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Cheltenham Festival 2024 banker or bust: Galopin Des Champs in Gold Cup battle but State Man set for greatness

Galopin Des Champs won the Irish Gold Cup again at Leopardstown last month (PA)
Galopin Des Champs won the Irish Gold Cup again at Leopardstown last month (PA)

The Cheltenham Festival is almost upon us as one of horse racing’s most famous annual meets take centre stage once again.

Showcasing the very best that jump racing has to offer, the next four days at Prestbury Park will be full of the usual thrilling highs and lows, shocks and memorable moments.

Here, Standard Sport’s horse racing guru Malik Ouzia outlines which of the short-priced favourites in this week’s signature races should justify the hype and which could yet disappoint.

Champion Hurdle - State Man

A couple of weeks ago you could have made a strong case that State Man in the “without Constitution Hill” market might have been the biggest banker of the meeting. Ironically, with the defending champion out of the race, he now faces a slightly stiffer task in obliging in the main market, with one or two opportunists - namely Irish Point and Iberico Lord - re-routing.

Nonetheless, as State Man has dominated Ireland with a run of eight straight Grade 1 successes, plenty have remarked that without Constitution Hill on the scene, the seven-year-old would be talked of as a great in his own right. He should prove it this week.

Verdict: Banker

Mares’ Hurdle - Lossiemouth

A ready winner of the Triumph Hurdle at last year’s meeting, Willie Mullins’s mare has been trained with this day in mind ever since and was hugely impressive on her sole outing this season when hammering Love Envoi - runner-up in the 2023 Mares’ Hurdle - by nine-and-a-half lengths.

This will be the five-year-old’s first run at two-and-a-half miles, with her stamina yet to be proven - but is there anything else in the race good enough to put it under serious pressure?

Verdict: Banker

Gallagher Novices’ Hurdle - Ballyburn

The preview night circuit’s most tedious conversations revolved around this horse’s likely destination, with Mullins keeping everyone guessing until he finally confirmed this two-and-a-half mile contest as the target for what looks the most talented novice hurdler around.

Ballyburn would have been a warm fancy wherever he lined up but this certainly looks a weaker heat than Tuesday’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over two miles. Favourites have an excellent recent record in the race, with only a late plunge on Hermes Allen last year preventing a streak of four out of four for the jollies.

Verdict: Banker

State Man should claim Champion Hurdle glory without the great Constitution Hill (Niall Carson/PA Wire)
State Man should claim Champion Hurdle glory without the great Constitution Hill (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase - Fact To File

Comes in with an intriguing profile having skipped a novice hurdle campaign to go straight over fences after finishing second in last year’s Champion Bumper. Held in hugely high regard by trainer Mullins, who has chosen this three-mile option over the two-and-a-half mile on Thursday, his presumed target for much of the season.

Looks the most talented horse in the race but, up in trip for the first time, could be vulnerable to a dour stayer like Monty’s Star or Stay Away Fay, the latter of whom won last year’s Albert Bartlett at the meeting. Some good Mullins horses have been beaten in this race, too, most notably Allaho.

Verdict: Bust

Champion Chase - El Fabiolo

Unbeaten in six starts over fences, the seven-year-old is looking to confirm his place at the top of the two-mile division by completing the familiar transition from Arkle success to a first Champion Chase triumph 12 months on. Jumping has not always convinced but is yet to prove his undoing and showed his engine when powering clear of Jonbon up the hill last year.

That pair renew their rivalry in what has for much of the season been billed as a match-race, but Jonbon must bounce back from defeat and a poor round of jumping in the rearranged Clarence House last time out. Edwardstone’s reinvention as a front-runner could set the race up nicely.

Verdict: Banker

El Fabiolo is looking to beat rival Jonbon in the Champion Chase (Niall Carson/PA Wire)
El Fabiolo is looking to beat rival Jonbon in the Champion Chase (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Triumph Hurdle - Sir Gino

The Irish have held the strongest hand in the juvenile division in recent seasons, but Nicky Henderson’s runner looks to have a huge chance of bucking the trend to become the first British winner of this race in five years.

Unbeaten in three starts across England and France, and destroyed the highly-rated Burdett Road by 10 lengths on Trials Day to mark himself out as the best of the home team. The Dublin Racing Festival usually does the sorting job among the Irish, but no standout candidate emerged. The one question mark is the poor form of the Henderson yard and worrying weekend drift in the market.

Verdict: Banker

Gold Cup - Galopin Des Champs

Last year’s race looked to have left its mark on the winner when he was beaten on his next start at Punchestown and again on reappearance at the same track this season, but the eight-year-old roared back to form with a dominant win in the Grade 1 Savills Chase at Christmas.

Has since followed up with Irish Gold Cup success, though that means he has had a busy enough campaign - and certainly busier than planned at its outset.

Back-to-back Gold Cup winners do not come around too often and while Mullins has trained one recently in Al Boum Photo, those victories came off quieter preparations. Galopin’s dual Punchestown conquerer Fastorslow heads a fair crop of challengers, including the enigmatic but hugely talented Shishkin. At the price, in a race like this, he can be opposed.

Verdict: Bust

Back-to-back Gold Cup winners do not come around too often and while Mullins has trained one recently in Al Boum Photo, those victories came off quieter preparations

Mares Chase - Dinoblue

Has really put things together over the last 12 months, finishing last season with back-to-back handicap victories and carrying that form into graded company with two wins and a second (to El Fabiolo) this term. All of those runs came against the boys and looks to have the measure of her own sex on form, but trip is the question mark.

Steps up to two-and-a-half miles here having been campaigned as a speedy two-miler to this point, whereas Limerick Lace is a proven stayer and Allegorie De Vassy ran a cracker when just pipped in this last year. Punters have been burnt before: Dinoblue was a beaten favourite at each of the last two Festivals and plenty will see enough reason to take her on at skinny odds here.

Verdict: Bust