Donn's Articles » Five to Follow at Cheltenham

Five to Follow at Cheltenham

With the Cheltenham Festival just a week away, here are five names who might make an impact for the first time at the four-day extravaganza:

1. Paul Townend

Okay, so Paul Townend isn’t exactly new, but he is a kid, and he most certainly is on the block, that is if you consider the leader of the jockeys’ championship to be on the block. But have a look at his cv and spot the glaring omission: Cheltenham Festival winner.

It is difficult to believe that Townend is still just 20 years old, or that, when he rode Hurricane Fly to win the Royal Bond Hurdle in November 2008, he was riding in his first Grade 1 race. Not only does it seem like he has been around for ages, but his style in the saddle, the confidence that he exudes, belies his youthfulness. Townend is not Ruby Walsh yet, but he is Ruby-esque in the extreme. His passiveness in the saddle, do as little as you can for as long as you can, is Ruby Walsh all over.

This could be the year that Townend breaks his Cheltenham Festival duck. Of course, a lot depends on what Willie Mullins runs where, and on how Ruby Walsh does the Mullins-Nicholls split, but Townend could ride Golden Silver in the Champion Chase, either Quel Esprit or Mikael D’Haguenet in the RSA Chase, Final Approach or Blackstairmountain in the County Hurdle, Gagewell Flyer or Allee Garde in the Albert Bartlett, So Young or Day Of A Lifetime or Zaidpour in the Neptune or the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, depending on how they fall, as well as Unaccompanied for Dermot Weld in the Triumph Hurdle. And Hurricane Fly? Mr Mullins ain’t sayin’.

2. John ‘Shark’ Hanlon

Ask a cross-section of Irish racegoers what Shark Hanlon’s Christian name is, and a large percentage will look at you blankly. Ask them if he can train racehorses though, and they will nod knowingly. Why do you think he is called Shark?

The fact that his name can trace its roots back to a hurling pitch rather than a racecourse is neither here nor there – why would you ever let the truth get in the way of a good yarn? – because Hanlon is as sharp and as wily as they make them. He resisted the temptation to bring Luska Lad to Cheltenham last year, even though he won the Grade 2 Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park as a novice in February, and he said a long time ago that his hugely exciting dual Grade 2 winner Hidden Cyclone wouldn’t be travelling this year, that he was a staying chaser for the future.

Therefore, another Cheltenham Festival virgin, the fact that Hanlon is allowing Leopardstown winner Star Neuville take his chance in the Cheltenham Bumper, his only runner for the week, with AP McCoy tentatively booked, should be treated with the significance that it deserves.

3. Gordon Elliott

One of the most upwardly mobile young trainers in Ireland, Gordon Elliott has already trained a Grand National winner and achieved legendary status in Perth, but he has yet to lead one in to the amphitheatre that is the winner’s enclosure at the Cheltenham Festival. This year, he has assembled his strongest ever team, headed by Jessies Dream (RSA Chase), Chicago Grey (National Hunt Chase), Dirar (County Hurdle), Beautiful Sound (Kim Muir possibly) and Plan A (Fred Winter Hurdle), and backed up by a strong supporting cast.

4. Moyglare Stud

A name more synonymous with Flat racing than National Hunt, it has taken Dermot Weld 101 years to convince Moyglare supremo Walter Haefner to allow him pop one of his horses over a couple of obstacles, and the result has been quite predictable. A dual winner on the Flat over a mile, Unaccompanied is now two for two over hurdles, and the performance that the Danehill Dancer filly put up in winning the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown last month marked her down indisputably as the best juvenile hurdler in Ireland.

Not only will Unaccompanied be Moyglare Stud’s first runner at Cheltenham when she lines up for the Triumph Hurdle on Friday, she is their first horse ever to race over hurdles. It is 21 years since Dermot Weld sent out Rare Holiday to win the Triumph Hurdle, and the Panama hats will be thrown in the air if Unaccompanied can bridge that gap.

5. Montjeu

Montjeu has never sired a winner at the Cheltenham Festival. More than that, he has never sired a winner at any Cheltenham meeting. The sire of Motivator, Authorized, Fame And Glory and Hurricane Run, a top class sire of middle-distance performers on the Flat, this could be his Cheltenham year.

He has gone close in the past – the ill-fated Alexander Severus travelled like a winner to the final flight in the 2009 Fred Winter Hurdle and Noble Prince was hampered at the second last flight last year when holding every chance in the County Hurdle – but he has never had a monster like Hurricane Fly flying his flag in the Champion Hurdle, with Noble Prince as a solid backup plan in the Jewson. Remember they said that Sadler’s Wells couldn’t sire a Derby winner before Galileo came along?

They also said the world was Flat.

© The Racing Post, 8th March 2011