The clock is ticking down towards the Cheltenham Festival (10th – 13th March). And with each new round of declarations, we are beginning to get a sense of the narrative that will build in the lead up to 2020 event. While it’s almost impossible to predict what the big talking points will be after the Cheltenham Festival has wrapped up for another year, we do know that each year there is always a theme of seeking redemption at Prestbury Park.
Indeed, the biggest cheers from the Cheltenham crowd are reserved for fallen heroes who have managed to rekindle the flame. Think of Sprinter Sacré in the 2016 Champion Chase; Kauto Star regaining the Gold Cup in 2009; and, Annie Power redeeming her infamous fall in 2015 with a Champion Hurdle win the next year.
These are the moments that make Cheltenham great, and the stories of redemption that stay with us years later. Below we are going to look at three big names who head to Cheltenham 2020 with a point to prove, and who have a chance to remind us that they deserve to be mentioned among the very best:
Sent off as the overwhelming favourite in the Mares’ Hurdle in 2018 and the Champion Hurdle in 2019, Apple’s Jade disappointed both times. Gordon Elliott’s mare is something of an enigma, or perhaps it’s more apt to say that she is frustrating. All the talent in the world, and yet Apple’s Jade tends to disappoint punters when it really matters.
Still, the 8yo has plenty of time to make up for that, and we saw her back to her best when absolutely trashing a strong field in the Grade 1 Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle in late December. If you bet on Cheltenham online, you’ll find Apple’s Jade given odds of 7/1 for the Mares’ Hurdle (Ladbrokes) and 14/1 for the Stayers’ Hurdle (William Hill). The latter was suggested as more likely by owner Michael O’Leary.
However, there are two things to bear in mind. First, Apple’s Jade will likely run in the Dublin Festival in February, and a strong performance will shatter those odds. Secondly, O’Leary has threatened to retire the mare if she does not perform well. A conundrum for punters.
The one name guaranteed to lift the roof should he grab a victory at Cheltenham. When in his pomp in the middle of the 2010s, Faugheen was undoubtedly the best hurdler around. In the last few years, he has flirted with getting back to his best, but he has also run several races which seemed to feel like his final bow. Now at the grand old age of 12, Faugheen has been sent chasing by Willie Mullins.
Faugheen was impressive on his chasing debut in the autumn, although punters reserved judgment as it was a low-key event. But it was Boxing Day in Limerick when there was a hint of something special on the cards, as Faugheen took a Grade 1 novice chase in a pulsating battle with Samcro.
Could “The Machine” weave his magic one last time over Prestbury Park? He has been made the favourite for the Marsh Novices’ Chase (formerly JLT), with Unibet offering standout odds of 9/1. If he does win, there is a fair chance we will likely see the joyous tears that greeted Sprinter Sacré’s win in 2016. It would be a fitting way to bow out for one of the most popular horses of the 21st century.
Yes, one could argue that world-record-setting, four-time Cheltenham winner Altior has nothing to prove. And, if Nicky Henderson’s superstar retired now, he should still be regarded as one of the all-time greats. However, the fact that Altior lost a race for the first time in four years in the autumn has caused punters to question what was once unquestionable.
Altior will appear in the Betfair Exchange Chase at Newbury next month, which should give us a better indication of his chances at Cheltenham in March. He has been placed as the 3/1 favourite for the Champion Chase with a host of bookmakers, but Defi Du Seuil (7/2) and Chacun Pour Soi (4/1) are right behind him in the ante-post betting.
One feels that there is no middle ground for Altior at this year’s Festival: Either he stamps his authority all over the Champion Chase, making us look foolish for having ever doubted him. Or, he disappoints, and Nicky Henderson starts winding down his career.