Ante-Post Leading Trainer and Cheltenham Festival 2014 Tips – We all like a spot of ante-post value for the Cheltenham Festival but if your biggest winter warmer lets you down on the first day of the meeting then you need something to retain an interest. With that in mind we’ve taken an early look at the main contenders for the title of Leading Trainer.
After the dominance of Paul Nicholls between 2004-2009, the last four Festival trainer’s titles have been split between Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson. Similarly, this year all three have strong strings but none more so than Willie Mullins who is enjoying almost a 30% strike rate in Ireland, including a frankly ridiculous 45% strike rate in Bumpers! He could conceivably have it wrapped up after Day 1 with Briar Hill and Champagne Fever currently favourites for the opening two contests of the meeting plus defending Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly and the sublime Quevega later in the day. However, opportunities don't end there as Analifet is favourite for the Triumph hurdle after some impressive demolition jobs in Ireland while Noble Inn who has twice seen Analifet disappear into the distance is a lively one in the Fred Winter. Willie Mullins also saddles Ballycasey, who heads the market for the RSA chase; as well as the 2013 World Hurdle victor Solwhit, and Sir Des Champs who will take his chance in the Gold Cup. In addition, given the Irish record in the Champion Bumper anything from the stable entered there has to be given ultimate respect as well. He has such an embarrassment of riches at his disposal that it seems inevitable that he will take a fair proportion of the prizes on offer at Cheltenham back to County Carlow with him.
The likeliest challenge looks to come from the stable of Nicky Henderson, who will be hoping his stars can mount a serious challenge. His string have had a few disappointments in the early part of the season but the Seven Barrows maestro is renowned for getting his horses to peak at the perfect time in the Spring. Gold Cup hero, Bob's Worth will spearhead the assault along with the seemingly invincible Sprinter Sacre who will be looking to repeat his imperious performance in the Champion Chase. My Tent Or Yours is a quality Champion Hurdle contender having been one of the few to win on his seasonal reappearance in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. If Cue Card runs in the Gold Cup then Simonsig will be well fancied to take the Ryanair crown, Oscar Whisky could be overpriced in the Jewson at current odds and the Grand Annual is likely to be well to the fore in Henderson's mind with the race run in the memory of his father.
Whilst the Mullins and Henderson yards have plenty to keep themselves warm during the long, cold winter nights ahead; Paul Nicholls will be concentrating on regaining his crown. He will be hoping that the wonderful Big Buck’s can lead the way. The four time World Hurdle winner hasn't been seen in competitive action for a full calendar year and at the age of 11 he will have to prove the old sparkle remains; however, his complete dominance of the division in recent years has been a wonder to behold and I can't imagine him running if the yard don't believe he is still capable of his best. Hinterland has been putting his experience to good use this autumn as a second season novice chaser and he is capable of running a big race in the Arkle especially if the aforementioned Champagne Fever is re-routed to a different target. Saphir Du Rheu currently heads the betting for both the Coral Cup and the Pertemps Final whilst stable companions Sam Winner and Black Thunder share favouritism for the National Hunt chase. Silviniaco Conti is another horse of whom good things are expected, although he didn't look at his best on his seasonal reappearance he will be fancied to be serious contender for the Gold Cup if he is able to reproduce his best form.
David Pipe is another who will be looking to spoil the Mullins/Henderson party and follow in his fathers footsteps with a top trainer award of his own. It doesn't look like it will be the strongest team ever to have come out of Pond House but Kings Palace has looked a novice out of the very top drawer with two victories at Prestbury Park already this season and is likely to be short in the betting for whichever novice contest he is aimed at. Another novice worth noting is Red Sherlock, who has been massively impressive in bumpers and treated a weak field with contempt on his hurdling debut at Southwell. The conditionals hurdle named in honour of Martin Pipe is likely to be a key aim for the team and the market is currently headed by Home Run who has struck up a great relationship with Kieron Edgar this season. The yard is always well represented in the big handicaps at the Festival and it's unlikely that 2014 will be any different. Dynaste is another from the stable who will head to the Festival with a solid chance. It's not yet clear if he will be Ryanair or Gold Cup bound but he has a squeak in whatever contest he is aimed at and we should know more after the King George on Boxing Day.
Jonjo O'Neill was the top trainer at the Festival in 2003 and he will bring an interesting team to the table this season. There is the distinct lack of an outright star but O'Neill has a number of horses with solid chances. Eastlake won nicely at the International meeting and heads the market for the Grand Annual. Another winner at that meeting was the rapidly progressing More Of That who has shortened for the World Hurdle and with question marks hanging over the heads of those in front of him in the betting he is of interest. Holywell is likely to be aimed at one of the seriously competitive handicaps as are Sunnyhillboy in the Pertemps Final and Burton Port who may find himself down to a very workable mark come March. Taquin Du Seuil was a bit disappointing at Sandown on his latest outing but may find that the Jewson is right up his street and could confirm the promise of his earlier efforts.
Finally a trainer massively out of left field with Emma Lavelle. She may not have any standout chances but there are a string of each way shouts from the yard led by Highland Lodge who is currently favourite for the JLT Specialty chase. This young staying chaser looks to still be progressing rapidly and is one of the stable stars. Timesremembered has a shot at one of the staying novice hurdles while Shotgun Paddy and Le Bec both look contenders in the RSA chase. It's the handicaps where she may have most success with the likes of Claret Cloak looking the perfect Grand Annual horse, Off The Ground a potential Byrne Plate type plus the likes of Captain Sunshine, Court By Surprise and Fox Appeal all capable of going close in their respective targets. Certainly, Emma Lavelle’s overall chances of winning the title are slim but with the yard in so much better form this season they are certainly capable of hitting the board.
Overall though it's hard to see beyond the yard of Willie Mullins who has the current market favourites for a quarter of the races and plenty of other chances besides. There is not likely to be any value in backing him so I’d be interested in taking him on with the big each-way prices about the yards of Pipe, O'Neill and Lavelle, in the hope they can hit the target with their 'big guns' and sneak a handicap win or two. Three winners has been enough in six of the past twelve seasons to win the top trainers title and that could be the case this year as well. However it is difficult, at this stage, to envisage anything other than another deluge of Mullin’s victories keeping the title firmly within his grasp.
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