Will Cheltenham Rigours Affect Grand National Hopefuls?

Cheltenham Festival is in the book and has provided great entertainment as well as some surprise results in the big events. Native River took the major prize from the Festival, delivering a brilliant performance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup to beat out the favourite Might Bite.

The duel between the two horses was the highlight of the four-day event, although there were a number of quality outings, including victories for Altior and Buveur D’Air. Many competitors went into their respective races without performing in the 2017/18 National Hunt season or with little time out on the track.

It did not affect their performance when it mattered the most, highlighting that quality can rise to the top even without competing at the highest level for a period of time. It could simply be a case-by-case basis that some horses perform better when in a rhythm.

A study demonstrated that Brown Pete and Miami Gator fared better for having plenty of action under their belts ahead of an important meet. However, Cheltenham has bucked the trend and may cause trainers to think in the near future about resting their charges. We’ll now break down this theory using examples from Cheltenham and see how it could affect the Grand National, as the leading figures in the sport have a month to prepare their charges for the elite race.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

Native River pulled off a brilliant run to defeat Might Bite in the Gold Cup. It was a two-horse race from the off as the duo pulled ahead of the rest of the field and jostled for control all the way to the line. Colin Tizzard’s charge won the day as he found the extra burst of speed down the stretch to pull away from Might Bite, winning the event by four-and-a-half lengths ahead of his compatriot.

The Irish horse finished third in the Gold Cup last season as Sizing John had the quality in the final furlong to claim the victory. Tizzard opted to keep the eight-year-old out of action for the rest of the campaign and did not put forward for action in opening months of the 2017/18 National Hunt season. His first race of the term came in February in a limited field at the Denman Chase, which he won with ease ahead of Cloudy Dream at Newbury.

With four weeks rest ahead of Cheltenham Festival, he was in prime form to record the victory by producing a flawless display. His lack of preparation did not affect his performance, racing only once compared to the two heavy runs that Might Bite put forward earlier in the campaign to triumph at the Future Stars Intermediate Chase and the King George VI Chase.

Whether the effort put in earlier in the campaign had an impact on Might Bite remains to be seen. Nicky Henderson may alter his approach with the bay gelding for next term to limit his action. However, there is a cautionary tale to this prospect as Sizing John raced frequently during the 2016/17 National Hunt campaign before his triumph in the Gold Cup. The judgement is solely on the trainer to determine whether their charge needs rest or rhythm heading into the crucial contests.

Grand National

Looking ahead to the National at Aintree, there are several horses that competed at Cheltenham that will be vying for the crown. The success was a mix, with a number of notable failures among the leading contenders for the title. Total Recall was the favourite for the race before his appearance at the Gold Cup. Willie Mullins took a gamble putting his charge forward for the event, with the National four weeks away. The Irish horse had three races under his belt in the current season before entering the fray, including his triumph at the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase. His final victory ahead of the Gold Cup came five weeks prior at the William Fry Handicap Hurdle. As a result, Total Recall has form and rhythm heading into the contest. However, Mullins’ charge fell three fences from the end of the race without being in contention for the crown. The Irish horse was seemingly unhurt in the incident but his first fall since 2016 has affected his odds for the National, dropping him behind Blaklion.

Nigel Twiston-Davies opted not to send his charge to Cheltenham. Therefore, Blaklion will have had two months’ rest before he takes on the ultimate challenge of the Grand National. The bay gelding has been put through his paces this season, racing three times over the course of the term. He has placed in the top three in all three events, including his victory at the Becher Handicap Chase. His performance at Aintree would have given the signal to his trainer that the National rather than Cheltenham was his preferred venue. He competed in tough conditions as one of three horses at the Grand National Trial Handicap Chase at Haydock Park, finishing second behind Yala Enki.

Last year’s champion, One For Arthur also did not compete at Cheltenham, therefore, the resting approach from Twiston-Davies may suit Blaklion just fine in his quest for glory. Cause of Causes, The Last Samuri and Total Recall all ventured into Cheltenham and all failed to record victories. It may have hindered a potential charge for the National or, on the other hand, it may well have fine-tuned their rhythm for the contest to catch Blaklion cold at Aintree.