Talking Horses: Blackmore bids to join all-time greats in Gold Cup
Minella Indo and Rachael Blackmore go back a long way at Cheltenham. Three years ago almost to the day, he was her breakthrough Grade One winner, an unconsidered 50-1 shot in what turned out to be one of the strongest novice hurdles of recent years. Allaho and Lisnagar Oscar, in third and fifth, were Grade One winners themselves at future Festivals, and Blackmore too soon moved on to even better things.
His Festival form figures are 1-2-1. He loves the track and thrives in the spring. And yet, for the second year running, when Minella Indo goes to post for the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, Blackmore will be doing her utmost to beat him.
She failed 12 months ago, finishing one-and-a-quarter lengths behind Minella Indo after deciding to ride his stable companion, A Plus Tard, instead. It was one of those choices that come with the territory for an elite jockey attached to a major stable. Blackmore had ridden Minella Indo in his previous 10 races and A Plus Tard in 10 of his last 11 but still managed to pick the wrong one. At the end of an otherwise triumphant meeting, when her six winners made her the first female to finish the week as leading rider, the biggest prize of all was the one that got away.
A seventh success would have equalled Ruby Walsh’s all-time record for a single Festival. It would also have seen her arrive back at Cheltenham this week with a win in all three of the sport’s biggest races – the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Grand National at Aintree – already in the bag.
As it is, the Festival’s showpiece is unfinished business for Blackmore, who was 29 and a veteran of nine seasons in the saddle when she rode her first Grade One winner in 2019 and has since racked up another 22. Long since just the jockey, rather than the “female jockey”, that she wants to be, Blackmore is now closing in on the achievements that mark out the all-time greats.
Even outstanding champions of the past like John Francome, Peter Scudamore and more recently Richard Johnson failed to win all three of jumping’s biggest races. None of her rivals for the top-jockey prize this week has won all three either, which is a measure of how far Blackmore will have travelled, and how rapidly, if she can get A Plus Tard home on Friday.
In the circumstances, it seems a little surprising that Blackmore opted for A Plus Tard over Minella Indo several months ago, putting factors like the ground – which has come right for last year’s winner – to one side. But it does suggest that his dominant success in the Betfair Chase in November felt as good in the saddle as it looked from the stands, and also that Blackmore is not unduly concerned by their short-head defeat behind Galvin at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting.
“It was extremely difficult choosing last year as I’d won on both of them in Cheltenham and I’d ridden both of them in most of their races,” Blackmore said on Thursday. “That’s the privileged position I found myself in, choosing between two horses who were both very well fancied for the Gold Cup. I made the wrong call, but that’s part and parcel of being a jockey.
“Obviously it was very hard getting beaten by Minella Indo, but I’d made that choice myself and that’s racing. I didn’t think I gave him [A Plus Tard] a fantastic ride at Leopardstown the last day [behind Galvin], I don’t think I got into a great position early on and so I used him up a little early. I’m really looking forward to riding him again and hopefully we can go one better than last year.”
It has been a week of contrasts for A Plus Tard’s rider so far, with a second victory on Honeysuckle in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle followed immediately by a bone-shuddering fall. A blank on Wednesday, then a huge stroke of good fortune to start the day on Thursday, as the last-fence fall of Galopin Des Champs turned a certain second-place finish into a highly unlikely Grade One win on Bib Olinger.
And it will all come to the boil on the final afternoon, when National Hunt’s star rider will hope against hope to be right second time.
Minella can strike Gold for second year running
Minella Indo (3.30) is without a win in three starts since last year’s Gold Cup, but he is a big price at around 5-1 to confirm his form with A Plus Tard 12 months ago and become the second dual Gold Cup winner in the last three years.
Nothing went right for him in the King George at Christmas but Minella Indo’s run behind Conflated in the Irish Gold Cup hinted at a return to form and he always seems to flourish at Cheltenham in March.
The recent rain will bring his stamina into play and while the strong stayer Galvin is a dangerous opponent, his price is too short to beat a proven champion.
Cheltenham 1.30 Knight Salute is more exposed than most of his rivals but he has made rapid progress in his five races to date and his latest win in the Adonis at Kempton was another career-best. His current price of around 16-1 is too big for all that rivals like Vauban and Pied Piper have considerable scope for improvement.
Cheltenham 2.10 Suprise Package, the easy winner of Saturday’s Imperial Cup, is a reminder that several Irish-trained runners here could be a long way in front of their mark, but I Like To Move It is arguably the form horse on his close second in the Betfair Hurdle and has a solid each-way chance at around 12-1.
Cheltenham 2.50 A race that often throws up a surprise – the last eight favourites have all been beaten – and Bardenstown Lad, a course-and-distance winner in October, may have crept in under the radar at around 20-1.
Cheltenham 4.10 Billaway has found one rival too good in this for the last two years and also finished second behind today’s main market rival, Winged Leader, at Thurles in January. That was his first run for 268 days, however, and a subsequent easy win at Naas suggests this could finally be his year.
Cheltenham 4.50 This could well end up as a head-to-head between Elimay, last year’s runner-up, and Mount Ida, and while the latter gave weight and a half-length beating to Elimay in January, this left-handed track seems more likely to suit Willie Mullins’s mare.
Cheltenham 5.30 The Martin Pipe is no place to be seeking salvation at the end of Festival week, but Hes A Hardy Bloke is suggested as one who could go well at a big price. He is completely unexposed at this trip and ran as if it might be within reach when eighth in a big field at Leopardstown in February. Greg Wood