While the likes of Gigginstown and Rich Ricci have become a familiar presence in the Cheltenham winners’ enclosure in recent years, no-one is more successful than JP McManus when it comes to owners at the Festival. His first win came in 1982 and 65 more have followed, and he was again leading owner last year with seven wins – including four in one day. His most fruitful association has been with the Champion Hurdle – which he has won a record nine times, including three with the legendary Istabraq – and he has a leading chance of further success via last year’s winner Epatante. Here are the horses most likely to carry his famous green-and-gold colours to victory this year.
Epatante – Unibet Champion Hurdle
McManus is going for an incredible fifth successive Champion Hurdle win and he has a great chance of achieving it with Epatante. Last year’s winner returns to defend her crown after a disappointing run in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and she faces a pair of significant new dangers in Honeysuckle and Goshen. But trainer Nicky Henderson has put the Kempton flop down to a back problem, for which Epatante has been treated, and she had previously looked as good as ever when winning the Fighting Fifth on her return. If she can reproduce her performance from last year, she is sure to be involved at the finish.
Champ – WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup
Champ has been in the Gold Cup reckoning ever since storming up the hill to land last season’s RSA Chase, but it was not until 11 months later that he got a chance to enhance his claims, as a breathing problem delayed his comeback. When he did return, it was for an unconventional prep over two miles in Newbury’s Game Spirit Chase, in which he ran a race full of promise when second to Sceau Royal, a specialist at the shorter trip. That run prompted bookmakers to cut him into second favourite behind dual winner Al Boum Photo, and he gives McManus a great chance of adding to the solitary Gold Cup win he enjoyed with Synchronised in 2012.
Elimay- Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase
McManus has made surprisingly little impact in the existing two mares’ hurdles at the Festival, but he has an outstanding chance of landing the first running of this chase with Elimay. She was already favourite for the Mares’ Chase before easing to an impressive win from Shattered Love – one of her main Festival rivals – at Naas on her final prep race, and the subsequent news that stablemate and potential opponent Benie Des Dieux misses the Festival further strengthened her claims. Her trainer Willie Mullins has won 14 of the 18 runnings of mares’ races at the Festival and could be about to begin an era of domination in this one with this exciting prospect.
Easysland – Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase
Tiger Roll won the Cross-Country in 2018 and 2019 but young pretender Easysland thumped him by 17 lengths for a hugely impressive win in last year’s renewal. The French raider disappointed over the cross-country course at Cheltenham’s November meeting and has to bounce back from that. But he remains a strong favourite against opposition again headed by Tiger Roll, who has serious questions to answer after showing very little in three outings this season. McManus will likely have his focus on bigger targets at the Festival but, on paper, Easysland is probably his best chance of a victory.
Dickie Diver – National Hunt Chase
McManus has won the National Hunt Chase a record six times and he could make it seven with Dickie Diver. After missing the whole of last season, he showed promise on his debut over fences when second in a Newbury novice at Christmas and should come on a lot for that first run in 655 days. That sole chase run leaves him short of experience against some streetwise rivals in the National Hunt Chase, but his hurdling form – including a fourth in the 2019 Albert Bartlett and a close second to subsequent Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar prior to that – boosts his claims.
Sire Du Berlais – Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle
Sire Du Berlais leads the Irish challenge in the Stayers’ Hurdle against the big two in the betting, Paisley Park and Thyme Hill. The major plus for him is his Festival form, as he has won the last two runnings of the Pertemps Final over the Stayers’ course and distance – and he put up a better performance on the clock last year than Lisnagar Oscar did when winning the Stayers’ on the same card. He has since scored at Grade 2 level and ran a fair enough race when third in Leopardstown’s Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle, in which the winner was gifted a lead at the start that allowed his rider to control the race. Back in the familiar surroundings of the Festival, he should go close.
Roseys Hollow – Parnell Properties Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle
The Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle is an open-looking contest with several contenders vying for favouritism. Among them is Roseys Hollow, who boosted her claims with a career-best Grade 3 win at Fairyhouse when she had Royal Kahala and Gauloise – two of her main rivals for this Festival race – behind her in second and third. Those two had each won their previous three starts and that improved performance from the winner puts her very much in the mix for this.