2020 Cheltenham Festival Preview: Thursday, St Patrick's Day
By Alastair Akers
Thursday at Cheltenham this year is a day for returning heroes: can they win at the Festival again, or will new champions emerge to spoil the party?
First to try is the biggest hero of them all, the legendary Faugheen, who could run in the Marsh Novices’ Chase. Now 12 years old, he has thoroughly vindicated his trainer Willie Mullins’ decision to send him novice chasing at such an advanced age. There were plenty of naysayers commenting that the nine-time Grade 1 winner – a record that includes two Cheltenham Festival victories – should have been retired, but Faugheen has showed that the fire burns as brightly as ever with three wins from three over the larger obstacles this season. That third win came in emotional style at the Dublin Racing Festival: the Irish crowd roared their horse home and gave him a hero’s welcome in the ring afterwards, and even the normally unflappable Mullins choked back a tear or two.
Indeed, Mullins commented afterwards that the race was “Faugheen’s Gold Cup”, and so his participation at Cheltenham isn’t a given; his connections may prefer to retire him on that high. If he does line up at Prestbury Park fit and well, however, he is the best horse in the Marsh line-up, and another memorable triumph is more than possible.
If Faugheen does run in the two-and-a-half mile novice chase, he is likely to face another former Cheltenham Festival victor in Samcro. Gordon Elliott’s horse was talked up as the next Arkle – that’s almost no exaggeration – after his bloodless win at odds-on in the 2018 Ballymore, when every man and his dog had backed him. But he has never gone on from that point; in fact, he’s largely regressed, never really running to that level again, and has an alarming habit of failing to finish his races. That trait was never more evident than when beaten by Faugheen at Limerick this season, when he looked the winner until put under pressure. If Samcro can get the bit back between his teeth, his talent would give him a real chance, but there’s no evidence that’s anything more than a remote possibility.
Frodon provided one of the moments of last year’s festival with his front-running win in the Ryanair Chase piloted by the irrepressible Bryony Frost. The pair will look to do exactly the same this year by setting a strong pace and getting into a metronomic jumping rhythm, seeking to put rivals under intolerable pressure all the way around. It should be a superb spectacle. In Frodon’s favour is his perfect three wins from three record around Cheltenham’s New Course, which famously suits front-runners. Trainer Paul Nicholls thinks he has the eight-year-old back to his best after a couple of below-par runs earlier in the season, and on top form he should go close.
However, last year’s Ryanair was a substandard renewal, and the suspicion is that even with the formidable Frost aboard, Frodon may find two classier rivals in particular too strong. Min will be the highest rated horse in the field, and on decent ground over this trip would merit colossal respect. But even he may not be able to live with A Plus Tard, who looks a bit special. Just six years old, he demolished the field in the novice handicap at last year’s festival, and has already beaten Champion Chase fancy Chacun Pour Soi this term.
Really though, the prior action is all a warm-up for the main attraction: Paisley Park’s attempt to win consecutive Stayers' Hurdles. Emma Lavelle’s eight-year-old looks bulletproof and should be backed accordingly. While last season he had the habit of hitting a flat spot somewhere on the final circuit, which gave his rivals hope, he is yet to display that trait in winning on both his starts this term. Lavelle openly commented that she didn’t have her star fully tuned up for either of those victories, and yet he still powered past the field in the closing two furlongs. With Cheltenham’s hill naturally accentuating that strong finish, he will be very hard to beat.
That’s especially true given the paucity of rivals on show. The two potential jokers in the pack – who Paisley Park is yet to beat – are Emitom and City Island. The latter is probably of more interest on decent ground, because his win in last year’s Ballymore showed he loves Cheltenham, and he has that bit of extra pace to try to stretch the field down the hill.
Even so, it would be a huge shock were he good enough to beat Paisley Park and deny owner Andrew Gemmell another huge and heart-warming celebration.