Four 2021 Cheltenham Festival Clashes To Look Forward To
Veteran horse racing journalist Donn McClean looks ahead to the most anticipated battles at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.
Epatante v Honeysuckle (Champion Hurdle)
Epatante is the reigning champ. JP McManus’ mare was brilliant in winning the race last season, she showed a sparkling turn of foot to come clear of her rivals, thereby becoming just the third mare to win the Champion Hurdle since Dawn Run won it in 1984. Epatante was beaten in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on her most recent run, but that was a rare blip, and you know that trainer Nicky Henderson will have her at concert pitch next Tuesday.
She faces a formidable rival in Honeysuckle though. Henry de Bromhead’s mare has never been beaten. She has run in 11 races in her life, once in a point-to-point and 10 times over hurdles, and she has won 11 times.
A dual Hatton’s Grace Hurdle winner, and winner of the Mares’ Hurdle at last year’s Cheltenham Festival over two and a half miles, Kenny Alexander’s mare proved that she was top class too over two miles when she won the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last time by 10 lengths. That was probably the best performance of her life, and we still don’t know where the ceiling of her ability lies.
These two are two of the best mares that we have seen jumping hurdles in years, and it should be a fascinating clash.
Zanahiyr v Tritonic (Triumph Hurdle)
Winner of a maiden over a mile and a half on the flat, Zanahiyr looked good in winning his maiden hurdle at Ballinrobe in October on his hurdling bow, and he looked even better when he won a Grade 3 juvenile hurdle at Fairyhouse in November. The pace was fast that day, and he quickened impressively off it, clocking a good time in the process.
He proved that he could operate off a sedate pace too when he won the Grade 2 juveniles’ hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival. He is a hugely exciting recruit to hurdling.
Tritonic didn’t make his debut over hurdles until a month after Zanahiyr’s latest run, when he stayed on well to just catch Casa Loupi in a juveniles’ hurdle at Ascot at the end of January. He progressed significantly from there to win the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton, beating the same Casa Loupi by 10 lengths.
Alan King’s horse was a high-class handicapper on the flat. He finished second in the Golden Gates Handicap at Royal Ascot last June, after which the flat handicapper gave him a rating of 99. He should be better suited by Cheltenham than he was by Kempton last time, so he should step forward again from his Adonis Hurdle win. This one could go all the way to the wire.
Kilcruit v Sir Gerhard (Champion Bumper)
Kilcruit looked seriously impressive in winning the Grade 2 bumper at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival last month. They went fast from early that day, and Willie Mullins’ horse moved into the race easily under a motionless Patrick Mullins, before coming clear of his rivals inside the final furlong.
He beat Letsbeclearabout it by 12 lengths, which is seven and a half lengths more than the margin by which Sir Gerhard beat Gavin Cromwell’s horse at Navan in December. On that basis, Sir Gerhard obviously has ground to make up with Kilcruit, but it may not be as simple as that. They went very fast in the Leopardstown race that Kilcruit won, there is a chance that he was slightly flattered by the visual impression that he created that day.
Also, Sir Gerhard is a hugely talented individual. Winner of his only point-to-point, he is two for two in bumpers, and he too was impressive in beating Letsbeclearabout it on heavy ground at Navan on his latest run. He should progress from that, and he should be even better on the better ground that he will surely get at Cheltenham.
Easysland v Tiger Roll (Cross-Country Chase)
Tiger Roll is a phenomenon. A dual Grand National winner, a household name, the first horse since Red Rum to win two Grand Nationals, he also has a fantastic record at the Cheltenham Festival. He has won a Triumph Hurdle, a National Hunt Chase and two Cross-Country Chases there.
The Gigginstown House horse suffered Cheltenham Festival defeat last year when he could only finish second behind Easysland in the Cross-Country Chase. He was beaten by 17 lengths by the French horse, but he struggled on the soft ground.
Easysland was devastating last year. JP McManus’ horse moved to the front as they raced to the water jump, 10 fences from home, and he wasn’t headed thereafter. Tiger Roll gave chase, but he just couldn’t reel the French horse in.
Both horses were beaten on their respective most recent runs. Easysland was well beaten in the Cross-Country Chase at Cheltenham’s November meeting, but he was conceding weight to all his rivals, except Tiger Roll. The Cross-Country race at the Cheltenham Festival is not a handicap, not any more. They will all race off level weights. Easysland will be 22lb better off with the winner Kingswell Theatre, and he will be 21lb better off with the third Potters Corner.
Given a break after that run, Tiger Roll returned in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan last month, when he finished last of six, beaten 65 lengths by the winner Beacon Edge. He ran better than the bare form of the run suggests though. He travelled well through his race, he travelled well to the home straight, and he just tired from there as the heavy ground and lack of a recent run probably took their toll.
This race has been the target for both horses since the start of the season, and it is another intriguing clash.
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