The Cheltenham Festival is now just days away from getting underway, with the horse racing industry waiting with baited breath to see how the meeting is going to play out. Elsewhere on this site we’ve taken a look at the Top 10 Horses for you to keep an eye on as well as the Top 10 Trainers that will be looking to make an impact when the Festival hits full swing, so now it’s the turn of the jockeys.
To the uninitiated, it might well seem as if jockeys can only have a minor influence over proceedings. To those in the know, however, they can alter the course of a race and the best ones are highly sought after for exactly that reason. It might be years since the likes of Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh graced the jump racing scene, but their names are still well-known because of what they offered. Who will stand out this year?
Paul Townend would be on this list regardless of his performance at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, but the fact that he was named Top Jockey thanks to his five wins cements his place in the conversation. He managed to etch his name into the history books when he took Al Boum Photo to his second successive win the Gold Cup and it wouldn’t be the worse decision in the world to back him to do it again this time around.
When Ruby Walsh retired with 59 Cheltenham Festival winners to his name, many wondered if anyone would ever come close to doing that in the future and whether Willie Mullins could find a suitable replacement as his go-to jockey. Paul Townend has certainly done well so far in the latter category and will be keen to at least challenge Walsh when it comes to the former question.
This year he’s already been installed as the favourite for the Top Jockey award ahead of the Festival getting underway, with some lovely rides likely to help him on his journey. He’ll be the one leading the likes of Monkfish in the Brown Advisory, Appreciate It in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and his old mate Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup, so you’d be mad to bet against him repeating his trick of last year.
Nico de Boinville
If there’s someone who can actively take the fight to Townend when it comes to nicking the Top Jockey title then it’s surely Nico de Boinville. He made a name for himself at the Cheltenham Festival back in 2013 when he beat A. P. McCoy to the Coral Cup, even though he was still claiming five pounds at the time. If some people were still questioning his ability as a jockey then he answered those questions emphatically by leading Coneygree to the Gold Cup two years later.
His association with both Altior and Sprinter Sacre soon confirmed that none of the previous wins were flukes, proving that he has what it takes to win on the biggest stage of them all. His victory in the Top Jockey award in 2019 wasn’t quite as impressive as Townend’s the following year, given that he only needed three wins to claim it, but it still showed that his name deserves to be mentioned amongst the very best in the business.
The likelihood is that we’ll see him on the impressive Shishkin in the Arkle Novices’ Chase as well as working with Altior in the Champion Chase, so there’ll be two events that he’ll be hoping to add to his win column before even looking at his other rides. Altior won that race convincingly in both 2018 and 2019 but missed it last time out because of a minor injury. He’s the retained jockey of Nicky Henderson, so he’ll have a decent ride in the Gold Cup, too.
When you look at the pure numbers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that having Aidan Coleman on this list is a bit of a joke. After all, he’s had 112 rides over the past ten Cheltenham Festivals and won just twice. Those wins came with Paisley Park and Put The Kettle On, which are two horse that some people believe would have won their races even if they didn’t have a jockey. Still, he’s on here for a reason and that is that success comes with experience.
Born in Innishannon, the Irish jockey became on the youngest jockeys ever to start in the Grand National when he took part in it in 2008, so the fact that he’s been around for years plays in his favour. He won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle with Epatante last year and will be hoping for a chance to keep up that relationship during Festival week. Equally, if he can get on the back of Paisley Park again then he’ll be in with a chance of adding more wins to his column.
The other thing to remember about Coleman is that his two wins have come in the last two seasons, so he’s arguably hitting his stride at Prestbury Park. With Put The Kettle On also likely to be ridden by him this month, you can see why some might consider him to be an outside bet for the Top Jockey spot. Thomas Darby is another horse that he’s likely to take into a race, looking for a win for him in the Coral Cup after a solid win at Ascot last season.
