Whilst the majority of attention in the build up to the Cheltenham Festival rightly revolves around the equine stars that will be lining up at Prestbury Park between Tuesday 12th and Friday 15th March in a bid to win one of the 27 races over the four day racing extravaganza, the battle to be the Festival's top trainer should not be overlooked.
Last year, Nicky Henderson raised the bar for all other trainers by breaking two records. Firstly, he surpassed the previous record of 40 career Cheltenham Festival winners that had been held by Fulke Walwyn since 1986 but not only did he beat that, Henderson smashed it with seven winners for the week, a record at a single meeting, beating Paul Nicholls previous record of five trips to the winners enclosure which he set in 2009. Henderson now has 46 Cheltenham Festival winners to his name!
Favourite to retain his top trainer crown this year, Henderson is as short as 8/13 to win the trainers title for a tenth time since first landing it in 1985.
Henderson heads to the 2013 Cheltenham Festival with an artillery of runners that look primed to lay assault on all-comers. The Seven Barrows Stable boasts six favourites in the ante post betting including three of the four market leaders to win the Championship races; Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Oscar Whisky in the World Hurdle and Bobs Worth in the Gold Cup. Other favourites include Captain Conan in the Jewson Novices Chase, My Tent Or Yours in the Supreme Novices Hurdle and Simonsig in the Arkle. These are in addition to a raft of contenders in the other races, where the 62 year old will no doubt unleash a couple of hopeful handicappers for good measure.
To beat the seven winners of 12 months ago will take some doing but it is not beyond the realms of possibility and William Hill are offering 7/4 about six or more victories for Henderson. One thing is for sure, he certainly sets the benchmark that all other handlers must aim to beat.
Willie Mullins is the second-favourite in the Top Trainer betting at odds of 15/8 to regain the title he last won two years ago, which surprisingly was his first, despite training 24 winners at the meeting since 1995.
The Irishman will spearhead the hopes of those runners making the trip to the Gloucestershire track from the Emerald Isle and does so with a number of leading fancies to give him a crack at getting amongst the winners. The pick of the Mullins contingent include Champion Hurdle and Mares Hurdle favourites, Hurricane Fly and Quevega, who could get the 56 year old of to a flying start on day one in addition to Pont Alexandre, favourite in the Neptune Novices Hurdle and Boston Bob, who is entered in to a number of races, for which he features prominently in the betting for all. Other names to note include Un Atout, Arvika Ligeonniere, Uncle Junior, Back In Focus and Champagne Fever.
Paul Nicholls is another name to consider but after winning the Cheltenham Festival Trainers Title on six occasions between 1999 and 2009, the bookmakers only rate his chances as a 10/1 chance to make it title number seven in 2013.
Winner of the National Hunt Champion Trainer crown for the past seven years, Paul Nicholls and his Ditcheat operation should never be underestimated at the Cheltenham Festival. Whilst their is no Kauto Star or Denman following their retirement and Big Buck's misses his attempt of winning a fifth consecutive World Hurdle due to injury this year, Nicholls still boasts a strong hand. Hopes include Zarkandar in the Champion Hurdle, Far West in the Triumph Hurdle, Sam Winner in the Pertemps Final, Wonderful Charm in the Coral Cup, Dodging Bullets in the Supreme Novices Hurdle and Silviniaco Conti in the Gold Cup.
None of the Nicholls runners come with the reputations and expectations of some of Henderson's leading charges but one thing is for sure, Paul Nicholls has the strength and depth within his Ditcheat yard to ensure that will be amongst the winners at Prestbury Park and his tally should see him be in with a chance of being crowned the 2013 Cheltenham Festival Top Trainer well in to the final day.
An average of four winners has been enough to win the trainers championship at Cheltenham in recent years and as such, Nicholls and Mullins both harbour great chances if Henderson doesn't get 'the rub of the green'.
Other names in the frame include David Pipe, Donald McCain, Jonjo O'Neil, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Phillip Hobbs and whilst all names are etched in to Cheltenham's history books for big wins at the Festival in the past and all boast some worthy contenders for success in 2013, this year's battle to be the number one trainer looks to be a three way battle between Henderson, Mullins and Nicholls and it would take a brave punter to oppose the strength of Nick Henderson's roll call.