The 2015 Cheltenham Festival was a thrilling affair, showcasing a brilliant combination of new winners and familiar names to captivate experienced and novice fans alike. Record crowds attended the four-day event, and each of the signature races provided their own intrigue.
In the opening day’s Champion Hurdle, a first-time winner emerged in the form of Faugheen, who outstripped a slew of popular favourites that included The New One, Hurricane Fly, and Jezki. It also kicked off what ultimately became a dominant festival for trainer Willie Collins. A new champion also rose to the top in day two’s Champion Chase, when Dodging Bullets took the title. As The Independent’s recap noted, the main story in that race was that beloved former champions Sire de Grugy and Sprinter Sacre both failed to mount serious challenges. Cole Harden took the World Hurdle in what looked heading into the festival to be the trickiest of the four main races to predict. Novice racer Coneygree capped things off with a thrill, knocking off a few better-known favourites with a Gold Cup upset.
Frankly, it will be be a difficult festival to top, even with the consistent quality we’ve come to expect at Cheltenham! But nevertheless, huge crowds, top contenders, and possibly all four major defending champions are expected to be back next spring, which means we may as well start getting excited. According to Betfair’s page for the festival events, the action is scheduled to get started on Tuesday, the 8th of March, and will run as usual with a busy slate of races for four straight days. The page does not yet offer fields of competitors or odds to browse through, but I’m taking my best guess at the top contenders below based on their previous coverage and predictions.
Hurricane Fly’s name will come up in 2016, but the seasoned champion may finally be fading. After a third-place finish in the 2015 event, Hurricane Fly finished sixth in the French Champion Hurdle. As BBC’s race report noted, that finish kept him from a career Hurdle hat trick (he’s won at Cheltenham and in Ireland). The real favourite is likely to be Faugheen, whose impressive showing this year was enough to get people talking about a long-term legacy. Challengers at the top of betting cards will surely include 2014 champion Jezki, 2015 runner-up Arctic Fire, and rising competitor Peace and Co.
The 2016 Champion Chase could essentially be a toss-up. Dodging Bullets will get the respect of a top-five placement in the odds. However, he wasn’t truly a favourite this year and only won by a narrow margin, so he’s not the most compelling defending champion. Sire de Grugy could be in the mix once more, and one name people are already getting excited about is Un De Sceaux. The Willie Mullins horse, who has the makings of a serious champion, won this year’s Arkle Trophy at one of Cheltenham’s less heralded races. Also, as Mirror’s recap pointed out, he led from beginning to end. His expected entry in the 2016 Chase will certainly stir up the betting cards.
The World Hurdle is a little bit simpler. As with Dodging Bullets in the Champion Chase, 2015 winner Cole Harden will likely get some attention purely by virtue of being the defending champion. But the name that will dominate the attention here is Annie Power. If the WIllie Mullins champion competes as she was initially expected to this year, she’ll almost certainly be the favourite.
In the aftermath of the 2016 Gold Cup, winner Coneygree and contenders Saphir du Rheu, Holywell, and Silviniaco Conti have all been mentioned once more as possible winners next spring. But much like the Champion Chase, the Gold Cup is also bringing up some excitement regarding an up-and-comer: yet another promising young horse trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh (who rode Faugheen to Champion Hurdle glory). That horse is Vautour, and you shouldn’t be surprised if you see that name listed among the contenders in 2016.
A whole lot can change between now and March of next year. Health is always a factor, and we may see younger competitors emerge as potential challengers. But this is the current outlook for the major races at Cheltenham 2016.