Gordon Elliott’s career reached a new milestone at Cheltenham 12 months ago when he took the top trainer award at the Festival.
“It will be hard to beat last year’s efforts,” concedes the 40-year-old, who expects to saddle “40-plus runners” over the four days in the bid to keep his crown.
Not many of that number feature in the meeting’s marquee events.
But Apple’s Jade is the hot favourite to back up her victory of 2017 in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, while Ireland expects Samcro to remain unbeaten by justifying skinny odds in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
And that’s not to mention the remarkable Cause Of Causes, who attempts to triumph at the fixture for the fourth year in a row when he defends his title in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase.
MENGLI KHAN — SUPREME NOVICES’ HURDLE, Tuesday (1.30)
Convincing winner of Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December but ran out at the second-last — held a one-length lead at the time — at Leopardstown over Christmas and readily outpointed by Willie Mullins’ Getabird at Punchestown last time.
ELLIOTT SAYS: I was slightly disappointed by his early career but he’s a huge, big horse who was always going to improve for time.
I was very impressed with Getabird at Punchestown, but I don’t think Mengli Khan was the horse we saw previously — the third and fourth horses were too close.
He looked a bit light after Punchestown but after a break he looks a different horse now and better ground will help.
I think it will be hard to beat Getabird but a few very shrewd judges tell me Willie’s horse is better going right-handed than left-handed, so I’m hoping that might help me.
NEWSBOY’S VERDICT: Looked set to take high rank among the two-mile rookies with his Royal Bond success, but his reputation has acquired a couple of unsightly dents since.
Hard to explain what happened when he crashed out at Leopardstown and the way he was brushed aside by Getabird suggests he will struggle to turn the tables, even with a 6lb turnaround in the weights.
APPLE’S JADE — OLBG MARES’ HURDLE, Tuesday (4.10)
Beat former stablemate Vroum Vroum Mag to lift the race 12 months ago, and four from four since.
After humbling her gender by 14 lengths at Punchestown last April, she has proved too strong for male opposition in all three outings this winter, beating the ill-fated Nichols Canyon in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse and Supasundae in Leopardstown’s Christmas Hurdle.
ELLIOTT SAYS: She absolutely loves a battle and she’s in great form — she’s like a bull at the moment. Last year she was a bit weak and had a few niggly problems but this year we’ve had a clear run.
If I made one mistake all year I’d say I should’ve run her in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Hindsight is a great thing — at the time Faugheen was still Faugheen — but when I look back I should’ve had her in that race.
I couldn’t be happier. She has been there and proven it — she needs no introductions or explanations — and hopefully she can do it again. I believe in going for the races at the Festival you can win, and the Mares’ Hurdle is the race I think she can win.
NEWSBOY’S VERDICT: Odds-on to back up her Mares’ Hurdle success of 12 months ago — owner Michael O’Leary rates her his best chance of a winner over the four days — and it’s not hard to see why.
Her Hatton’s Grace victory was from the 2017 Stayers’ Hurdle hero and Supasundae, her victim at Leopardstown last time, gave the form a boost when overpowering Faugheen for the Irish Champion Hurdle.
SAMCRO — BALLYMORE NOVICES’ HURDLE, Wednesday (1.30)
Cost £335,000 after scoring at Monksgrange point-to-point in April 2016 — and now unbeaten in six outings under rules.
Three-time bumper winner last season, he landed odds of 1-5 at Punchestown in October, following up by 12 lengths in a Grade 3 event over two and a half miles at Navan the following month.
Moved up to the highest level — and back to two miles — for the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last month, sauntering to a five-and-a-half-length margin.
ELLIOTT SAYS: He’s a big, good-looking horse — some horses just catch the eye, don’t they? — and he’s done everything right and impressively so far. Touch wood, we’ve had no problems.
The one thing on my mind going to Leopardstown was would he have enough pace against those good two milers? But halfway through the race he looked half asleep, taking it all in his stride. Nothing fazes him, he just does what he has to do.
He has still has to keep improving — Cheltenham is a big step up again — but he showed a lot of class at Leopardstown and he could be anything. The Ballymore is the right race for him. Hopefully, everyone will run away from him and go for the other races!
