Rachael Blackmore and Henri de Bromhead take all before them at Cheltenham

Another year, another National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham, but this year behind closed doors due to the continuing covid pandemic. The extraordinary achievements of the Irish contingent who did come was the highlight of the week, particularly the exploits of both trainer Henri de Blomhead and female jockey Rachael Blackmore.

Cheltenham Racecourse in a normal time

In 2020, of course, the Cheltenham Festival was blamed, most un-reasonably we thought for the increased cases of corona virus and the deaths which followed. It was sadly going to happen anyway, and the footballers were also running round Europe between Liverpool and Milan which apparently was also responsible for the dreadful pandemic in the UK!!! Anyway, behind closed doors the elite sport continued to function, although with no crowds, it was certainly a very surreal experience, whether watching on TV or actually there as one of the few people allowed to be at the races in person.

The first thing that was really noticeable was the number of runners in each race. Not only did the covid affect this but the Brexit debacle also weighed heavily on numbers able to run from Ireland. Even before the start of the meeting, it was clear that the Irish runners were far fitter and race ready than their British counterparts, but the number of runners were down by two thirds for some contests. The result of this was that there would be a hot favourite among the smaller fields and that favourite just romped home which made the racing rather benign.

On day one, there were four Grade 1 races on a glorious opening day run on the good to soft ground – in fact perfect racing ground. The traditional opener was the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle and there was the smallest field in living memory with only eight runners. The hot favourite was Appreciate It, trained by Willie Mullins, the Cheltenham maestro, who duly obliged after being taken along for most of the 2 mile hurdle race by For Pleasure until the last couple of hurdles 2 furlongs from the finish.

The second race, The Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase, again over two miles, was contested by only five runners including Shishkin, unbeaten under National Hunt rules trained by Nicky Henderson. Naturally he was sent off as hot favourite and yes he won with ease from last year’s champion Eldorado Allen.

Sue Smith with Vintage Clouds

Veteran horse, Vintage Clouds, trained by Sue Smith, wife of the famous show jumper Harvey, won the first handicap on the week, The Ultimar Handicap Chase. This was a great effort by the team to win the 16 runner contest over 19 fences, one of which was Happygolucky from Ireland who was well thought of.

The Unibet Champion Hurdle had ten runners only, and some decent horses in the line up including Honeysuckle and last year’s winner and the unbeaten Epatante. Over the two miles, there were eight hurdles to jump and Silver Streak led most of the way until Rachael Blackmore, female jockey of Honeysuckle swept into the lead and win. This was Honeysuckle’s eleventh straight win, and it was the first time a female jockey won the Champion.

The final Grade 1 of the first day was the Mares Hurdle. Concertista was another sent off as hot favourite from the Willie Mullins yard. However, the race did not pan out as expected. The race was a dual between Concertista and Black Tears who went nip and tuck up the home straight, a tussle which Black Tears won.

Day two saw a little less sun but a really decent day for racing again, on perfect ground. Like day one, there were much smaller fields and gain there was the danger of hot favourites taking all before them which tended to happen once again. The main race of the day was The Queen Mother’s Chase, once of the top races of the whole meeting.

The first race was The Ballymore Hurdle over 2 miles 5 furlongs with ten hurdles to jump. Bob Olinger was sent off favourite and did not disappoint for trainer Henri de Bromhead. The leader for most of the race was Bravemansgame came in a good third.

Willie Mullins

The Brown Advisory Novice Chase, another hot favourite was Monkfish. Trained by Willie Mullins, this must be one of the calmest horses in training. He wandered around the parade ring as if he was on a Sunday outing, not to go out and win a big race at Cheltenham. However the big chestnut gelding won with ease, although it was rather a scrappy race contested by only 6 runners over 3 miles and ½ a furlong.

The final Grade 1 of the day was the Queen Mother Chase. Chacun Pour Soi, was another Willie Mullins trained horse and highly thought of and was another inevitable Mullins favourite. Thus far, in his career,  Willie Mullins has won every championship race at Cheltenham except the Queen Mother’s Chase. Would this be his year? No his steed did not oblige. Before the off, Nicky Henderson had to withdraw last year’s winner Politologue as he was showing signs of bleeding from his nose which left 9 runners. In the race, Put The Kettle On took the lead and was not going to be trifled with. The Mullins trained Chacun Pour Soi took the lead a furlong from home, but Put The Kettle On was not going to lie down easily. 100 yards from the finished Put The Kettle On surged past the favourite and kept the lead to win for fellow Irish trainer Henri de Bromhead.

Tiger Roll

Our favourite race of the week is the Glenfarcias Cross Country Chase, run over 3 miles and 6 furlongs across the whole of the Cheltenham course to include eventing type fences as well as the traditional National Hunt fences. The race has been won twice now by Tiger Roll before going to Aintree to win the Grand National. Although the horse ran again this year, he is not entered for the Grand National due to a dispute over the weight he would be expected to carry. Kingswell Theatre took the lead from the 13 runners, and lead for most of the 9 minute hack around the Cheltenham course, but in the final two furlongs, the little horse with the heart of a lion, Tiger Roll took the lead and was never looking like he would lose it. Kingswell Theatre, who had led for so much of the race, did not have the legs to finish and was pulled up before the line. This was Tiger Roll’s fifth Cheltenham Festival win, starting all those years ago by winning the Champion Hurdle.

