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By Mike Moon

Horse racing correspondent

Irish set to dominate Cheltenham Festival

There is South African interest in the Arkle Challenge Trophy.

The English had better take comfort from their rugby team’s shock victory over the Irish at Twickenham at the weekend, for they seem unlikely to find too much to cheer about down the highway at Cheltenham this week.

Tuesday sees the start of the four-day Cheltenham Festival, the global showpiece of jumps racing, and all predictions are that Irish raiders to Prestbury racecourse in the Chiltern Hills will thrash their British hosts. Again.

The rivalry across the Irish Sea is a long-standing thing, with a trophy, the Prestbury Cup, going to the country that emerges with most winners on the 28-race programme. Bookmakers are offering 1-16 on the Irish carrying off the silver this week – for the eighth time in the nine years.

Other countries don’t get much of a look in, apart from the occasional French connection.

Il Etait Temps

Remarkably, this year there is South African interest. A horse called Il Etait Temps is owned in partnership by Barnane Stud, owned by the Kieswetter family of Western Cape’s Ridgemont Stud, and the Hollywood Syndicate, in whose familiar yellow and purple-starred silks he runs.

The well-performed grey gelding, bred in Ireland from a French mare, is 6-1 second favourite for the Arkle Challenge Trophy, a race named after a legendary steeplechaser who won Cheltenham’s blue riband, the Gold Cup, three times in the 1960s.

Il Etait Temps, whose name means “it was time” is trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins, who is tipped to dominate the action at Cheltenham in a way no trainer has ever done.

Gaelic Warrior

But the Guinness-fueled horde of invading Irish punters won’t be a hundred percent behind the horse with a French moniker and South African owners. Mullins also saddles 2-1 hot favourite for the Arkle, Gaelic Warrior.

In the Gold Cup on Friday, Mullins sends out 11-8 favourite and defending champion Galopin Des Champs. This fellow recently won the Irish Gold Cup, but some pundits reckon he could be overcooked and trainer Nicky Henderson might upset the Paddy applecart with his runner Shishkin.

The Cheltenham Festival is one of the highlights of the British sporting calendar, with massive betting interest and capacity crowds of near 70,000 people on each of the four days. It is always packed with thrills (and spills) and compelling television viewing.

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