28 February 2020
By Bryan Smyth
Ahh, the Cheltenham Festival! We’re coming up to that time of year again when the very best of the horse racing scene in Britain and Ireland go head to head, competing in some of the most prestigious races in the National Hunt calendar; all packed within a phenomenal four-day celebration at Cheltenham Racecourse.
The atmosphere is always electric, the races are usually always highly competitive and thrilling affairs, while the Cheltenham Festival is often an event where legendary names are made. The popularity of the races has continually increased over the years, and the main event on the final day – the Cheltenham Gold Cup – is now even regarded as being on a par for importance at the Grand National at Aintree.
Given there’s always a large contingent of Irish interests present at the Cheltenham Festival each year, there’s a growing enthusiasm amongst racegoers and fans to compare their success with that of the local British competitors. It’s even led to a side competition and small trophy being created since 2014, the Prestbury Cup, which is presented to jockeys and trainers from Ireland or Britain, depending which country has trained the most winners out of 28 races.
Usually, the first country to reach 14 or more winners will be presented the Prestbury Cup, while some bookmakers even offer betting odds on which country will enjoy the most success at the Cheltenham Festival. In 2019 the result was a tie, with 11 victories apiece for Britain and Ireland, although several of the leading online betting sites have Ireland as the firm 4/7 favourites to take the prize in 2020. Let’s take a look at the leading names to watch this year.
Hailing from the Emerald Isle, nobody has trained more triumphant Cheltenham Festival horses than Willie Mullins. The iconic Irishman enjoyed his first winning runner back in 1995, when Tourist Attraction came first in the Triumph Hurdle. In 2019 Mullins extended his record to 65 winners in total, which included Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup, which is remarkably his first ever winner in the blue ribbon race. Leading trainer last year with 4 winners, Mullins has also been the most successful trainer at the Cheltenham Festival in 6 of the last 10 years.
There will also be a powerful selection of horses trained by Gordon Elliott, having been the key figure at the Gigginstown Stud owned by Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary. Elliott can boast 24 winners at the Cheltenham Festival since 2011, which include one of the most famous and popular horses in recent years, Tiger Roll. Although O’Leary announced last year that he’s winding down his racing interests, Elliott will still have plenty of great runners at Cheltenham in 2020.
Up until he was overtaken by Mullins in 2015, the most successful trainer at the Cheltenham Festival was Nicky Henderson, who remains the most successful that Britain has to offer with numerous major wins. These include big wins in the main feature races with the Gold Cup twice, Queen Mother Champion Chase on four occasions, and six Champions Hurdles triumphs. He was also the leading trainer at Cheltenham in 2012, 2010 and 2000.
The other great success at Cheltenham is local Gloucestershire trainer Paul Nicholls. The man from nearby Lydney with stables in Somerset has enjoyed a fine selection of big winners at the Cheltenham Festival. He also boasts four Gold Cup winners and has been the leading trainer at the Festival on five occasions.
Racing legend Ruby Walsh retired last year, having extended his all-time tally to 59 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, riding Klassical Dream to victory in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Thankfully for Irish hopes, Barry Geraghty remains active as the second-most successful jockey with 38 winners in the saddle. In 2019 Geraghty won the Novices Chase with Defi De Seuil and the Pertemps Hurdle with Sire De Berlais, so he’ll be expecting to ride more winners in 2020.
Another key Irish jockey will be Paul Townend, who won the Arkle Challenge Trophy with Duc des Genievres 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Al Boum Photo. After the retirement of Ruby Walsh, Townend became the number one jockey within the Mullins yard, which means he has the first choice pick of the best horses to ride.
The most successful British jockey at the Cheltenham Festival was Tony McCoy from Northern Ireland, who rode 31 winners during his illustrious career before retiring, with Uxizandre his last in the 2015 Ryanair Chase. This leaves Richard Johnson with 21 winners as the next best currently active jockey, with a record that includes two Gold Cup triumphs. However, Johnson is facing a race against the clock after suffering a broken arm in January.
One of the most interesting British jockeys to watch in 2020 will be Nico de Boinville, who already has a number of key Cheltenham Festival wins under his belt, including the Gold Cup in 2015 on Coneygree. In 2019 he was the top jockey with three winners at the Festival, which means he will be riding several potential winners in races this year.
When it comes to the Prestbury Cup and the rivalry between trainers from Great Britain and Ireland, it has usually always been tight between the two countries. Great Britain won the trophy in 2014 and 2015, while the 2016 edition was a tie. Since then, Ireland have dominated in 2017 and 2018, aside from another tie in 2019 with 14 winners apiece. The British contingent will be keen to turn the tables around this year, although the Irish could have a slight advantage with their runners. Either way, it will be an exciting contest.