Horse racing, like all sports, is invariably improved as a spectacle when intense rivalries come to the fore. It adds extra context to a victory, more meaning to a defeat, and delights the fans who have paid the ticket money.
In national hunt racing, nothing quite compares to the Cheltenham Festival (12th-15th March), with 28 races across different disciplines deciding who are the champions of jumps racing. It’s the pinnacle of the national hunt season in Britain and Ireland. In light of that, we have picked out some of the best rivalries for you to keep an eye on:
Altior vs Footpad
The undisputed king of chasers vs the pretender to the throne, the Champion Chase will be one of the most anticipated races if Footpad decides to take a shot at the champ, the mercurial Altior. The latest Cheltenham betting shows Altior is very much favoured, with best odds of just 4/7 coming from Betfair. Footpad, meanwhile, is as big as 9/1 with the same bookie. This pair has been rated as the two best chasers on the planet. Altior has proven his credentials time and time again, it’s up Footpad to turn potential into silverware.
Five-Way Battle for the Arkle Chase
Indeed, Footpad (2018) and Altior (2017) were clear favourites for the Arkle in previous years, but 2019 looks to be a different matter altogether. There are no less than five horses who have split bookmakers’ opinions in terms of betting odds. From a neutrals’ point of view, that could deliver a thrilling race. Personal preference is for the excellent Kalashnikov, available at 7/1 with Bet365, but Lalor (5/1), Le Richebourg (11/2), Dynamite Dollars and Cilaos Emery (both 13/2) show that it’s not a foregone conclusion. Could be the race of the Festival.
Willie Mullins vs Gordon Elliott
Rivalries are not just limited to those on the track, the two most prolific trainers in recent years at Cheltenham have been Irish maestros Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott. The pair took no less than 15 wins at the Festival last year, over half of the 28 races. Elliott has been crowned top trainer for the last two years, ending years of Mullins’ dominance at the very top of the charts. However, there is a real feeling the latter can strike back this year.
Presenting Percy vs Native River
The winner of last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, Native River, will take on the ante-post favourite Presenting Percy in the biggest race of the Festival. Native River is given odds of 3/1 by Bet365, whereas the best price available for Native River is 11/2 with Betfair. It’s incredible difficult to win back to back Gold Cups, on a par with achieving the Triple Crown, so Native River is up against history. Each horse is not without its flaws, however, so don’t rule out some others playing spoiler. Clan Des Obeaux, who won the King George VI Chase in late-December is a cool 10/1 with Betfair and the veteran Thistlecrack – an absolute beast of a horse – is 16/1 to rip up the history books and become the oldest winner of the Gold Cup in 50 years.
Britain vs Ireland
The rivalry that goes back much further than the Festival. Each year thousands of Irish fans travel across the sea to Cheltenham, ready to cheer on their heroes and engage in (friendly) rivalry with their British neighbours. As hinted above, the Irish have been on top in recent years, with trainers from the Emerald Isle taking most of the races. However, with the likes of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson’s yards in great form, don’t be surprised if the British trainers have a bigger impact this year.