It will be the first time he has travelled for a race, and that can often be a big ask, too. We went over with Death Duty last year thinking he would win, but he never travelled and got very light over there. But Samcro is a big, laid-back horse and I don’t see it being a problem.
NEWSBOY’S VERDICT: Despite his connections’ efforts to keep the hyperbole under control, he travels from Co Meath weighed down with the ‘Irish banker’ tag for Cheltenham 2018.
His 32-length aggregate in three starts over hurdles — including in Grade 1 company last time — shows he’s a top-class novice with the promise of more to come.
But that is built into his odds for the two-and-a-half miler — in which he will take on promising rookies from the home team — and time
anoraks were squealing his Leopardstown victory was nothing special according to the clock.
CAUSE OF CAUSES — CROSS COUNTRY CHASE, Wednesday (4.10)
Added last year’s Cross Country Chase to scores in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup (2016) and National Hunt Chase (2015). Never got competitive over two miles and five furlongs at Leopardstown last month.
Tiger Roll, winner of the 2015 Triumph Hurdle and National Hunt Chase 12 months ago, finished a well-beaten fifth to Bless The Wings over Cheltenham’s cross-country course in December.
ELLIOTT SAYS: Cause Of Causes has won three at the Cheltenham Festival and finished second in a Grand National.
Cheltenham kindly let him have a school there last month and that will stand him in good stead. If you can go back and win at Cheltenham for four consecutive years that’s something else. Jamie Codd will ride him.
We also brought Tiger Roll to school over the obstacles and I was delighted with him. He’s another who comes alive at Cheltenham, he’s flying at home and I think he’ll run very well. Keith Donoghue is on board.
Bless The Wings also schooled, and as been placed at three Cheltenham Festivals and two Irish Nationals. Davy Russell takes the mount.
NEWSBOY’S VERDICT: With five Cheltenham Festival triumphs — and three podium finishes — between them, the three stablemates will be at their peak for their return to the Cotswolds.
Conditions at Leopardstown would have been no good to Cause Of Causes. Bless The Wings could go round blindfold and, while Tiger Roll didn’t shine here before Christmas, he’ll surely take a big step forward with more experience.
SQUOUATEUR — FULKE WALWYN KIM MUIR CHALLENGE CUP, Thursday (5.30)
Sent off the 5-1 favourite 12 months ago, he was making headway when unseating Jamie Codd at the third-last fence. A good third in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, he failed to match that effort over two miles and a furlong there in February.
ELLIOTT SAYS: Jamie rode him last year and he unseated him at the third-last when going very, very well.
His run the last day wouldn’t be good enough but it all just happened too quick for him and he’d have a good chance based on his run in the Paddy Power.
I think the Kim Muir is made for him and Jamie will ride — if you’re going for those races and you use those riders, to me it’s worth a stone.
NEWSBOY’S VERDICT: Let punters down when favourite for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle in 2016 — he finished seventh as the 9-4 market leader — and when capsizing last year.
Likely the step back in trip will work in his favour, but he’s yet to hit the target in nine attempts over fences, including when carrying punters’ money.
FARCLAS — TRIUMPH HURDLE, Friday (1.30)
Winner on the Flat in France before move to Ireland, and handed Grade 2 assignment on hurdles debut — at Leopardstown over Christmas — finishing a length and a quarter second to Espoir D’Allen.
Stepped up to the highest level on his second start over jumps, he went off at 3-1 for the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival, leading after two out but going under by a length and a quarter to the Willie Mullins-trained Mr Adjudicator.
ELLIOTT SAYS: He’s impressed me since joining the team. He’s had the two runs over hurdles and has run two very promising races — he seemed a bit green, ducking and diving around a bit.
I think he’s improving with every run and while he’ll need to improve again I don’t think there’s any more than a good jump between the best of the Irish juvenile hurdlers. We’re going to put a tongue tie on him for the first time. He doesn’t have a breathing problem, but I think it might help him a bit.
Apple’s Jade’s sister, Apple’s Shakira, looks the one they all have to beat, but he’s in very good form and I’m really looking forward to running him.
NEWSBOY’S VERDICT: Interesting he was pitched in high on debut — he emerged with plenty of credit — and took a step forward to claim the silver medal at the highest level last time.
Sure to continue progressing, but needs to in order to turn things round with Mr Adjudicator — and the home defence for the juvenile title also looks well up to scratch.