He might share a name with the former President who was assassinated in Dallas, but he’s unlikely to lose his cool during the Cheltenham Festival. He’s one of the youngest jockeys around, being aged just 17 when he won in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle back in 2017. This time around he’s four years older and more mature, so he’ll be hoping to go one further than he managed in 2018 when he tied with Davy Russell for the Top Jockey award.
Russell won it that year because he had ridden more placed horses, but Kennedy’s four winners includes Grade 1 successes with Samcro, Shattered Love and Farclas. He’s ridden five winners at the Cheltenham Festival during his burgeoning career and all of them have been on horses trained by Gordon Elliott, so that could yet have an influence on his likelihood of winning this time around. Elliott has stuck by him during recent injury problems, but will he stand by Elliott’s Cullentra stables following his 6 month ban?
The likelihood is that he’s going to be offered some strong rides at the 2021 Festival, including being able to choose between Zanahiyr and Quilixios in the Triumph Hurdle. There’s also a strong likelihood that he’ll be asked to partner Delta Work in the Gold Cup, which really would see his career sky rocket if he was able to bring that home. Abacadabras will probably be his ride in the Champion Hurdle too, so he’ll have plenty of chances to win big.
Can Rachael Blackmore make history by becoming the first female rider to take home the Top Jockey award at the Cheltenham Festival? That’s what she’ll be hoping when the meeting gets underway and few would be surprised if she managed it. One of Ireland’s rising stars of the past few years, Blackmore came second to Paul Townend in the Irish Jockey’s Championship at the end of the 2018-2019 campaign, so she shouldn’t be ignored.
That season was also the one that announced her onto the Cheltenham stage, winning both the Close Brothers’ Handicap Chase, which has been removed from this year’s menu, and the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. She took A Plus Tard to the Winner’s Enclosure in the former race and Minella Indo there in the latter, so she is a jockey that knows how to handle talented horses. The win in the Albert Bartlett saw her join Bryony Frost as the only female jockeys with Grade 1 wins at the Festival.
She once again proved her ability to manage both expectation and a talented horse when Honeysuckle won the Mares’ Hurdle last year, with the pair likely to be matched up again this time around in the Champion Hurdle. Both A Plus Tard and Minella Indo are likely to ride in the Gold Cup, so she might have to choose which of those she likes the look of the most. Bob Olinger is likely to be another possible winner for her in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
Despite being Irish and named Walsh, Mark Walsh is no relation to Cheltenham Festival favourite Ruby. Born in Country Kildare in 1986, he’s one of the jockeys that J. P. McManus often turns to when looking for a rider for one of the horses that he owns. One such example of this came about on the back of Espoir d’Allen in the Champion Hurdle in 2019. Sadly that is one horse that he won’t be able to ride this time around, given he was put down later that year.
One horse that Walsh will be riding at the Festival is Elimay, who secured entry into the Mares’ Chase with a win in the BBA Ireland Limited Opera Hat Mares Chase at Naas in February. She ran well when up against both Yukon Lil and Shattered Love, getting her ready for a decent challenge this time around. It wasn’t Walsh’s only win at Naas, having also taken Gentleman De Mee to victory as well as Minella Till Dawn.
They were all McManus horses, so he’ll have a good number of decent options when the Festival gets underway. He’s one of the jockeys that Willie Mullins calls on when he’s looking for someone to take on his second-string options, so with Mullins taking arguably his strongest ever set of horses to the Festival this time around, Walsh will be feeling confident. He’s definitely a long-shot, but horse racing is the sport for long-shots.
When you’re looking for a decent horse to ride at the Cheltenham Festival, it always helps when your dad is one of the main trainers sending a contingency to the meeting. That’s the position that Sam Twiston-Davies finds himself in, with his dad Nigel Twiston-Davies hoping to add to his 17 winners from years gone by. His son will likely have first refusal on the best of them, putting him in with a shout of getting some winners on the board.
Gowel Road and Ballyandy will both be running in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, with the former likely to be the one that Twiston-Davies junior will opt to ride. Al Dancer is another one to look out for, aiming for Ultima Handicap Chase victory and with decent form to his name prior to pulling up at Kempton Park. If Ballyandy doesn’t run in the Supreme then he’ll be the Twiston-Davies entry for the Champion Hurdle, allowing Sam the chance to ride them both.
