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We are just three weeks away from the Cheltenham Festival and let me tell you, it’s making getting up in the mornings easier the closer it gets. Fair play to the Jockeys Club for ensuring that it lands directly after the shortest month of the year. By the time you’re reading this, February is nearly done with and we’re into the home straight.
I understand the phrase “a Festival like no other” will be dished out thousands of times between now and the end of the Gold Cup, but here’s a key differentiator for you. Not only are we without Ruby like we were in 2020, but we’re down Barry Geraghty for the first time in most of our punting lives as well as Davy Russell failing to make it on time.
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In one way it ensures that the students aren’t piling on the notable jockeys and taking prices at a rapid rate for no good reason, but it also means that the experience at Cheltenham is no longer that much of an added benefit.
Luckily for us, we’re sending over three of the best on the planet to steer our jollies home and once again flex against the Brits. Here’s the three you want to be on-side with as the racing gets underway.
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The heir to the Ruby Walsh crown in a way, Paul Townend’s relationship with Willie Mullins has long had him in the winner’s enclosure more often than most other first-choice pilots, but that’s gone up a notch ever since.
The 30-year-old (I cannot believe that man is only 30) hasn’t broken under the pressure yet. Some might say that the steer on Benie des Dieux left a lot to be desired, but given Honeysuckle’s run of wins since then, you’d have every reason to feel that Rachael Blackmore taking the inside wasn’t the only reason the Champion Hurdle favourite claimed the Mares’ last year.
At time of writing, he’s notched up 82 winners and landed over €1.5m in prize money this season. Not bad is it?
His book of rides for the Festival is easily the most enviable of the lot, with Appreciate It, Energumene, Monkfish, Concertista, Gaillard Du Mesnil, Chacun Pour Soi and Al Boum Photo to name just a few. Not a bad few days work is it?
Rachael Blackmore is not only a pioneer for women in the sport – continuing the trend of female jockeys being very much at the forefront of trainers and owners’ thoughts when it comes to their stable stars – but she’s also very much in contention to land a Champion Jockey title, albeit now up against Paul Townend in Ireland
She’s got three Cheltenham winners under her belt – Honeysuckle, A Plus Tard and Minella Indo – and each of them reappear at the Festival with live chances in massive races.
Her association with Henry De Bromhead sees her in one of the most prominent positions of any jockey going to Cheltenham and her characteristic knack of stealing lengths from the field at the turn will prove valuable, particularly on the old course where she’ll be riding Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle.
Blackmore has also spoken very highly of Ballymore hopeful Bob Olinger, who will likely come on a tonne as a chaser next year – but he’ll go to the Wednesday opener with something resembling a favourite’s chance too. Don’t expect her to be out of the frame in the Gold Cup either.
It’s been a stop-start ride for Jack Kennedy’s career to date, largely due to injury. When the Kerry native is in the saddle, very few would argue that he’s the most naturally-gifted horseman in the country.
Both Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty have hailed him in recent weeks and while the Cheltenham Festival will sorely miss Davy Russell – the active jockey with most Festival wins under his belt – what’s his loss is very much Kennedy’s gain as he takes over Gigginstown’s first string ahead of the showdown in the Cotswolds.
Gordon Elliott has not had the year many expected, but if there’s a better trainer to prepare one to land a handicap at a big meeting, I’ve yet to meet them.
And that’s not to say Kennedy won’t be sitting on any class acts either – he’ll have the leg up on Envoi Allen, presumably in the Marsh as well as the Triumph favourite Zanahiyr and a spin around in the Champion Hurdle aboard Abacadabras – so there’s pressure on his shoulders in a big way. You’d back him to succeed, too.
*Paddy will be all over your telly box throughout the Cheltenham Festival sponsoring ITV’s live coverage from Prestbury Park – and you can get free and exclusive tipping columns EVERY DAY from Ruby Walsh, Matt Chapman and Mick Fitzgerald here on PP News.
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