Before the 2021 renewal of the Cheltenham Festival got underway, everyone thought the lack of supporters on-site because of the Covid-19 pandemic would be the major talking point. It was obviously a big deal and the Festival lacked something by having nobody other than those involved in the races in attendance, but Rachael Blackmore ensured that it would not be that that fact that took the headlines.
In the wake of the Reclaim The Streets movement coming to the fore after the tragic death of Sarah Everard, it is somehow fitting that it is Blackmore that has stamped her authority on the Cheltenham Festival this year. She entered the final day of the meeting as the favourite to claim the Champion Jockey status, and she did just that making her the first female jockey to pull it off in a week of other impressive firsts.
Rachael Blackmore The Toast Of Cheltenham
This was always going to be a Cheltenham Festival like no other, but many people thought it would be because of the Coronavirus’ impact on horse racing and the accompanying lack of crowds. Yet it turned into one of the most significant renewals of jump racing’s most prestigious meetings for entirely different reasons, with Rachael Blackmore proving once and for all that female jockeys are just as talented as their male counterparts.
It all started when she took Honeysuckle across the finishing line first in the Champion Hurdle, becoming the first female jockey to win the race. Yes, Honeysuckle was the 11/10 favourite, but she still needed riding and Blackmore did it in impressive fashion, winning by six and a half lengths to set Henry de Bromhead off on his path to being the main challenger to Willy Mullins for the Champion Trainer title.
The Champion Hurdle was her only win of day one, which would have been impressive enough. Blackmore isn’t a jockey that likes to rest on her laurels, however, and got Day Two off to a flyer when she won the Grade 1 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle on the back of Bob Olinger. That was another favourite, but that wasn’t the end of her winning. She finished the day as she’d started it, with another victory.
Day Three saw Blackmore add another two wins to her tally, with 3/1 favourite Allaho bringing home the Ryanair Chase for Willy Mullins. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, she then added a Grade 2 event to her tally when Telmesomethinggirl won the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. When she won the JCB Triumph Hurdle, the first race of the final day of the meeting, there were plenty dreaming of a Gold Cup victory.
Sadly it wasn’t to be, just missing out on the back of A Plus Tard by a mere one and a quarter lengths from Minella Indo. The fact that she made such an impression on the Festival means that she’ll get plenty of backers whoever she rides in the blue riband event next year, whilst what she’ll have done for female jockeys in the sport will reverberate for years to come. 2021 was Rachael Blackmore’s Cheltenham Festival.
If that was in any doubt heading into the last day, those doubts were all but dismissed when she was named as the Champion Jockey for the Festival on Friday afternoon. She had six wins heading into he Mares’ Chase, which was a new race for this year’s meeting. Jack Kennedy was also running in that event, but even if he won he knew it wouldn’t be enough for him to catch the impressive Blackmore, the deserving winner.
Trainer Battle To The Wire But Of Course Mullins Wins
Rachael Blackmore’s success was impressive in and of itself, but it also meant that Henry de Bromhead was able to get his nose in front of Willie Mullins when it came to his chances of being named the Leading Trainer. He also had six wins under his belt, largely thanks to the exploits of Blackmore, but Mullins had the chance to steal the title from him with victories in the final two races.
Things started well for him, with Colreevy winning the Mares’, meaning that de Bromhead was 6-5 up heading into the final race. Whilst it would be great to say that they shared the honours, that’s not the way that the Leading Trainer battle goes. Instead, the number of placed horses is what dictates the way the race for the title finishes and on that front Mullins was absolutely dominant.
He was helped by the fact that Elimay came second for him in the Mares’, meaning that if the favourite won in the final race of the Festival then he’d pinch the Leading Trainer title from under Henry de Bromhead’s nose. Galopin Des Champs and Gentlemen De Mee were his two hopes for the race, whilst de Bromhead had all of his hopes pinned on Commandingpresence in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
Even before the final race of the meeting got underway, Mullins had seven second place finishes and five third places, which compared significantly favourably to de Bromhead’s. Mullins has always played the numbers game at Cheltenham, which worked in his favour in trying to claw back his fellow Irishman’s lead. Henry de Bromhead had just three second places and one third place as the horses lined up for the final race.
In the end, a win for Galopin Des Champs meant that Willie Mullins was indeed able to steal the title from his compatriot, but when all is said and done he might well have been willing to swap the title for the haul that de Bromhead managed. He became the first trainer in Festival history to win all three of the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Gold Cup in the same week, making history.
The Prestbury Cup Returned To Ireland, Again
The Irish might well have taken their time settling into winning races at Cheltenham, but it’s fair to say that in recent years they have been the dominant force. This was without question prior to this year’s Festival, but the performance of Irish horses against their British counterparts in the 2021 ensured that there will be something of an inquest in British ranks as they look back on what went wrong.
The Irish had a 22 to 5 lead heading into the final race of the meeting, meaning that Prestbury Cup was already heading back to Ireland regardless of what happened in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle. In 2019, the Irish and British shared 14 wins apiece, so it will be alarming to those involved in British racing to see how far apart the two are now. The Irish reclaimed the trophy last year winning 17 to 10, with this year being a white wash.
When you consider that there were some fears that the Irish might not even be able to send horses over for the Festival because of Brexit and the Coronavirus crisis a couple of weeks ago, the British really will be wondering how they lost out quite so comprehensively. The answer, of course, comes in the impressive performances of the Irish jockeys, with the top three in the standings coming from the Emerald Isle.
