Those that enjoy making food often complain that a Sunday lunch is the worst because it takes ages to make and is eaten in a matter of minutes. For horse racing lovers, there is a comparison to be made with the Cheltenham Festival, insomuch as we wait all year for it to arrive and then it feels as though it’s gone in a flash. There was plenty to get excited about this year, not the least of which was the return of actual people to Prestbury Park for the first time since it became a super-spreader event back in 2020, which is fun.
The famed ‘Cheltenham Roar’ had maybe even more feeling behind it this time around, such was the release from those present. There were stories to look for all over the race cards, from the battle for the Champion Jockey title through to the chase to become Champion Trainer. Could anyone beat Willie Mullins’ hold over the title? Was Rachael Blackmore able to repeat the trick from last year and win with a crowd there, earning the applause and adulation that she missed out on in 2021? Only Cheltenham can provide such intrigue.
Blackmore Got Her Gold Cup Win
The main story of 2021 Cheltenham Festival wasn’t the fact that Rachael Blackmore won the Champion Jockey title or the Champion Hurdle, but rather that she came incredible close to winning the Gold Cup. No female jockey has ever won the blue riband event, so when A Plus Tard took the fight to Minella Indo at the last it seemed as if that particular record was about to be broken. In the end, Jack Kennedy spoilt the party for the female movement when he won by one and a quarter lengths, but it did mean a one-two for Henry de Bromhead.
It was back into the saddle of A Plus Tard for Blackmore this year, but could she learn from her mistakes of 2021? You’re damn right she could, once again doing battle with Minella Indo over the last but this time roaring off into the distance and leaving the chasing pack in her wake. It was a phenomenal performance from one of the best athletes in the world right now, proving that women absolutely can take the fight to men when they are competing on a level playing field. De Bromhead will obviously be delighted with another one-two finish, but it is Blackmore that quite rightly took the headlines.
A Plus Tard started the race as the favourite, living up to that tag and crossing the finish line in style to reward all of those that had either taken the 3/1 Starting Price or else got better odds earlier on. If there was a glass ceiling for female jockeys in racing then Blackmore has absolutely smashed through it over the past twelve months, becoming the first female to win the Champion Hurdle and the Grand National and now adding the Gold Cup to her list of accomplishments. Winning by 15 lengths is a genuine sign of superiority and Blackmore will be much sought after next year.
The Bookies Took A Battering
It is often thought by those that don’t know about the betting industry that the worst thing for a bookmaker is when a horse with long odds wins the race. After all, if it is 100/1 then there’s bound to be some crazy fool that has bet £100 on it in the hope of making their riches. In reality, the worst thing for the bookies is when the favourites win, given that far more people will have bet on them than on the long-odds option. £100 x 100/1 is £10,000 in winnings, but £10,000 bet on something like 5/2 is an awful lot more for the bookmakers to part with.
Imagine their annoyance, therefore, when the joint-favourite won the opening race of the day, the favourite won the second and fourth and the favourites placed in the sixth and seventh races. They might have been thinking that things would improve on Day Two, but when Sir Gerhard won the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and L’Homme Presse finished first in the Brown Advisory, it was clear that the bookmakers were in for a shellacking. In fact, the only races on Ladies Day that weren’t won by the favourites or saw a favourite in the places were the Champion Chase and the Coral Cup.
Though things took a turn for the better on St. Patrick’s Day, it would be a lie to say that the bookmakers will have been jumping for joy. Indeed, when Alaphilippe finished second in the Pertemps Network Final and was joined by joint-favourite Winter Fog in fourth, many bookies will have been wishing that they could just pack up and go home. Hope springs eternal, however, and so they headed back out on Gold Cup Day hoping amongst hope that something would finally turn their way and they could feel good about themselves.
No one feels sorry for bookmakers, of course, so the cheers will have been loud when Vauban won the JCB Triumph Hurdle in the first race of Day Four to keep kicking them when they were down. State Man also won as the favourite in the County Hurdle, A Plus Tard won the Gold Cup and Billaway was victorious in the Hunter Chase. Elimay won the Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase as the favourite meaning that all hope was lost for the men whose job it is to try and take our money. A brilliant year for punters is an awful one for them.
Top Jockey Crown A Hard Fought Matter
As the final day of the Cheltenham Festival got underway, there was a feeling that the Top Jockey trophy could go in any number of directions. It was Paul Townend that led the way, even though things didn’t start that well for him when Galopin Des Champs fell at the final flight in the Turners Novices Chase. He bounced back in impressive style, however, taking Allaho across the line in impressive fashion to retain his Ryanair Chase crown. There were three jockeys that were chasing him for the right to claim the Holland Cooper Leading Jockey Award, though.
Day Four began with all of Nico de Boinville, Patrick Mullins and Rachael Blackmore on two wins apiece, though Townend’s three wins, one second and three thirds meant that he very much had the advantage. De Boinville had two wins, one second and one third to his name, whilst Mullins had two wins and two thirds but no second-place finishes. Blackmore, meanwhile, was the furthest behind, boasting two wins and one third but no seconds. All told, therefore, it looked as though Townend was going to win the close-run battle.
