With Willie Mullins a 1/14 shot to land the award, this year’s Cheltenham Festival Top Trainer market is about as appealing as mustard on a cheesecake. So well done to SkyBet and William Hill for spicing things up a little by pricing up the Top Trainer without Mullins.
A quick glance at the betting shows that the two firms vary quite considerably in their odds. Hills are obviously sweet on Henderson and Nicholls whilst SkyBet would prefer to duck Gordon Elliott and Alan King. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Lets take a look at the main contenders and assess their chances:
Nicky Henderson 15/8 with SkyBet
The most successful trainer at the Festival has landed the Top Trainer award on seven occasions so he certainly knows what it takes to get his string ready for the March showpiece. The problem for the Seven Barrows handler is a lack of quality ammunition. Sprinter Sacre, one of seven Festival winners for Henderson in 2012, is probably his best chance this time around even though the horse is seemingly well past his best. Peace and Co has flopped both times it has run this season and L’Ami Serge came unstuck at 1/5 in the Kingmaker at Warwick. All in all 15/8 looks skinny, even when compared to the 6/4 on offer at William Hill.
Paul Nicholls 5/2 with SkyBet
The champion trainer has had a disappointing season by his standards and he faces a real battle to retain his British crown in the face of stern opposition from Willie Mullins. After declaring Dodging Bullets as his best chance of a Festival winner last weekend, the horse promptly fluffed its lines and could only finish second to Top Gamble at Newbury. As with Henderson, the odds look short, especially when Boylesports offer just 5/4 that he doesn’t train a single Festival winner.
Gordon Elliott 5/1 with William Hill
As Richard Johnson was the serial runner up to Tony McCoy, Gordon Elliot is facing a similarly uphill battle to topple the Willie Mullins empire in the Irish Trainers Championship. But second to Mullins in this market will land the odds, so is 5/1 a decent bet? In No More Heroes and Don Cossack, Elliott has a great chance to win the RSA and Gold Cup and with the backing of the Gigginstown operation, he’ll have a sizeable team to bring over. At double the odds of Henderson and Nicholls he is a much more tempting proposition.
Philip Hobbs 10/1 with William Hill
Whilst Henderson and Nicholls have struggled, Phillip Hobbs recently said that he was experiencing his “best ever season”. Nobody has trained more winners in Britain this term and not many can match his 25% strike rate. Garde La Victoire and Village Vic have both won at Prestbury Park and, in Richard Johnson, Hobbs has the British champion jockey-elect at his disposal. He looks a lively outsider at 10/1.
Alan King 10/1 with William Hill
Yanworth and Smad Place were amongst Alan King’s bigrace fivetimer on Festival Trials day and he’ll return to Cheltenham confident of getting at least one winner on the board. The decision to up Yanworth in trip certainly looks a good one and he rates almost banker material in the Neptune whilst there would be no more popular winner at the meeting should Smad Place come home in front in the Gold Cup. As with Hobbs, 10/1 looks generous for a man enjoying a fine season.
The Others 14/1 and bigger
In Thistlecrack and Cue Card, Colin Tizzard has two possible big race winners so it is surprising that Hills do not even feature him in their list. SkyBet have gone to the trouble and they offer 14/1 that he wins or finishes second to Mullins. Jonjo O’Neill holds more appeal than David Pipe at the 20/1 on offer, largely due to his ability to peak at the Festival, but John Ferguson (yet to train a Festival winner) looks a forlorn hope at 33/1 in his final year as a trainer.
It would be no surprise to see Henderson or Nicholls finish runner up to Willie Mullins but, at the prices on offer, I’m keen to oppose two men who are having seasons to forget. In contrast, Hobbs and King are in flying form and rate attractive propositions at 10/1. But at 5/1 with William Hill (SkyBet offer just 10/3), Gordon Elliott looks the value call. He boasts a squad big on numbers and quality and is a regular saddler of winners on both sides of the Irish Sea. I’d expect the gap between him and the big two to shorten as we approach the Festival, so the advice is to get on now at the 5/1 with William Hill.