As we enter 2022, horse racing fans all across the United Kingdom and Ireland will already have their sights set on the Cheltenham Festival in March— which will hopefully be able to welcome back a full capacity crowd for the first time since the 2020 renewal of the meeting controversially went ahead amidst the arrival of coronavirus.
A fantastic festive period of racing, which included the King George VI Chase and the Leopardstown Christmas Festival and featured many of the horses favoured to do well at Prestbury Park this year, will have whetted the appetite of racegoers and given them a better sense of who to back when checking the Cheltenham odds ahead of the iconic Festival.
That said, let’s take a look at some of the key battles from the meeting’s prestigious feature races that are sure to have the punters torn.
Champion Hurdle – Honeysuckle vs Appreciate It
The Cheltenham Festival is always exciting right from the off and this year’s meeting will be no different. The Champion Hurdle is the feature race on day one and the unbeaten Honeysuckle will be looking to defend her crown as the best hurdler in the United Kingdom and Ireland by winning the two-and-a-half mile, Grade 1 race for the second successive time.
While Honeysuckle will undoubtedly have the backing in the Cheltenham Cheat Sheets from Paddy Power,Willie Mullins’ Appreciate It isn’t going to go down without a fight. Unbeaten last season, including a 24-length victory over Ballyadamin the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Irish trainer initially hoped to turn the seven-year-old into a chaser. However, those plans have changed and he will provide Honeysuckle with some much-needed competition over hurdles.
Our verdict: Honeysuckle.
Queen Mother Champion Chase – Shishkin vs Energumene
On to the Queen Mother Champion Chase, day two’s feature race, and like Honeysuckle, it appears Shishkinis going to have some healthy competition at the Cheltenham Festival this year. Nicky Henderson’s prized asset is unbeaten in nine outings and will be on the hunt for a third victory in as many races at Prestbury Park in March after winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2020 and the Arkle last year.
Energumenehad a fantastic final year as a Novice last season, winning all four of races, including the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown and the Ryan Novice Chase at Punchestown, by over a combined 52 lengths. He’s got off to a winning start again this year after landing the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase last month. So, this one is sure to be a good battle!
Our verdict: Shishkin.
Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle – Champ vs Klassical Dream
While there are two feature races on day three, it looks like Allahois going to run away with the Ryanair Chase. So, we are going to focus on the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, where we could see another battle between Henderson and Mullins!
Nothing separates Champ and Klassical Dream in the early ante-post markets, but the former, who is named after AP McCoy, just hasn’t been the same since he won the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase in 2020. Only raced twice last year, failing to win on either occasion, the 10-year-old beat Thyme Hill to land the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot last month. Hopefully he is back to his best.
Klassical Dream won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Punchestown Champion Novice Hurdle in his thirdand fourth outings for Mullins back in 2019, but appearances have been few and far between since. He returned to the track back in April after a 487-day rest, winning the Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown. He’s already made his seasonal reappearance this year at Leopardstown, coming first in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle and he should give Champ a run for his money.
Our verdict: Klassical Dream
Gold Cup – A Plus Tard vs Minella Indo
A rivalry that is set to be reignited from last year’s Festival, Henry de Bromhead’s duo of A Plus Tard and Minella Indo look set to go head-to-head again in the 2022 renewal of the Gold Cup. Many thought last year’s showpiece race was going to be a two-horse contest between A Plus Tard and two-time defending champion Al Boum Photo, only for Jack Kennedy and Minella Indo to swoop in and steal their thunder.
Early season form this year suggests thatA Plus Tard and Rachael Blackmore, who won the Betfair Chase by a huge 22 lengths clear of Royal Pagaillein November, are going to go one better this year and right their wrongs after being beaten by the muchless fancied Minella Indo, who is yet to win in his two season appearances,last March.
Our verdict: A Plus Tard.