Sunday 2 April 2023

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle


The Ballymore Novices' Hurdle is a Grade 1 hurdle run over 2 miles and 5 furlongs on the Old Course at Cheltenham in March. As the name suggests, the race is restricted to horses, aged four years and upwards, who start the current season without a win over hurdles.

The Ballymore Novices' Hurdle was inaugurated, as the Aldsworth Hurdle, in 1974 and has been known by various titles – including the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle and the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle – for sponsorship purposes down the years. Property developer Ballymore began its second spell of sponsorship in 2018 but, nowadays, the race is officially registered as the Baring Bingham Novices' Hurdle, in honour of William Baring Bingham, who owned the racecourse at Prestbury Park until 1905 and began the National Hunt Festival.

Willie Mullins, who has been leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival nine times, is also the leading trainer in the history of the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, with five winners. The Co. Carlow handler saddled Fiveforthree (2008), Mikael d'Haguenet (2009), Faugheen (2014), Yorkhill (2016) and Sir Gerhard (2022). At this still early stage of the 2022/23 National Hunt season, Mullins dominates the ante-post market for the 2023 renewal, which is scheduled for 1.20pm on Wednesday, March 15.

The unbeaten Walk In The Park gelding Facile Vega, who won the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival, currently heads the ante-post lists at 4/1. However, Mullins also has James's Gate, Gaelic Warrior and Redemption Day in the first half a dozen in the ante-post betting, so further success for one or other of his staying novices looks a distinct possibility. Of course, there are countless more possibilities, so it will be fascinating to see how the division develops in the coming months.

Sunday 5 February 2023

Cleeve Hurdle

The Cleeve Hurdle is a Grade 2 hurdle race run over 2 miles, 7 furlongs and 213 yards on the New Course at Cheltenham in January. Open to horses aged five years and upwards, the race is scheduled for Festival Trials Day, some six weeks or so before the Cheltenham Festival and, as such, is considered a major trial for the Stayers' Hurdle.

The Cleeve Hurdle was inaugurated, as the Bishops Cleeve Hurdle, in 1983, taking its name from the village of Bishop's Cleeve, which stands at the foot of Cleeve Hill – the highest point in the Cotswolds – north of Cheltenham. Initially contested over 2 miles and 4 furlongs, the race was lengthened in 1989, again in 1994 – when the title was shortened – and again, to its current distance, in 2005. The Cleeve Hurdle was promoted straight from Listed to Grade 1 status in 1991, but demoted to Grade 2 status in 2005. At that stage, the race as good as took the place of the Premier Hurdle, which was previously run over a similar distance at Haydock Park on Peter Marsh Chase Day.

Prior to 2005, Venetia Williams completed a notable hat-trick with Lady Rebecca (1999, 2000, 2001) but, since the race was downgraded, Emma Lavelle and Paul Nicholls also saddled three winners apiece. Nicholls saddled Big Buck's (2009, 2012) and Saphir Du Rheu (2015), while Lavelle was successful with Paisley Park (2019, 2020, 2022).

Paisley Park, who won the Stayers' Hurdle as a seven-year-old, may be a 33/1 chance for the stayers' championship this time around, but has been far from disgraced in the last two renewals. He could yet prove a force to be reckoned with in the Cleeve Hurdle by the time Saturday, January 28, 2023 rolls around, although his trainer has said, 'He owes us nothing and we’ll let him tell us what he wants to do.'

Monday 2 January 2023

Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle

The Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle is a Grade 1 hurdle race run over 2 miles, 3 furlongs and 200 yards on the Old Course at Cheltenham in March. As the name suggests, the race is restricted to mares, aged four years and upwards, and is currently scheduled as the fifth race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.

The Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle is a relatively recent addition to the Festival programme, having been inaugurated in 2008, although it was switched from the New Course to the Old Course, and from the last day to the first, the following year. Initially a Grade 2 contest, the race was promoted to Grade 1 status in 2015.

The Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle is officially registered as the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle, in memory of the late David 'The Duke' Nicholson, who died of a heart attack in 2006. Nicholson was a successful National Hunt jockey and an even better trainer; he saddled 17 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, including the 1988 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Charter Party, and won the National Hunt Trainers' Championship twice, in 1993/94 and 1994/95.

Willie Mullins is the most successful trainer in the history of the Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle, thansk in no small part to the prolific Quevaga, who won six consecutive renewals between 2009 and 2014. Mullins added Glens Melody (2015), Vroum Vroum Mag (2016) and Benie Des Dieux (2018) for a total of nine wins altogether. Looking forward to the 2023 renewal, due off at 4.10pm on Tuesday, March 14, former champion hurdler Epatante, trained by Nicky Henderson, currently heads the ante-post betting, but is closely attended by the promising Brandy Love, trained by Willie Mullins.

Friday 23 December 2022

Paul Nicholls

Paul Nicholls announced his arrival at the top table of British National Hunt trainers at the 1999 Cheltenham Festival, where he saddled three winners – Flagship Uberalles in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, Call Equiname in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and See More Buisness in the Gold Cup – to collect the leading trainer award for the first time.

Following the turn of the century, he went on to dominate for a period, winning the leading trainer award five more times, in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. He has yet to do so again but, with 46 winners to his name, Nicholls remains the third most successful trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival.

Nicholls has won the Queen Mother Champion Chase six times, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Stayers' Hurdle four times apiece and the Champion Hurdle once. His most famous Cheltenham winner was Kauto Star, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, in 2007 and 2009, on the latter occasion becoming the first horse to regain his title after being beaten by stable companion Denman in the 2008 renewal. Other notable Nicholls-trained Festival winners have included Big Buck's, who won the Stayers' Hurdle a record four years running in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and Master Minded, who record back-to-back victories in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2008 and 2009.