The same is true of the trainers, with de Bromhead and Mullins joined on the list by Denise Foster, who took over the horses of Gordon Elliott when he was issued with a ban that excluded him from taking part in this year’s Cheltenham Festival. Meanwhile, Nicky Henderson, who is so often the biggest hope of the British, only saw two of his horses win at this year’s renewal.
In the end, the win for Mullins in the last race of the Festival meant that the final tally saw the Irish win the Prestbury Cup by a margin of 23 to 5. If the story of this year’s meeting isn’t Rachael Blackmore (it is) or the incredible treble of Henry de Bromhead (it might be), then it will surely be the complete failure of British racing to make any sort of impact on the battle for the Prestbury Cup. Once again, it’s the Irish eyes that are smiling.
Dismal Display For The Brits: A Look At The Numbers
From the moment that Appreciate It won the opening race of the 2021 Festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, by 24 lengths the writing seemed to be on the wall. British trainers actually took the lead 2-1 by winning the next two races with Shiskin and Vintage Clouds but from that point the Irish won 22 of the following 25 races.
Below we look at some numbers that reveal quite how devastating the Irish domination was this year:
- Twelve of the 23 races won by Irish trainers were Grade 1 races.
- Despite the Irish only having 40% of the runners at the Festival they boasted 82% of the winners.
- Irish horses were more clinical in 2021, placing in 60% of races, down on 2020, but winning 82%.
- 17 of the 23 Irish trained winners were also bred in Ireland.
- Three of the five British trained winners were bred in Ireland.
These numbers would have been unimaginable 20 years ago but it is a sign of the times. Ireland has a much smaller racing industry than the UK but it is more attractive for owners who are now opting for Irish trainers over British. Irish racing prize money is generally better than the UK, outside of things like the Festival, and so it seems the best British bred runners will continue to migrate across the Irish sea rather than staying at home. Likewise Irish bred horses that previously would have come to Britain for training are staying put.
Without intervention this feedback loop will continue to the point where in the future we may see no British winners at Cheltenham.
How The Bookies Got On
If the battle between Britain and Ireland in the Prestbury Cup isn’t the most interesting fight of the Cheltenham Festival then that’s only because the one involving bookmakers and their punters takes the crown.
The one thing that hurts the bookies the most is when the favourite wins, so they’ll have been delighted to see Al Boum Photo slip away in the Gold Cup and even happier that Rachael Blackmore wasn’t the winner.
Here’s how the week went for the favourites:
|Supreme Novices’ Hurdle||Appreciate It||8/11||Winner|
|Arkle Challenge Trophy||Shishkin||4/9||Winner|
|UItima Handicap Chase||Happygolucky||10/3||2nd|
|Juvenile Handicap Hurdle||Saint Sam||9/2||2nd|
|National Hunt Challenge Cup||Escaria Ten||11/4||3rd|
|Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle||Bob Olinger||6/4||Winner|
|Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase||Monkfish||1/4||Winner|
|Coral Cup||Grand Roi||6/1||12th|
|Queen Mother Champion Chase||Chacun Pour Soi||8/13||3rd|
|Grand Annual Challenge Cup||Embittered||9/2||Fell|
|Marsh Novices’ Chase||Envoi Allen||4/9||Fell|
|Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle||The Bosses Oscar||10/3||2nd|
|Stayers’ Hurdle||Paisley Park||9/4||3rd|
|Plate Handicap Chase||The Shunter||9/4||Winner|
|Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle||Royal Kahala||9/2||9th|
|Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup||Mount Ida||3/1||Winner|
|JCB Triumph Hurdle||Zanahiyr||11/8||4th|
|County Handicap Hurdle||You Raised Me Up||5/1||10th|
|Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle||Stattler||7/2||4th|
|Gold Cup||Al Boum Photo||9/4||3rd|
|St. James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup||Billaway||2/1||2nd|
|Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle||Gentleman De Mee||4/1||10th|
As you can see, the week started in absolutely torrid fashion for the bookies, with the favourites winning five of the first ten races. Indeed, it took until the tenth race for a favourite to finish outside of the places, which will have knocked the bookmakers sick. Things tailed off a bit as the week turned the corner, but there were still winners in eight of the 28 races (28.6%), with the favourite coming in the top four of 22 races (78.6%).
£250,000 From A £5 Bet
Nothing will sum up how the bookies will be feeling at the end of the festival quite like the story of Paul Dean. Admittedly, not all of his selections in his accumulator were made in Cheltenham Festival races, but he was still on course to win more than £500,000 heading into the opening race of Day Three of the meeting. Things got underway for him in June of 2020 when Golden Horde won Ascot’s Commonwealth Cup at a price of 12/1.
The following day, Hello Youmzain won at 10/1 in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, setting him up nicely for an exciting Cheltenham Festival. Ante-post bets on Shishkin in the Arkle Chase and Bob Olinger in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle both came in for Dean, meaning that he’d have received a payout of £511,225 if the favourite, Envoi Allen, had won the Marsh Novices’ Chase.
The £5 accumulator on horses with odds of 12/1, 10/1, 4/1, 25/1 and 9/2 was just waiting for the result of Envoi Allen, but Dean was made a Partial Cash Out offer by his bookie that guaranteed him £250,000 and would have seen that get boosted to £300,000 if his final selection came in. He spoke of a ‘sleepless night’ deciding on what to do, but Envoi Allen fell early in the Marsh Novices’ he’ll have been over the moon that he took the offer.