The 2021 Cheltenham Festival is only a matter of days away and this time next week, the third day of racing will be contested. Among the highlights are the day’s feature race, the Stayers’ Hurdle, and the highly prolific Ryanair Chase.
Last year, there were plenty of surprises on day three of the Festival, with just the one favourite winning their race – Simply the Betts in the Handicap Chase. Of course, who could forget the 50/1 outsider, Lisnagar Oscar winning the Stayers’ ahead of overwhelming favourite Paisley Park, who was looking to make it back-to-back successes, but who finished a disappointing seventh.
As punters scramble to check the latest betting exchange odds for the day’s big races, let’s take a look at the early favourites – could we see another underdog prevail on the famous Prestbury Park turf?
Ryanair Chase – Mullins’ dominant
Willie Mullins has won three of the last five editions of the Ryanair Chase, most recently last year as Min took the plaudits. This year, the Irish trainer heads the field once more, with three of the four early favourites coming from his yard.
Leading the Cheveley Park charge is Allaho, no stranger to the Cheltenham Festival, yet having never left as a winner. With two third-place finishes at the previous two Festivals – first in 2019’s Albert Bartlett, and then in last year’s Novices’ Chase – could it be third time lucky for the seven-year-old?
Then, we have Min, who will look to retain his title. Last year’s race was by no means a classic, but on his return, the 10-year-old won the Punchestown Chase. He pulled up in his most recent outing – in February’s Dublin Chase – but his form at Cheltenham means there is still hope.
And finally, there’s Melon looking to break his Cheltenham duck. After four second-place finishes at the Festival, can Melon be victorious at the fifth time of asking? The gelding was unlucky last year, losing by a nose in the Novices’ Chase, but his form since leaves much to be desired. He most recently disappointed in the Irish Gold Cup – but as he has proved before, he manages to bounce back at Cheltenham.
Stayers’ Hurdle – Paisley Park returns
There was disappointment for all those connected with Paisley Park last year as the 2019 winner, and two-time Stayers’ favourite, was unable to retain his crown. Unbeaten in seven starts prior to the 2020 Stayers’ Hurdle, Emma Lavelle’s gelding could only finish in seventh, and it was later revealed that he was suffering from a heart issue.
But since then, he has returned to form – losing by one-and-a-half lengths at Newbury, before going on to win the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, both at the end of last year. Lavelle is confident as the Festival approaches, and says her pride and joy is raring to go:
“Everything is absolutely great – I wish it was next week.
“We just want to try and keep everything right. I’m really, really happy with him.”
While Paisley Park is currently the third-favourite ahead of the Stayers’ Hurdle, it will be another thrilling race as the gelding does battle with the Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill, to complete the trilogy. Thyme Hill was the winner at Newbury back in November, before Paisley Park exacted revenge a month later, so it’s set to be a battle for supremacy in the race ahead.