A Record-Breaking Cheltenham
Oscar Young looks at what made this year’s Cheltenham Festival unlike any other
The Cheltenham Festival returned last week, a year after the previous edition became one of the final sporting events to allow spectators before the coronavirus pandemic. The 2020 festival received much public attention after many of the over 250,000 attendees contracted COVID-19. Fortunately, this year the headlines were made during the races.
The major story from the event has been the unprecedented success of both jockey Rachael Blackmore and trainer Henry de Bromhead.
On the back of her six victories across the week, Blackmore, aged 31, became the first woman to become leading jockey at the Festival. She also became the first female jockey to ever triumph in the Champion Hurdle, winning the day one race on Honeysuckle by six and a half lengths.
Blackmore’s Cheltenham success this year was historically great. Her mark of six wins is one that has only ever been topped by one other jockey, Ruby Walsh. Walsh is the event’s all-time top rider, who won seven times twice, in 2009 and 2016.
De Bromhead, from Waterford, Ireland, also put himself into the record books. He became the first trainer to ever win the ‘holy trinity’ of big races at the Festival – the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, and Gold Cup. This included a 1-2 finish for his horses in Thursday’s Gold Cup, where Minella Indo, ridden by Jack Kennedy, won to deny Blackmore, who was riding A Plus Tard. Blackmore was on the saddle of a De Bromhead-trained horse for four of her six victories.
Blackmore and De Bromhead led the charge for a hugely successful Irish training contingent at this year’s Festival. The 23-5 win for Irish-trained horses over British runners is a record for Cheltenham. Irish handicapper Andrew Shaw described the current gulf between Irish and British horses as ‘like the Premier League versus the Championship.’ ‘We simply have the best horses,’ he said. Fittingly, St Patrick’s Day fell on the Thursday of the Festival, a day which saw Irish horses winning all but one race.
Thursday also saw one punter cash out on the final leg of his five-part accumulator to win £250,000 from an initial stake of £5. Paul Dean decided not to risk seeing out the last race, and walked away from a possible £500,000 payday hours before. His final horse, Envoi Allen, fell and did not finish.
Once again, animal rights have been at the forefront of debate, after Kings Temptation became the 69th horse since 2000 to die at the event. Kings Temptation was being ridden by Bryan Carver on day two when he fell, adding to the bad press the racing world has had to deal with this year.
This year’s event comes just after a scandal that saw leading trainer Gordon Elliott banned for 12 months. A photo of Elliott sitting on a dead horse while on his phone emerged on social media at the beginning of March. The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board condemned his ‘complete lack of respect,’ and subsequently issued the punishment. As a result, some of his most successful horses have been seeking new trainers, De Bromhead being one who has benefited as a result.
One such horse is Tiger Roll, the reigning two-time Grand National winner. Now trained by Denise Foster, Tiger Roll returned to form, winning for the fifth time at Cheltenham in the Cross Country Steeple Chase on day two.
2020’s Cheltenham will be remembered for the strides made towards equality in the sport by Rachael Blackmore. Her success will have a lasting impact across the sport. However, after her Champion Hurdle victory, she said ‘it doesn’t matter what you are. We are jockeys. It is just a privilege to be here.’