Day three saw the Ryanair Chase as the feature event of the day. The day’s tally for the Irish and English winning trainers competition at 11 races for the Irish and only 3 for the English. Today saw little improvement for the English trainers and further advancement for the Irish.

Nicky Henderson.

In the first of the Grade 1 races, the Marsh Novice Chase over 2 miles 4 furlongs with 8 runners including yet another hot favourite, Envoi Allen, unbeaten over the jumps, Irish trained but English owned in the shape of the Cheveley Park Stud, more known for their flat exploits, but they do also have a few decent National Hunt horses. After 3 of the 16 flights of hurdles, the Rachael Blackmore ridden Envoi Allen had a fall, a delight for the book makers and for the other runners. Shan Blue, from the Skelton stable took the lead until the final furlong when it was nip and tuck between Shan Blue before he became totally outpaced and the Nicky Henderson trained Chantry House which prevailed for the great trainer, bringing up his seventieth Cheltenham Festival winner; a record achievement for any trainer in the history of Cheltenham.

The next was the Ryanair Chase, a 16 runner affair over 2 ½ miles. Unlike most of the racing this week, this was an open contest. At the off, Rachael Blackmore riding Allaho went into the lead along with last year’s winner Min. They both soon went well clear of the rest of the field. Allaho just kept going, running on strongly and was never to be denied, winning the race from pillar to post for the maestro trainer Willie Mullins. Rachael was not doing too badly herself as she now had won 5 of the races at the meeting. A remarkable count.

The final race we look at for the third day was the Paddy Powers Stayers Hurdle. Two previous winners of this race took part, Paisley Park, trained by Emma Lavelle and owned by the most enthusiastic blind owner Andy Gemmel who won two years ago. The second was last year’s winner, the Rebecca Curtis trained Lisnagar Oscar. Soon after the start of the race, last year’s victor, who seemed rather out of sorts from the beginning, fell which left another interesting horse in the race, Flooring Porter trained by Gavin Cromwell this time in the lead, and he was not to be denied his moment in the lime light. The last race Flooring Porter won was at Kelso and was a hurdle race which qualified the horse to win an extra £100,000 if he could go on and win the Stayers Hurdle at Cheltenham, which he did, so a good pay day for this one! Paisley Park came third and while trying to rally on a couple of occasions, just didn.t have the legs to go on to give the winner any discomfort.

Henri de Blomhead

The final day at Cheltenham is always about the Gold Cup, this year named the Wellchild Cheltenham Gold Cup, recognising the charity supported by the race course for 2021, Wellchild. There were 12 runners for the race over 3 miles 2 ½ furlongs. Al Boum Photo won the race twice in 2019 and 2020 and was going for the hat trick. In the race, Froden took them on at a good pace and stayed in the lead for most of the time. The two Nicky Henderson runners had a nightmare of a race with both jumping badly early on and being pulled up. Two fences from the line, the two trained by Henri de Bromhead, Minella Indo and A Plus Tard took the lead and each jockeyed for the win. Minella Indo ended up just in front of the Cheveley Park Stud runner, A Plus Tard, to take the Gold Cup. This was the first time ever that a trainer has managed to land both first and second in the Gold Cup and also the first time a trainer has taken the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Queen Mother Chase and the Gold Cup in the same year. Henri de Bromhead did. This was an astonishing achievement for Henri, the champion trainer for the week winning 5 races, but also for the Irish contingent who won all the races at the whole meeting except 4, which they allowed British trainers to win. Rachael Blackmore took the jockey’s title with no less than 6 wins, another astonishing feat.

After the Gordon Elliott incident giving racing such bad publicity, he was not able to partake. Cheveley Park Stud should be commended as they moved their Cheltenham runners to Henri de Bromhead, another yard altogether, unlike other owners in the Gordon Elliott yard who let their horses run under the name of another named trainer connected with the yard. A ban should mean a ban for all horses running from that yard for the full time of the ban full stop. If owners want to run their horses, they should do as Cheveley Park Stud did and move their horses out. Otherwise it simply makes a mockery of any ban given!!

Cheveley Park Stud did win the JCB Triumph Hurdle, well deserved with Quilixios ridden by Rachael Blackmore – taking her 6th win of the week. There were 8 runners in this race.

All in all, this was an extraordinary Cheltenham with no crowds and such dominance of the Irish. The fields were smaller than usual and a lot of the races had one particular decent runner, which more often than not ended up winning. It was not a vintage Cheltenham, but it did happen and there were some notable achievements, particularly for Henri de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore for which they should both be congratulated on their week.

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