The National Hunt racing season has been back underway for around a month now, with the November Meeting at Cheltenham acting as the traditional curtain-raiser for the British jumps campaign. However, the festive period is when things start to get ramped up a notch.
The Kempton and Leopardstown Christmas meetings are the perfect prep places for the best horses from both sides of the Irish Sea, ahead of the Cheltenham and Grand National Festivals next year. Many of the top trainers will be braving the cold conditions and sending out their prized assets over the festive period.
That said, read on as we take a look at some of the Cheltenham Festival hopefuls to watch over the course of the next couple of weeks!
Epatante – Kempton: Christmas Hurdle
It may not be the highlight of Kempton’s fantastic Boxing Day card, with the prestigious King George VI Chase taking that honour. However, the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle is sure to still attract a lot of interest in the horse racing betting Betdaq and Epatante is the overwhelming favourite for the two-mile race.
The Nicky Henderson-trained horse was second in this race last year before faring no better than third in the Cheltenham and Punchestown Champion Hurdles, which were both won by a certain Honeysuckle.
The seven-year-old was tied for first in a dead heat with Not So Sleepy on his seasonal reappearance at Newcastle last month, and the pair will go head-to-head again in this race, with Henderson hoping Epatante can come out on top as he prepares for another crack at the Champion Hurdle — where he’ll face Honeysuckle again.
Moving onto King George, 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo is set to turn out at Kempton on Boxing Day. Last season’s Festival showpiece was tipped to be a two-horse race between two-time defending champion Al Boum Photo and A Plus Tard, but young jockey Jack Kennedy and Minella Indo swept into land a shock victory from 9/1.
It was always going to be difficult for the Henry de Bromhead-trained horse to replicate that glory this year. The eight-year-old was third on his seasonal reappearance in the Down Royal Champion Chase in October, which didn’t phase the Irish trainer too much, but he will be hoping to push on now as the season heats up and King George is the perfect place to do just that.
Rachael Blackmore will be in the saddle of Minella Indo again at Kempton, and after winning BBC World Sport Star last week, the 32-year-old’s fantastic year keeps getting better. Adding a King George victory to her CV after a great 12 months would be the icing on the cake.
A Plus Tard
Looking at the card for the Savills Chase at Leopardstown on December 28th, it has the potential to be one of the best contests this festive period of racing has to offer. A Plus Tard, Galvin, Al Boum Photo and Protektorat — all possible entries for the 2022 Gold Cup — could line up for starter’s orders at the Dublin racecourse.
It’s A Plus Tard we are going to focus on in this article though. Another great horse from de Bromhead’s yard, the seven-year-old is already as short-priced as 3/1 to win the Cheltenham showpiece and up against this opposition, he and Blackmore have the perfect opportunity to show the horse racing world why they are being so heavily favoured.
Second behind the aforementioned Minella Indo by little more than a length at Prestbury Park in March, A Plus Tard bounced back on his seasonal reappearances at Haydock last month. His name translates to English as ‘See You Later, and that was certainly the case in the Grade 1 Lancashire Chase as he romped home a huge 22 lengths clear of Royale Pagaille.
Energumene had a fantastic final season as a novice for top Irish trainer Willie Mullins last year, carrying on his unbeaten streak over fences with a couple of victories in a Beginners Chase and Novices Chase before stepping it up a notch and competing at Grade 1 level.
The jump up in class was no issue for the now seven-year-old though, as he won the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown by 10 lengths clear of Franco De Port before striding home 16 lengths adrift from Janidil in the Ryanair Novice Chase at Punchestown to wrap up the year — racking up a total length to victory tally for the season of over 50.
The Mullins-trained horse has kicked this season off with a win in the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase at Cork and he’s looking to extend his unbeaten chase record with another victory in the Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase at Leopardstown. He’s already tipped to challenge the great Shishkin in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, so that will be an interesting battle to watch come March.