coming back in 2017 for another shot at glory. One who certainly fits the bill of returning hero is Thistlecrack. Colin Tizzard’s gelding has something very special about him, and rumours of a Gold Cup entry abound at the moment. From a spectator’s perspective, the thought of a showdown between Thistlecrack and 2016 Gold Cup winner Don Cossack is mouth-watering to say the least. But the Gold Cup always has a strong field, so don’t rule out the likes of Cue Card, Coneygree and perhaps Djakadam, all of whom have big race calibre.
One firm favourite of the Cheltenham crowd is Faugheen, who missed the last Festival through injury. He is also likely to be back in 2017. The hurdler has been nearly untouchable in recent years, and he will be looking to regain the Champion Hurdle trophy that he won in 2015. But who will Faugheen - providing he comes back fit and ready - face in the Champion Hurdle? Much may depend on how Willie Mullins shuffles his pack, but with Yorkhill, Annie Power and Min also at his disposal, a Mullins’ 1-2-3 is not out of the question.
Speaking of comebacks, the 2016 Cheltenham Festival was treated to one of the greatest of all time when Sprinter Sacre triumphed in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The Nicky Henderson trained horse was once rated as one of the greatest steeplechasers of all time, but was ravaged by injuries in 2014 and 2015. Punters should certainly not rule out Sprinter Sacre equalling Badsworth Boy’s record of three Champion Chase wins in 2017.
Henderson’s team has been rather tight-lipped about whether or not the horse will be back next year. If he does return, he could face competition in the shape of the mercurial Douvan. If the pair race, it could be one for the ages, with the much younger Douvan perhaps representing the greatest challenge to date for the much-loved ‘Sprinter’.
Of course, Cheltenham 2017 will undoubtedly reveal new stars of national hunt racing as well. That special atmosphere of the Festival sometimes gets the best out of horses that have never really performed on the grand stage before. The Festival is fertile ground for new heroes to be born amidst a cauldron of drama, fervour and excitement. Regardless of the final results, we are sure to be in for a thrilling week.