Paul Townend is a very short price to be the Top Jockey once again at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival. he may have lost out to Rachael Blackmore a year ago, but the stellar names he looks set to partner would make any rival shudder.
DYSART DYNAMO (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle)
The charade has begun, as it always does a week before the Cheltenham Festival. Where will Willie Mullins send his band of superstars. And for the love of god, please let it suit my ante-post ticket!
Willie Mullins may decide to run DYSART DYNAMO and Kilcruit in the Festival opener, with the pair holding obvious claims. Both have done their winning emphatically over two miles under rules recently, but neither would be out of place in either the Supreme or the Ballymore.
Dysart Dynamo fairly routed his field in Grade 2 company at Punchestown last time, while Kilcruit made all to win a maiden hurdle at Punchestown by 21l. It really may come down to a toss of a coin in terms of their respective destinations but at this stage, they both look well suited to the Supreme route.
Of the pair, the key ride for Paul Townend will be whoever Mullins nominates for the opening contest. If both trainer and jockey can get off to a rapid start, it will be ominous for any of their opposition throughout the week.
APPRECIATE IT (Champion Hurdle)
Very few horses would be capable of winning at the Cheltenham Festival after 364 days off the track.
Then again, Wille Mullins did so virtually every season with Quevega in the Mares’ Hurdle. Similarly, APPRECIATE IT’s stablemate Klassical Dream had been off for 487 days when storming clear at the Punchestown Festival last season.
This would be the greatest comeback of the lot, however. The Punchestown Stayers’ Hurdle was a top Grade 1 event, but the Champion Hurdle is a different prospect entirely. The two-mile speed event will not allow for any cobwebs affecting Appreciate It’s giant legs.
There’s also the small matter of his main rival. Honeysuckle has never lost. Then again, nor has Appreciate It over hurdles and he certainly looks out of the ordinary.
GAELIC WARRIOR (Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle)
The only horse not competing in a Grade 1 in this list, GAELIC WARRIOR may just be the most intriguing of the lot.
Winless in three starts in France, his preparation for this has been to stay in his undoubtedly luxurious Closutton confines. Purchased by Rich Ricci in January and transferred immediately for Mullins, his powder has been kept desert dry in the hope he can prove extremely well treated.
A line through his most recent effort at Auteuil last summer reads phenomenally well regarding his opening mark of 129. He was third in a three-year-old hurdle, with the fourth and the second filling the first two places in a French Grade 1 since.
There are often handicap blots and gambles pointed out long in advance of the Festival, but few in recent years have captured the imagination like this one. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll be one of the biggest certainties in the history of the meeting.
ENERGUMENE (Queen Mother Champion Chase)
After a near faultless effort from both horse and jockey in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, a penny may not have been enough for Paul Townend’s thoughts after Shishkin managed to overcome ENERGUMENE.
With Chacun Pour Soi also residing in a box nearby, it is not even 100% certain that the Tony Bloom owned eight-year-old will be Townend’s mount of choice. However, after such a gallant runner-up effort at Ascot, payback would taste so very sweet if he and Energumene could find a way to win.
It is worth remembering just how dominant he had been in all of his races in Ireland and though he has a slight tendency to correct to the right, his run at Ascot gives every hope that he’ll be a better traveller than Chacun Pour Soi. The shorter trip at Cheltenham and lack of other obvious pace angles could give him every chance of stealing a march before Shishkin can fully respond.
It will be no mean feat if they can manage it, but there’s unlikely to be a race Townend will want to win more all week. Energumene is the likelier horse upon whom he may smile in the aftermath.
GALOPIN DES CHAMPS (Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase/Turners Novices’ Chase)
Another for whom the target remains unidentified, GALOPIN DES CHAMPS has options in the 3m Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase or 2m4f Turners Novices’ Chase.
The vibrations from the Mullins camp have hinted that the shorter race, and a clash with the brilliant Bob Olinger, could well be their preferred choice. It is intermediate trips over which he has looked so phenomenally talented over fences to date.
The Grade 1 Ladbrokes Novice Chase at Leopardstown was cleaned up in effortless fashion, with the runner-up Master McShee a Grade 1 winner in his own right. Yet, nobody could land a blow and this horse’s extraordinary jumping reach makes him an exhilarating watch.
He did win over three miles as a novice hurdler though and a clash with Bravemansgame may not be as fearful as one with Bob Olinger. Either way, Townend may not be as excited as in the five minutes before Galopin Des Champs struts his stuff at Prestbury Park.
ALLAHO (Ryanair Chase)
The Ryanair Chase could end up being a one-horse show again, with last year’s winner ALLAHO a clear and odds-on favourite to win once more.
One slight snag is that Rachael Blackmore was aboard when Allaho pulverised his opposition in the race 12 months ago. However, Willie Mullins also happened to have Min in the race last year, whereas there will be no stablemate of remotely comparable quality in it this time around.
In terms of Allaho’s performances, he is in markedly superior form to when he arrived at this juncture last season. He made amends for a very disappointing reappearance in the John Durkan last term by winning under Patrick Mullins in December, while Townend could sit virtually motionless at Thurles in January.
The runner-up that day, as he was in the Ryanair last season, was Fakir D’oudairies, who has since won the Grade 1 Ascot Chase. There simply is nothing that can compete with Allaho’s level of from since this time last year and he should be one of the bankers of the meeting.
VAUBAN (Triumph Hurdle)
The Triumph Hurdle favourite for the majority of the season has been Fil Dor for Gordon Elliott, but VAUBAN readily deposed him after a storming success at the Dublin Racing Festival.
He is now vying for favouritism with Pied Piper, who had beaten him on their mutual hurdling debuts at the end of 2021. However, despite that, Vauban put the experience to good use and looked a top prospect when scoring at Leopardstown.
Rich Ricci has spoken of his relative lack of riches given he has owned the likes of Annie Power, Douvan and Vautour in the past, but picking this chestnut up from France could prove a masterstroke. He will be aiming only to get back to the top.
Vauban looks a solid enough stayer of this trip with a turn of foot and Paul Townend could well get Gold Cup day off to a flyer.
AL BOUM PHOTO (Cheltenham Gold Cup)
It would have meant a lot to Townend to be the first man to give Willie Mullins a Gold Cup when winning on AL BOUM PHOTO in 2019.
The pair went and did it again the following season, but could finish only third behind Henry De Bromhead’s star pair of Minella Indo and A Plus Tard in 2021. It is payback time now for the ten-year-old.
Willie Mullins had spoken at the start of the season about changing Al Boum Photo’s preparation for the Gold Cup, but such plans were clearly shelved. Whether due to any niggling injury or not, he was seen on his traditional trip to Tramore on New Year’s Day, winning, as ever, as he liked.
It may not have worked last season, but it has succeeded twice in the past and he remains comfortably young enough to be right in the thick of it again this season.