Cheltenham Heroes Return with Mixed Results

Horses Jumping Fence at Cheltenham
Image Credit: Dan Heap, flickr

Heading into the Christmas period, the latest National Hunt campaign has delivered thrills and spills aplenty, as the action heats up ahead of the King George at Kempton before moving on to the big Spring Festivals. We are, of course, mainly referring to the Cheltenham Festival, which may still be a while away but is already generating plenty of discussion.

Adding fuel to the fires of those plotting their way to Prestbury Park in March has been a steady trickle of seasonal reappearances from those who tasted glory in the 14 Grade 1 events at Cheltenham 2023.

There will be a new name on the Mare’s Hurdle trophy this season following the retirement of Honeysuckle; Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Energumene is expected to miss the season through injury, whilst El Fabiolo, Marine Nationale, A Dream To Share, Sire Du Berlais, Constitution Hill (due to run in the rescheduled Fighting Fifth Hurdle) and Lossiemouth are yet to take to the track this term. However, that does leave six festival stars who have emerged from their summer break, and they have done so with varying degrees of success.

Off to a Flyer

Here are the contenders who’ve started in fine fettle and already look like real Cheltenham contenders.

Stage Star – 2023 Turners Novice Chase Winner

Of those to have reappeared, this Paul Nicholls-trained seven-year-old put in the standout performance when producing an exhilarating front-running display in the Paddy Power Gold Cup. He did threaten to undo all of his work when making a complete mess of the last, but that he still managed to build up a head of steam and pull four lengths clear at the line is the sign of a top-class performer.

This win took Stage Star’s record at Cheltenham to three wins from four starts, and if he turns up in the same form for the 2024 Ryanair Chase, he may well take some reeling in coming up the hill.

Stay Away Fay – 2023 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle Winner

This son of Shantou added to what was an excellent Cheltenham Festival for Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls when causing an 18/1 shock in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Chasing is the name of the game for this son of Shantou in the 2023/24 campaign, with the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase his most likely target.

A lot of water needs to flow under the bridge between now and March, but Stay Away Fay at least made a winning start over the larger obstacles when scoring on his chase debut in the Betway “Future Stars” Silver Bowl Novices’ Chase at Exeter. Relegated to third on the turn for home, he showed real tenacity and staying power to forge one and a half lengths clear at the line, with subsequent impressive Haydock winner Grey Dawning back in third.

An Encouraging Start

These runners have made positive if not exactly explosive starts and could be worth keeping an eye on.

Envoi Allen – 2023 Ryanair Chase Winner

The busiest horse on our list, Envoi Allen has already been out twice this season. Sent off favourite for the PWC Champion Chase, he underwhelmed when well beaten in third, but his effort in the Champion Chase at Down Royal was much more like it. Travelling with far more zest, he looked the winner everywhere but the line, only to be mugged late by Gerri Colombe. There’s no shame in that though, and this soon-to-be 10-year-old may yet add to his festival haul.

Exploding onto the scene to land the Champion Bumper in 2019, Envoi Allen returned to claim Ballymore gold in 2020 before tasting defeat for the first time in his career in the 2021 Marsh Novices’ Chase. He has never been as consistent since but managed third in the 2022 Champion Hurdle before bouncing right back to his best to master Shiskin in last season’s Ryanair. A defence of that crown will likely be the big target for this Cheltenham Festival specialist.

Work to Do

While plenty of Cheltenham contenders have already impressed this term, others have looked decidedly off-colour and need to up their game if they are going to compete in March.

Impaire Et Passe – 2023 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle Winner

Possibly the biggest burst bubble of the early season came with the defeat of the Willie Mullins-trained Impaire Et Passe in the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse when the five-year-old had no answers to the power-packed finish of Gordon Elliott’s Teahupoo.

Whilst that runners-up effort was undoubtedly disappointing for a horse touted as a potential Champion Hurdle contender, fans possibly shouldn’t be too downhearted. There were, after all, 12 lengths back to the third that day, and runners from this yard often come on considerably for their seasonal reappearance. A dual Grade 1 winner in his Novice campaign, he remains one of the most feasible threats to Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle.

The Real Whacker – 2023 Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase Winner

This Patrick Neville-trained star provided one of the real feel-good stories of the 2023 Festival when repelling the massed ranks of the most powerful yards in the business in a sizzling edition of the Brown Advisory and, to date, remains the only horse to finish in front of Gold Cup contender Gerri Colombe. The Ryanair or Gold Cup are the ultimate aims for this bold jumping trailblazer, but it is fair to say his season could have started a little better.

In fairness to the horse, it was always going to take a monumental performance to shoulder 12st to victory in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, but, with Stage Star hogging the limelight, the seven-year-old was never able to get into anything like his usual rhythm, before ultimately being pulled up after the third last. Mitigating factors emerged in the aftermath, with the horse struck during the race and finishing lame. Likely to move back into Graded company for his next outing, it is too soon to be writing him off.

Galopin Des Champs – 2023 Gold Cup Winner

Last but not least, the biggest winner from 2023: the Gold Cup hero Galopin Des Champs. Simply majestic when slamming Bravemansgame by seven lengths to erase the memory of his final flight disaster in the 2022 Turners Novices’ Chase, the Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old entered the season as the hot favourite to defend his title – fans being quick to forgive his defeat to Fastorslow in the Punchestown Gold Cup in April.

Galopin Des Champs supporters must now forgive two defeats to that Martin Brassil-trained rival, with Fastorslow again having too many guns for the Gold Cup King in the closing stages of the John Durkan Memorial Chase. At 2m3½ the trip was on the short side for Galopin Des Champs, but the same was true for FastorSlow, and the defending champ has a question to answer for now.