By Sam Curtin
To begin this piece, I must admit to knowing very little about Horse Racing despite coming from a household which is fanatical about the sport. Namely my old man. However, like many people, Cheltenham along with the Grand National, is the time of year when we all believe ourselves to be experts on the sport.
It’s somewhat ironic then that a sports fanatic like myself is not a fan of the Ireland’s most successful sport and an invaluable industry to the national economy. Although even this industry was hit hard by the pandemic with most racing taking place behind closed doors including last year’s festival.
While it may have been quiet off the track, events on it, from an Irish perspective, were stellar. 2021 went down in history as the ‘greenwash’ with 21 winners. 6 of those going to Champion jockey Rachel Blackmore who in the months that followed would transcend the sport both home and abroad. A generational talent with the personality to boot. The Gold Cup is the only major prize to elude her and will look to go one step further then last year’s 2nd place.
Her partner in crime Henry De Bromhead also won 6 including three feature races with the most important one being the Gold Cup after Minella Indo ridden by Jack Kennedy holding off Blackmore and A Plus Tard.
Indeed, the battle for best trainer promises to be one of the highlights once more this year after Willie Mullins won for a record 8th time last year. The fact he only gets a couple of lines reflects the sheer volume of success he has had over the years and Ireland is certain to be spoiled once again with these two men at the helm. Gordon Elliott also makes his return after suspension last year for leaked photos of him posing with a deceased horse.
And so, what about this year? The festival welcomes back full crowds in what should be an atmosphere to savour for those lucky enough to be there in the flesh. For the ordinary punter at home however there is still plenty to look forward to over the next few days.
One of these will be the handicap races (horses are weighted according to their ability/success) which many people believe will be the most competitive with regards to the Ireland v England showdown which is always a dominant narrative every year. More so of course when Ireland is the one coming out on top. Add full attendances back to the mix and it promises to be carnival like atmosphere on and off the course.
Another one of the narratives as briefly mentioned already will be if Rachel Blackmore can replicate last year’s heroics and finally land the elusive Gold Cup. The Tipperary woman is set to once again ride A Plus Tard in the race and is the current favourite with the bookies. Perhaps Minella Indo can retain the crown which is a rare feat in of the world’s most famous races.
Speaking of superstars, the Champion Hurdle on day one is one of the most prestigious races in the hurdling and is the final part of the Thriple Crown. Honeysuckle led once again by Rachel Blackmore and Henry De Bromhead will go in as the clear favourite. The mare who will be 7 this year, puts her unbeaten record on the line in a race which always guarantees drama.
With all of the positivity and excitement Cheltenham brings, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the issues the industry faces going into the festival. There is ongoing investigations into alleged doping involving some Irish stables. The stories are only beginning to emerge, and it is imperative that Horse Racing Ireland deal with the issues in the strongest possible terms. A doping scandal is the last thing the sport which already divides opinion, in this country needs. It would certainly tarnish the legacy which has been built especially over the last couple of decades.
Overall, whether you love it or hate it, there are few occasions to match the Cheltenham Festival and even for the most fair weather of fans, it is an event not to be missed. Irish success in our nearest and dearest’ backyard on the global stage and Colm Meany’s Cheltenham ads? What’s not to like?
The Cheltenham Festival begins today and runs until Friday.