The Cheltenham Festival is only a matter of weeks away, and looking at the early racecards for the meeting’s biggest races, there are few contests looking as uncompetitive as the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase — one of Day Three’s, or St. Patrick’s Day’s, two thrilling championship races.
Allaho won last year’s two-mile, four-furlong race by a comfortable 12 lengths and the Willie Mullins-trained horse is tipped to ease his way around the new course at Prestbury Park once again this year, according to the latest horse racing betting odds — securing successive Festival Trophies for the Irish trainer, who will be in hot pursuit of his fourth Leading Trainer award in a row.
However, while the eight-year-old is the heavy favourite for the race and as close to a certainty as you’re likely to get this year, we are well aware that nothing at the Festival can be taken for granted! So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the top contenders for the 2022 renewal of the Ryanair Chase. Read on to find out more!
Let’s start things off by delving a bit deeper into the form of Allaho. The 3/1 market leader for the Ryanair Chase last year, on-fire Rachael Blackmore guided the Cheveley Park Stud-owned horse to that 12-length victory over Joseph O’Brien’s Fakir D’ouadiries. They couldn’t round the season off on the perfect note, coming up short against Chacun Pour Soi in the Champion Chase at the Punchestown Festival the following month, but Allaho has bounced back well this season.
He won his seasonal reappearance in the Grade 1 Punchestown Chase in December and followed that up with another victory, this time at Grade 2 level in the Horse & Jockey Hotel Chase — beating his old foe, Fakir D’oudairies by a reminiscent 12 lengths. At seemingly generous odds of around 4/1, Allaho is sure to get a lot of backing.
The recent defeat to Shishkin in the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase at Ascot has left some question marks around what path Mullins will opt to send Energumene down at the Cheltenham Festival. Excitement was rife ahead of the much-anticipated clash at the Royal course last month, and while it was a true cracker, Nicky Henderson’s prized chaser was able to fight back at the death to win by a length despite being far from his best.
That race has had to have raised some concerns for the Irish trainer, because if his previously unbeaten eight-year-old can’t beat Shishkin when he’s not at his best, how is going to do so at Prestbury Park? Interestingly, Energumene has since entered the Ryanair Chase ante-post market at 8/1 and that could be the route Mullins ends up choosing. We’re still keeping our fingers crossed for Shishkin vs Energumene II in the Queen Mother Champion Chase though!
With the Champion Chase still a real possibility for Energumene, Saint Calvados will likely be Allaho’s closest competition. However, given that the nine-year-old hasn’t won any of his last six races, dating all the back to October 2019, it is no surprise that he is as far out at 10/1 and that everyone is tipping the Mullins-trained horse to defend his Ryanair Chase crown with considerable ease.
Saint Calvados was one of three Andrew and Kate Brooks-trained horses to be moved from Harry Whittington’s yard to Paul Nicholls’ last summer, but the nine-year-old didn’t show any real improvement in his season reappearance — finishing over 12 lengths behind Tornado Flyer in the third in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.
Gavin Sheehan’s ride was heavily criticised by the owners that day, so he won’t be in the saddle at Cheltenham. Perhaps someone like Harry Cobden, Nicholls’ in-house jockey, will get the best out of the horse.