The must-watch race each day of the Cheltenham Festival
Every Cheltenham Festival race has a storyline, but we've picked out four top contests you simply cannot miss during a phenomenal week.
1.55, Tuesday, March 16, ITV/RTV
10-11 Shishkin, 9-4 Energumene, 7-1 Allmankind, 16-1 Franco De Port, 20-1 Captain Guinness, 33-1 bar
The key storylines
In one of the clashes of the week, expect a new chasing star to be crowned. This could prove the coronation of Shishkin, with the Nicky Henderson-trained seven-year-old out to follow in the footsteps of Seven Barrows superstars Altior and Sprinter Sacre in lifting this star-studded prize.
As with his two former stablemates, it has been a quiet yet tried-and-tested route to Cheltenham this season with Shishkin. Last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner destroyed inferior opposition on his chase debut at Kempton and in two Grade 2s at that track and, most recently, Doncaster.
However, this is far from a one-horse race and two top-level winners also have solid claims for success.
Willie Mullins looks to have the main threat to thwart Henderson's bid for a record seventh Arkle with Energumene. The seven-year-old remains an unexposed and highly exciting prospect and took the step up to Grade 1 level in his stride with an easy victory in the Irish equivalent in early February. Could he emulate the likes of Un De Sceaux, Douvan and Footpad in completing the Arkle double?
Discount Allmankind at your peril too. The headstrong five-year-old has been a revelation since switching to fences this season and also brings Grade 1-winning chase form to the table. Expect his quick, slick jumping to put his rivals' talents under extreme pressure throughout the race in a test of the best.
Nicky Henderson, trainer of Shishkin: "It was only three weeks ago Shishkin was odds-on and everyone said it was going to be boring but now we've got a real fight on with Energumene and I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick."
In a race that promises so much,Shishkin can come out on top. He was by far the best novice hurdler and, while this will be even tougher than his dramatic Supreme Novices' Hurdle victory a year ago, he is the one to beat. A high-class horse with the rare ability to settle yet quicken in an instant, he has been nursed along with this in mind and, unless events transpire against him, he can take another step towards chasing greatness.
1.20, Wednesday, March 17, ITV/RTV
11-4 Gaillard Du Mesnil, 7-2 Bob Olinger, 4-1 Bravemansgame, 7-1 Appreciate It, 16-1 Bear Ghylls, 20-1 bar
The key storylines
There will be no hiding place in this year's high-class running of the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, with all the leading intermediate-trip hopes set to clash as they bid to be crowned the champion of their division.
Such is the depth of this year's race that little can separate the three market protagonists, all of whom won Grade 1s in ultra-impressive fashion on their latest starts. Gaillard Du Mesnil shades the betting and took the step up from maiden to top-level company in his stride when successful at the Dublin Racing Festival last time.
However, he might not evenbe the top Irish hope in the contest. Could this be Bob Olinger? The Robcour-owned six-year-old jumped well and oozed class when landing the Lawlor's Of Naas Novice Hurdle in January and it is a route Envoi Allen took before Ballymore glory last year. Will he be able to emulate his new stablemate?
The Ballymore is one of few British Grade 1s Paul Nicholls has failed to win, but that could change courtesy of Bravemansgame.
The son of Brave Mansonnien was likened to Denman by his trainer following his Challow Hurdle success and looks a chaser in the making. Perhaps he will go oneplace better and banish the memories of the Tank's defeat in this contest 15 years ago.
Paul Nicholls, trainer of Bravemansgame: "He's one of our best chances. There are some good Irish challengers but this lad has done nothing wrong and keeps improving. He's done brilliantly this season but he'll be taking on the best of the best."
However the race pans out, you can be sure this will be an above-standard runningand it would be no shock if those three protagonists were to be top-class performers in time. But it is all about the now and out of the trio,Bob Olinger looks the slickest hurdler. His fast jumpingand natural speed could leave his rivals toiling.