Sam Twiston-Davies got his first win at Cheltenham in 2010 when Baby Run took home the St James’ Place Foxhunter Chase, with his reputation growing year on year ever since. He won the Conditional Jockey’s Championship in the 2010-2011 season, so he’s a jockey that knows how to ride well when the pressure is on. He might not have enough top-quality rides this time around, but he’s a jockey to keep an eye on regardless.
When Harry Skelton won his first race at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016 in the County Hurdle, some thought that it was a bit of a flash in the pan. In reality, he’d already been riding under Rules for nearly ten years by that point, with Superb Story’s victory actually merely severing to thrust him into the limelight. He’s barely left it since, gaining a reputation as an impressive jockey who rides the best horses to come out of his brother Dan’s yard.
Skelton notched up two victories for his brother last year, with Roksana winning the Mares’ Hurdle and Ch’tibello taking home the County Hurdle. His most impressive win, though, came on the back of Paul Nicholls’ Politologue after leading from the front in the Champion Chase. Skelton probably won’t be on the horse has he seeks to defend his title this time around, instead almost certainly riding Nube Negra in the event for his brother.
We don’t know yet whether Roksana will be in the Mares’ or the Stayers’ Hurdle, but she’ll have Skelton on the back of her regardless. Add in the fact that he’ll probably take Allmankind into the Arkle and Shan Blue in the Marsh Novices’ Chase and you can understand why he might fancy himself as a bit of an outside chance for that Top Jockey title. He’s a jockey that knows the meeting well and has the horses to impress if things go their way.
If Harry Skelton doesn’t ride Politologue at this year’s Festival then it will be another Harry that we’ll find in the saddle: Harry Cobden. He’s been one of Paul Nicholls’ go-to jockeys since 2019, so he’ll be hoping for a number of big rides this time around. The son of farmers from Lydford-on-Fosse, he runs a sheep and beef cattle business with his brother when he’s not riding in famous jump racing meetings in Gloucestershire.
He rode Bravemansgame to victory in the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle in December, helping the horse to move up the betting in the Ballymore as a result. It is seen as Cobden’s best chance of a winner away from Politologue, who won the Clarence House Chase at Ascot two months ago. Southfield Harvest is a horse with an outside chance of a win for him, though the Pertemps Final Handicap is likely to be well fought over this time around.
The 50/1 Starting Price handed to Real Steel in last year’s Gold Cup turned out to be too generous, with the horse coming close to causing an upset before falling away in the closing stages. He did the same thing in the King George, so Cobden will be hoping that he can pace him better if they end up running him in the Ryanair Chase. Failing that, Cobden will probably be on the back of Greaneteen for that race, so that might be worth an outside punt.
If you can’t have a father that is a top trainer, how about an uncle? That’s what Danny Mullins has access to thanks to Willie Mullins, meaning that he’ll be on the back of a few strong contenders when the Festival hits full swing. He will be feeling decidedly confident after taking Kemboy to victory in the Irish Gold Cup last month, so the pair might well be able to impress once more, even if Willie Mullins hasn’t decided which race to enter him for yet.
The reality for Danny Mullins is the family favouritism will only help him so much, given that Paul Townend will get first refusal of all of Willie Mullins’ best options, but Danny will still get to ride some great horses. Allaho, Min and Melon are all likely to be entered into the Ryanair Chase, for example, but Townend can’t ride all three of them. When your uncle is Willie Mullins, of course, you’re never going to be too far away from a decent ride.
Does Danny Mullins have any real chance of winning the Top Jockey’s trophy? Probably not if we’re being honest, but it’s easy to forget that this will be a Cheltenham Festival like no other. How will the horses respond to a lack of crowds there, screaming, shouting and cheering them on? It’s difficult to tell, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the second-string of horses perform better than the first-string and Danny sees more winners that Townend.