When Vauban crossed the finish line first in the opening race of the day, that gave Townend his fourth win and all but sealed the Top Jockey trophy in his favour. Even the slightest of hope for anyone else was extinguished when he won again on State Man in the County Handicap Hurdle, securing the title for him even if it wasn’t technically all over. They say that nice guys finish last, but The Nice Guy made a mockery of that for Willie Mullins in the Albert Bartlett, meaning that the Irish trainer had won the first three races of the day.
Rachael Blackmore might well have been reluctant to hand over the Top Jockey title to Paul Townend quite so easily, but when you’re up against the jockey of choice for the Willie Mullins yard you don’t have a huge amount of choice in the matter. On top of that, becoming the first female jockey to win the Gold Cup will have more than made up for any disappointment that she might have felt. Not even a late flourish from Patrick Mullins in the Hunters’ Chase could take away the crown from the jockey of the moment.
A Record-Breaking Festival For Mullins
Every year, the question isn’t so much about which trainer will win the Top Trainer award but rather whether anyone can stop it from being Willie Mullins. A phenomenal final day from the Irish trainer meant that not only did he finish as the Top Trainer but that he did so in record-breaking fashion. He started the final day three clear of the nearest competition thanks to his five wins, but he made it six with Vauban’s win, seven with the victory of State Man and then eight thanks to The Nice Guy. In fact, the Gold Cup was the only race that Mullins didn’t train the winner of on the final day of the Festival.
Billaway’s photo-finish victory in the Hunters’ Chase gave Mullins his ninth win of the Festival, which was a record-breaker, only to see Elimay make it ten in the Mares’ Chase. He then had two big chances in the final race of the Festival thanks to Adamantly Chosen and Five O’Clock, but in the end he had to settle for just the ten wins on the final day. Given that he’s the best-ever trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, it is somewhat fitting that he’s the person with the record number of wins to his name.
The Irish Retain The Prestbury Cup
It is fair to say that the battle for the Prestbury Cup was closer than it has been in a long while heading into the final day of the Festival. The Irish had been comprehensive winners of it overall, thanks to wins in 2016, 2017 and 2018 before a tie in 2019. The Irish took it again in 2020 and then once more last year, so when it was ten wins for the British against 11 for the Irish on Day Four of the Festival, it seemed as though there might just be a turning of the fortunes in the favour of the host nation for 2022.
The manner in which Willie Mullins absolutely owned Gold Cup Day soon put paid to that, but when Banbridge won the final race of the Festival in meant that it was a clean sweep for the Irish. Seven wins out of seven meant that it ended up 18-10 in favour of those from the Emerald Isle, ensuring that in years to come no one will remember that it appeared to be close when the day got underway. When Willie Mullins is one of your representatives, it means that you’re always going to stand a chance of winning the Prestbury Cup, of course.
With St. Patrick’s Day falling on actual St. Patrick’s Day this year, maybe we should have known all along that the Irish were going to end up retaining the trophy once more. For the British, there’s always next year….
Swan Song For Tiger Roll
When Tiger Roll came to Cheltenham and won the Triumph Hurdle aged 4 in 2014 it was evident he was a good horse but he fell away for a few years as he wasn’t the greatest hurdler. As he became older, however, he came into his prime and in 2017 he demonstrated his stamina and speed by winning the National Hunt Chase, a 3 mile 6 furlong affair over no less than 23 fences.
The following year in 2018 Tiger came back and this time went one better by winning by far the most demanding race of the Festival, the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase. Set over an even longer distance than the National Hunt Chase it features 32 fences on the cross country course, not normal fences either with water jumps, open ditches, massive hedges and alike.
The Cross Country is the race at Cheltenham that is most like the National and so it proved to be a great warm up for Tiger who won the National in the same year. Just like the National the Cross Country is one of those races that few horses win twice due to the demands it places on horses. When Tiger came back in 2019 and won it again people knew he was a special horse and the fact he then went on to win back-to-back Grand Nationals made him a legend.
There was of course no Grand National in 2020 and Tiger did run in the Cross Country finishing second behind Easyland. In 2021 he wasn’t entered into the National due to an issues Tiger’s owners had, in particular Michael O’Leary, with the handicap weight given to him. Despite that he went on to win the Cross Country again and set the record with 3 wins. Astonishing really seeing a horse win a race like that 3 times over 4 years.
Unfortunately Tiger was again not entered into the National for 2022 due to the same weight issue and before the Festival it was announced the 2022 Cross Country would be his last race before retirement. At 12 years old the Cheltenham master nearly won again too, only pipped to the post by less than a length by his stable mate Delta Work, 3 years his junior. A final win wasn’t to be but with three first place and two second place finishes in the Cross Country and two Grand National wins there are few horses we will ever see as good as he was. Bye Tiger, you will be long remembered at both Cheltenham and Aintree.