The fans will be back at Cheltenham this week and they will have a new favourite to roar home as the four-day drama unfolds. For 15 glorious years from 2004, “What’s Ruby on?” was the first question on many punters’ minds before any big race at the Festival. Now “What’s Rachael riding?” will be the starting point before the money goes down, as last season’s leading rider at the meeting attempts to defend her crown.

Rachael Blackmore’s six winners at the 2021 Festival proved that sporting history can be made even when there is no one there to remember the moment.

She jumped the final flight in silence on the way to victory on Honeysuckle, the favourite, in the Champion Hurdle, the first by a female rider in one of the meeting’s four feature events. A few dozen people, at most, applauded her into the winner’s enclosure afterwards. Quite unlike any other “I was there” moment, it was a soulless experience that none who witnessed it would ever care to repeat.

It will reboot the Cheltenham Festival like little else if Blackmore can retain her top-jockey status this week with 65,000-plus fans in full voice. Better yet if the only blip at last year’s meeting – her decision to ride A Plus Tard and not the winner, Minella Indo, in the Gold Cup – could be rectified 12 months later. After Blackmore’s groundbreaking success in the Grand National last April, again with no spectators in the stands, it is the only one of the National Hunt’s three biggest races she has yet to win.

“It’s probably something that will sink in when you’ve got grey hair and you can enjoy what happened,” she said recently. “I suppose when I came home [from Aintree] and I was driving through my home town of Killenaule and I could see posters in the windows of people’s homes with my face on them, it really resonated then what my personal achievements meant to the people where I’m from.

“But it’s a constant, revolving wheel and as a jockey you’re looking forward. It’s always: ‘What’s next?’” Like Walsh in his pomp – and for most of the last 25 years, Frankie Dettori on the Flat – Blackmore is the rider the bookies fear, the one with the potential to eat into their profits like no other if she gets on a roll. And while the wheel may constantly turn, there is a strong sense of deja vu about several of her best chances, adding to the punters’ confidence that what she has done once, she will be able to do again.

Quick Guide

Festival set fair but Chase short of entries


Jon Pullin, the new clerk of the course at Cheltenham, said ­yesterday that the fields for Tuesday’s opening day of the track’s Festival meeting ­tomorrow are “very competitive … with ­numbers of runners comparable to or higher [than] recent years”, even though the National Hunt Chase, the final event on the card, has attracted just seven runners, its smallest field this century. 

For the second year in a row, 10 will go to post for the Champion ­Hurdle, which is in line with the 10-year ­average, while a 12-runner field for the Mares’ Hurdle is the ­second-largest in the last five years. An 11-strong field for the Arkle ­Trophy is also well ahead of the five ­runners in 2021, as well as the 10-year ­average of 8.2. 

However, the seven-runner field for the National Hunt Chase is the first in single figures this ­century, for a race that attracted 26 ­runners in 2002 and has a 10-year average of 16.5. The Supreme ­Novice ­Hurdle, ­meanwhile, has nine declared ­runners, one more than in 2021 but well below the 10-year ­average of 15.7.
Direct comparisons with last year’s Festival are potentially misleading, as owners were banned from ­attending because of Covid-19 restrictions. This may have persuaded some owners with unfancied or so-called “social” ­runners to bypass the meeting. 

The small field for the National Hunt Chase, which has attracted just two runners from ­British stables, will still come as a ­surprise to many punters, not least when the idea of expanding the ­meeting to five days is again being floated in some quarters.
The going for the first day of the Festival, meanwhile, is expected to be good-to-soft, after plans to continue watering the track were put on hold following 4mm of rain overnight on Saturday. 

No further rain is forecast for the track until Wednesday, while Thursday and Friday are expected to be dry and mild.
“We are certainly not doing any watering at the moment and we’ll monitor conditions and see how much it dries before making any decision on any further watering,” Pullin said. “Given where we are currently and the forecast ahead, we will be ­somewhere around good-to-soft for the start of the meeting.” Greg Wood

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Honeysuckle, of course, is the star turn on Tuesday, as she attempts to extend her unbeaten career to 15 races and retain her champion’s status. At around 4-6, she is one for the heavy-hitters, but £5 and £10 punters – not to mention Lady Gaga fans – will be doubling up with Telmesomethinggirl, last year’s Mares’ Novice Hurdle winner, when she lines up as likely favourite for the Mares’ Hurdle 40 minutes later. At current odds, the double would pay a much more rewarding 7-1.

Nico de Boinville makes his way through the Cheltenham crowds on Shishkin
Nico de Boinville, the leading British-based rider, makes his way through the Cheltenham crowds on Shishkin in 2020. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Bob Olinger will be a third Blackmore-ridden winner from 2021 attempting a follow-up in Thursday’s Turners Novices’ Chase, while Allaho, the runaway winner of the Ryanair Chase 12 months ago, is odds-on for a repeat success on Thursday. The potential for week-long accas culminating in A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup is obvious and, for the bookmakers, potentially toxic.

And yet, unlike her predecessor as the racegoers’ rider-of-choice, Blackmore will not start the meeting as favourite for the top-jockey prize.

Paul Townend, who inherited Walsh’s mantle of No 1 rider at the Willie Mullins stable, is a shade of odds-on with most layers to take the award for the second time in three years, with Blackmore as big as 11-2 and Davy Russell, who has a long list of fancied rides for Gordon Elliott, around the same price.

Townend was the top Cheltenham jockey in 2020, the first Ruby-less Festival after his retirement in May 2019, and his fairly seamless move into the top job at the Mullins stable should have made him Walsh’s obvious heir with the fans. But he does not have the X-factor – or, for that matter, the XX factor – that Blackmore brings to the proceedings, and while they are the friendliest of rivals, he will also be aboard the most obvious danger to the majority of Blackmore’s key rides.

Quick Guide

Greg Wood’s Monday tips


Plumpton 1.00 Jazz King 1.35 Ballinsker 2.10 Kansas City Chief 2.45 One For Dunstan 3.20 Sainte Doctor (nap) 3.55 Tommy Dillion (nb)

Stratford 1.45 Raffles Gitane 2.20 Interne De Sivola 2.55 Corran Cross 3.30 Osprey Call
4.05 Envoye Special 4.40 Rambo T

Taunton 2.00 Highstakesplayer 2.35 Apothicaire 3.10 Some Detail 3.45 Amelia’s Dance 4.20 Majestic Merlin 4.50 Sindabella

Wolverhampton 5.00 Plumette 5.30 Sweet Bertie 6.00 Progressive 6.30 Eternal Summer 7.00 Catbird Seat 7.30 It’s A Love Thing

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One or the other could romp through the meeting and post the six or seven wins that would all but guarantee the top riders’ prize. If, on the other hand, they share out the spoils between them, there is an obvious chance for a rider like Russell to burst through the gap.

Russell is very much the grizzled veteran of the narrative – his first Festival winner came as long ago as 2006, in the cross-country. But he has a happy knack of getting on the “right” one from Ireland in the meeting’s handicaps and will get plenty of support from Elliott in that department throughout the week, in addition to several with big chances in the Grade Ones.

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Townend and Blackmore, by contrast, look mainly to the Graded contests for their winners, and while Mullins has had several handicap winners in recent years, they have often been the second- or third-string in the betting.

It is 10-1 bar Blackmore, Townend and Russell – which brings in Nico de Boinville, the leading British-based rider, among others – and the race to be the human face of the 2022 Festival is highly likely to be a three-cornered contest. Blackmore will be the fans’ favourite while Townend heads the bookies’ lists, but Russell could yet be the one to beat them both.