There are always a few runners at the Cheltenham Festival that line up less than 14 days after their prep race – 44 in the last five years, in fact, including Wicklow Brave and Call The Cops, who took the County Hurdle and Pertemps Final respectively in 2015. For practical purposes, though, Kempton’s meeting on Saturday marked the point when the last meaningful form went into the book and what are likely to be the broader themes and stories of this year’s Festival meeting are now apparent.
The Big Three stables – Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson – look certain to dominate the proceedings once again, with Mullins narrowly in front of Elliott in the “top trainer” betting. Ireland as a whole, meanwhile, is odds-on to finish the week with more winners than the home team for the fourth time in the last five years, having been held to a 14-14 draw in 2019.
The betting on who will finish the four days as the leading rider, however, looks very different in the first season of the post-Ruby Walsh era. Walsh won the last of his 11 top jockey awards in 2017, with Davy Russell and then Nico de Boinville landing the prize in the last two seasons, but the most successful Cheltenham jockey of them all was a perennial favourite for the award, frequently at odds-on, and often seemed to have it all but wrapped up by tea-time on the opening afternoon.
This year, though, there is every chance that a new name will be added to the roll of honour. Russell, de Boinville and Barry Geraghty, a two-time winner, are still in the mix but Paul Townend, Walsh’s successor as No 1 rider to the Mullins stable, is the current favourite at 2-1.
The most intriguing possibility, though, is a couple of rungs further down the list. Twelve months on from her breakthrough Grade One success on Minella Indo in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, Rachael Blackmore is top-priced at 6-1 to be this year’s leading rider and thus poised to be the biggest story of the week.
In many respects, the time when being the first female jockey to any particular achievement made any real difference has been and gone. Women have been competing on equal terms with their male counterparts in racing for decades, and the list of top-level winners ridden by female jockeys is extending all the time, both in Europe and around the globe.
The simple fact of it, though, is that racing is only front and centre in the general sporting consciousness on a handful of days each year. If something doesn’t happen at Cheltenham, Aintree, Royal Ascot or the Derby, then as far as the British sporting public is concerned, it doesn’t happen at all.
So it could be a magnificent moment for the sport’s PR if Blackmore makes a serious run at the jockeys’ award, not least because if she is going to be a live runner, Blackmore needs to hit the ground running on Tuesday afternoon when her rides should include Notebook, the 11-4 favourite for the Arkle Trophy, and Honeysuckle, the 9-4 second-favourite for the Mares’ Hurdle.
On Wednesday, Minella Indo is around 9-2 second-favourite for the RSA Chase. A Plus Tard is 5-2 favourite for the Ryanair the following afternoon, and Aspire Tower is in single figures for the Triumph on Friday.
In addition to the leading lights from Henry de Bromhead’s strong team, meanwhile, Blackmore can also expect plenty of support from Elliott and the Gigginstown Stud operation after Jack Kennedy’s desperate misfortune in suffering a broken leg at Leopardstown earlier this month which rules him out of the meeting.
All in all, 6-1 looks like a very fair price for a jockey whose judgment and big-race temperament has been demonstrated time and again already this year. So, all aboard the Blackmore Express?
Cheltenham Festival stat of the day, by Paul Ferguson
Since the ratings ceiling for the Northern Trust Company Novice Handicap Chase (formerly the Close Brothers) increased to 145 a couple of years ago, only one of the 10 horses to finish in the first five raced from a mark below 141 – the 2018 winner, Mister Whitaker. This suggests that the race is becoming more compressed and it is probably best to focus on the top end of the handicap. Of last year’s 20-strong field, nine were rated 140 or lower.
The Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide 2020, written by Paul Ferguson, is published this week and available through this link for £15.95.
A Cheltenham Festival stat of the day will appear here from Monday to Friday for the next three weeks.
Monday’s best bets
Notice has to be taken when Irish trainer Gerard O’Leary sends runners to Britain’s all-weather tracks – his strike rate is impressive. O’Leary started sending runners via Holyhead in December and has achieved four winners from 11 runners. He has 20 horses near Kildare town at Dunmurray Hall – “It’s no stately home,’ he says. “The previous owner called it that” – and hopes that his two cross-Irish Sea runners on Monday can end some of the hurt he was feeling after Ireland’s defeat at Twickenham.
Newgirlintown (4.10 Southwell) is out first. The filly won at Chelmsford on Saturday evening, leading towards the finish of a 10-furlong classified stakes. O’Leary believes the extra furlong in a Southwell handicap on Monday will help her to defy a 5lb penalty. He is more concerned about the track. “The kickback there is an unknown, she hasn’t raced at Southwell before,” he said on Sunday evening.
Adamaris (7.30 Wolverhampton) is the stable’s second hope. O’Leary has no worries whether the three-year-old will handle the track as he finished a runner-up at Dunstall Park a week ago, finishing strongly over an extended nine furlongs. Today Adamaris faces an extended 12 furlongs but O’Leary was adamant: “The longer trip will suit him.”
Southwell 2.05 Watheer 2.35 Anna Marie 3.05 Accessor (nb) 3.40 Jack The Truth 4.10 Newgirlintown 4.45 Equidae
Wolverhampton 5.30 Buy Me Back 6.00 Queen Aya 6.30 Tabaahy 7.00 Concierge 7.30 Adamaris (nap) 8.00 Embrace The Moment
Carlisle and Plumpton abandoned (waterlogging)