Fan favourite Rachael Blackmore looks to defend Cheltenham crown | Greg Wood
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.