Even at an elite horse racing event like the Cheltenham Festival, it’s not always the favourites that win races. Sometimes, dark horses at bigger prices in the betting with bookmakers outrun their odds and pull off unexpected results.
For evidence of that, look no further than the 2020 Stayers Hurdle. The horses who finished first, second and third were all unfancied runners led home by 50/1 outsider Lisnagar Oscar, with 20/1 and 33/1 shots in-behind.
That begs the question, who are some of the dark horses for the 2021 Cheltenham Festival? Let’s take a look ahead of the four-day jumps racing extravaganza which will get underway on Tuesday, 16 March.
The Nicky Henderson stable has made a good start to the meeting in recent years. Opening the Cheltenham Festival in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, a race in which he has trained the winner twice in the last five years.
Ronnie Bartlett-owned newcomer Dusart made a strong debut at Newbury; where the gelding by Flemensfirth won over Soaring Glory, who came into the race after victory at Chepstow. As he was conceding racecourse experience to most of his rivals, this horse looks a smart prospect.
He will need to make similar progress into graded races, but Dusart has already attracted market support from punters. The bookies have cut his horse racing odds for the Supreme into 16/1, while he is 25/1 for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle over further.
Master Irish trainer Willie Mullins has saddled more Cheltenham Festival winners than anyone else. His many successes include four of the last six horses that tasted victory in the Arkle Challenge Trophy for novice chasers. Those stats make Unexcepted the subject of obvious interest in that race following an impressive bow over fences.
Owned by legendary gambler JP McManus, who was again leading owner at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, he is a typical French import to the Mullins stable. Although, Unexcepted only ran twice over hurdles since moving to Ireland.
He jumped superbly over the bigger obstacles at Tipperary and won eased down from Entoucas. That meant Unexcepted has value for more than the winning margin of eight lengths. Granted further improvement, the 16/1 about him for the Arkle makes this one another dark horse.
After running some fine races in Grade 1 novice hurdles last season, Easywork is another to have won his chasing debut. Like many trained by Gordon Elliott in Ireland, this horse started life over fences at two miles but should appreciate much further.
Owners of Gigginstown House Stud have a fine recent record in the Marsh Novices’ Chase with three winners including Samcro in 2020 and as many placed horses in that race since 2012. With Easywork, they have options but that two-and-a-half miles event might suit him best.
He only seemed to be going best at Navan on his chase debut when jumping the last, so further than two miles is no problem. Easywork is a 25/1 chance in the ante-post betting for the Arkle, Marsh, and RSA Chase over three miles; so he could be well worth following this season and then see where he ends up at Cheltenham.