Willie Mullins and - to a lesser extent - Nicky Henderson have raised the bar for what is needed to be the top trainer at the Festival in the last five years; thrice in that period, it has taken seven or eight winners to take the prize.
They're unusually high figures however, record-breaking in some cases, but in every other year since 2006 the leading trainer has had between three and five winners. 2017 feels like a more typical year - the total on Mullins winners is set at five and a half and it's expensive to bet the under - which opens up this race more than has been the case latterly.
Certainly Mullins is not the prohibitive favourite he has been the past two seasons, currently trading at around 1.84/5 to win for the sixth time in seven years, and it's worth considering him alongside the other big players.
As a starting point, I've looked up the expected winners (see bottom of preview for a full explanation) for the four shortest-priced trainers in the Cheltenham Festival Top Trainer market; Mullins, Henderson, Gordon Elliott, and Paul Nicholls.
This approach isn't flawless; the targets of some horses remain unclear, there will be some dramatic price shifts before race time while one may hold an opinion than an individual animal is grossly under- or overpriced. All that said, they do provide a decent guide.
Willie Mullins - 4.0 Expected Winners
Mullins is absolutely the right favourite for this, even in a season decimated by the loss of a major owner and a host of injury misfortune; he still has more sub-14/1 shots than any other trainer and by some distance too.
I do think some of those horses, particularly those in handicaps, are artificially short on trainer reputation; he has had one - yes one - handicap winner since October 17th. Maybe there are a host of well-treated horses lying in wait for the handicaps hurdles like the County or Martin Pipe (Mullins has a poor overall record in handicap chases both in Ireland and the UK) but that seems unlikely given these races just haven't been a focus for the yard this season.
Relatively speaking, there is also a distinct lack of Mullins bankers this year. The trainer has a superlative record with short-priced horses at the meeting - since 2010, his 34 horses returned 3/1 or shorter have yielded 21 winners with only four finishing unplaced - but after having eight such fancied runners in each of the past two seasons, it seems likely he will have half so many this year: Douvan, Vroum Vroum Mag (if she runs in the Mares), Yorkhill (again, if he runs in the JLT) and the Airlie Beach/Let's Dance combo in the Dawn Run.
There is also the issue of the losses faced by Mullins this season. Of the top 20 horses in terms of prizemoney earned in Irish national hunt races in 2015/16, he is without nine of them this season and that group doesn't even include Annie Power, Min, Valseur Lido and Killultagh Vic. It's difficult - if not impossible - to maintain standards in the face of such adversity.
Nicky Henderson - 2.1 Expected Winners
No one has trained more Festival winners than Henderson who is currently second choice for this year at 3.7511/4. Like Mullins with Douvan, he has a strong banker in Altior and it is distinctly possible that this will be decided by a number of Mullins v Henderson matchups like Yorkhill against Top Notch in the JLT. Even so, Henderson does look short enough and there's an argument to be made that should you fancy him for top trainer, a better way to approach it could be backing his runners in multiples. Something as simple as Altior and Buveur D'Air at top morning prices on the Tuesday of the meeting would pay more than twice Henderson's current odds here.
Gordon Elliott - 1.7 Expected Winners
Elliott was interviewed at Naas this Sunday and stated he would have about 30 runners at the Festival; given he's about to break the 1,000 runner mark for the season, a figure matched only by Martin Pipe, I was surprised how few he would travel so I followed it up with a question in the #AskGordon Q and A on the Betfair Racing Twitter feed on Monday and he confirmed it.
That isn't a positive sign for anyone hoping to back him in this market as his whole 2016/17 campaign has been about the numbers; I had anticipated his strength here would not be short-priced horses but rather going at races with depth. Perhaps the lure of winning the trainers' championship at home is simply too much.
Even so, Elliott has to be respected in the handicaps where he has had four winners since 2011 including two last year and the Gigginstown horses give him quality for the graded races. If you are thinking of betting him, it might be best to play in-running; his strength is stacked towards the end of the week and he could be big price on Wednesday evening before finishing strongly. If he's bang there at that point, he should go very close.
Paul Nicholls - 1.2 Expected Winners
Nicholls last won the top trainer at the Festival in 2009 but he's had quietly good meetings in both the last two years with three winners in each; all bar one of those came in the fiendishly competitive handicaps. That's where the meeting is at for the Champion Trainer now; he doesn't have many horses for the graded races - Wonderful Charm and Politologue are his shortest-priced runners but both are 6.05/1 or bigger - and is inclined to keep some of his better horses for softer targets later on as we have seen with Frodon likely to wait for Aintree and/or Ayr. Retaining his championship seems all-important.
Others of Note
Colin Tizzard has been one of the stories of the season and the markets suggests he will have one winner at the meeting; his issue is a lack of depth and his only hope might be the resurrection of Thistlecrack which is unlikely if not impossible. Part of his problem is so many of his best horses are in the same race.
It's not beyond the realms that someone like Nigel Twiston-Davies or Alan King comes along and stages a shock; the bar should not be overly high here looking at the expected winner. Twiston-Davies in particular has had an excellent season, inside the top five trainers for the first time in a while, and it might not take much more than Ballyandy and Wholestone winning their respective novice hurdles along with a handicap winner to put him right in the mix.
The expected winners totals for the four shortest-priced runners are low and this looks like an open year; that would bring some randomness into play and it could be worth backing an upset. For all that here are negatives about his main challengers, Willie Mullins looks a bit short at odds-on and a small lay is recommended. I can't single out one to beat him but suspect the field is worth taking here and hope the trainer's run of bad luck this season continues.
Lay Willie Mullins @ around 1.84/5 to be Cheltenham Festival Top Trainer (once market gains liquidity)
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