With the turn of the new year, the 2023 renewal of the Cheltenham Festival is starting to appear on the horizon.
The wealth of high-quality jumps racing in the United Kingdom and Ireland over the festive period gave us a better insight into many of the meeting’s ante-post markets and the entries have since come out for some of the Festival’s biggest races — including the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Champion Hurdle, the Ryanair Chase and the Gold Cup.
It’s the former of those four championship races we are going to focus on today though. Until last year, the Champion Chase was the only major Cheltenham Festival contest missing from Willie Mullins’ long list of winners at Prestbury Park. However, Energumene changed that — winning the two-mile Grade 1 by over eight lengths — and the nine-year-old is being well backed with those having an ante-post bet to defend his title in March.
When the Champion Chase’s entries were revealed earlier this month, the most notable absentee was former Arkle winner Shishkin — who will instead be targeted at either the Ryanair Chase or the Gold Cup by Nicky Henderson. But the early closers should still make for a cracking contest, with Edwardstone (9/4) and Closutton stablemate Blue Lord (7/1) the nearest contenders to Energumene (8/11) in the ante-post market.
They have more than respectable records and are both multiple-time Grade 1 winners, but the prospect of either of them beating Energumene up the hill and to the finish in the Champion Chase seems unlikely to most. The Mullins-trained horse is on a run of four consecutive victories, three of which have been Grade 1 contests, and his regular rider Paul Townend recently sung his praises.
“Energumene has grown up a lot in the last year. He was such a good jumper as a novice that we let him roll, but now you can put him anywhere in a race and it makes no odds to him,” The two-time Cheltenham Festival Top Jockey said.
“I held him up in the Champion Chase last year and he settled great. We made the running at Cork the other day and he was perfect. It doesn’t matter where you position him in a race now and that is a great asset to have. He felt really good at Cork, every bit as good as he felt last season when I rode him. He’s such a good jumper and I really enjoy riding him.”
Up next for Energumene is the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, a race he famously finished second to Shishkin in last year in what was one of the races of the season, and a win in Berkshire will only solidify his claims for a second success Champion Chase crown — then it’s almost impossible to overlook the Tony Bloom-owned star.
There is an added incentive for Townend to win this race with Energuemene as well. The 33-year-old finds himself in a unique situation where he is being well backed to win three of the biggest races at the meeting in the same year — and it all starts in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. If he wins this race, he has a great chance aboard Allaho in the Ryanair Chase and Galopin Des Champs in the Gold Cup to do the hattrick.