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3.05, Thursday, March 18, ITV/RTV
100-30 Paisley Park, 7-2 Thyme Hill, 8-1 Sire Du Berlais, 12-1 Roksana, 14-1 Champ, Flooring Porter, 16-1 bar
The key storylines
Seconds out, round three. This season's bouts between Paisley Park and Thyme Hill have been thrilling, and their personal battle reaches its climax at Prestbury Park with the scoreslevel between the two protagonists with awin apiece.
Thyme Hill landed the first blow in November when running out an authoritative winner of the Long Distance Hurdle, but 2019 Stayers' hero Paisley Park roared back to his brilliant best with a last-gasp victory over his Newbury conqueror in the Long Walk Hurdle.
They have not been seen since that epic duel and preparations have not been interrupted, but there still will be no hiding place for both. Will Paisley Park return to the top of the division? Or will young pretender Thyme Hill get the luck in-running that eluded him at Cheltenham last year?
It is not just a two-horse race, with such strength and depth that if Lisnagar Oscar was to retain his title it would not be regarded as a surprise. Do not disregard Flooring Porter either, who romped to victory in an Irish Grade 1 last time.
Emma Lavelle, trainer of Paisley Park: "He's been great this year all round, so straightforward, and hopefully his troubles are behind him. There were concerns about where we would be this season, but he gave us so much confidence at Newbury and it was heartwarming to see his old desire and battle to win at Ascot. We'll have him spot on and we have nervous excitement, we're counting down the days."
Cheltenham has been the seen of some fine resurgences throughout history andPaisley Park can be the next memorable fairytale. While it was not his best run on RPRs last time, it was the character of that performance which stood out, overcoming trouble in running and turning on the afterburners to outbattle his rivals. Scarily,further improvement back to his brilliant best is not out of the question, which leaves him in pole position to avenge last year's defeat.
3.05, Friday, March 19, ITV/RTV
11-4 Al Boum Photo, 5-1 Champ, 6-1 A Plus Tard, 8-1 Royale Pagaille, 10-1 Kemboy, 14-1 Santini, Minella Indo, Frodon, Native River, 25-1 bar
The key storylines
He may not have truly captured the public's imagination, but Al Boum Photo stands on the cusp of history. The Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old has been the Gold Cup hero for the last two seasons, and will emulate Arkle and Best Mate if capturing jump racing's biggest prize for a third consecutive year.
As prep runs go, warming up for the stamina test that is the Gold Cup over 2m½f is unusual, but that was the route Nicky Henderson took with Champ, and last season's dramatic RSA winner delivered a fine run in second on his return in the Game Spirit. The nine-year-old, named after riding legend Sir Anthony McCoy, could give Al Boum Photo plenty to think about, along with stablemate Santini, who found Al Boum Photo only a neck too strong in the Gold Cup last year.
Henry de Bromhead is yet to win the Gold Cup, but he has a live contender this season with A Plus Tard. Winner of the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, the seven-year-old has mixed it with the very best in Ireland and would be a poignant winner in the well-known colours of Cheveley Park Stud, whose co-owner David Thompson died late last year.
Then there is the wildcard Royale Pagaille. Trained by Venetia Williams and owned by Rich and Susannah Ricci, the seven-year-old was able to begin the season in novice chase company but could end it by beating hardened Gold Cup campaigners. Could he emulate the achievements of Coneygree, who took a similar route to Gold Cup glory in 2015?
Willie Mullins, trainer of Al Boum Photo: "There are no negatives at this time and there have been no setbacks. He obviously has an engine and if he is able to go back and do it three times then I think he can sit up there with any of those greats. That is something we will worry about if he is able to do it."
To be the best, you have to beat the best. While there are fresh contenders in the mix this season, Al Boum Photo sets a high standard. He may not be the flashiest, but he is the perfect blend of talent and experience. Barring any mishaps, he can make it three Gold Cups in a row.
If you want moreon the 2021 Cheltenham Festival . . .