PAT HEALY: This week Pat reflects on a fantastic Cheltenham festival for the Irish, which saw a triumphant win in the Prestbury Cup and Rachael Blackmore crowned Champion Jockey.
Never in my life did I think that we’d be sitting here with Ireland having won 23 of the 28 races at Cheltenham. It’s absolutely fairy tale stuff for the Irish at the moment and I’m not sure we’ll ever see as much of a landslide victory as we’ve seen this year. It just shows the horsemen and women in Ireland are the best in the world. Whether it be the trainers, breeders, grooms, owners or jockeys, the horse racing scene over here is in the best state it’s ever been and the hard work behind the scenes is now really coming to fruition on the track. I know the English are taking a long, hard look at this and are trying to find out if there is something fundamentally wrong and while that might help to an extent, talent will always win out. At the minute, Ireland have the best in all categories and we’re streets ahead.
Of course you expect to see the likes of Willie Mullins, Denise Foster and Henry de Bromhead having winners, but for trainers like Gavin Cromwell, Paul Hennessey, Paul Nolan and Pater Fahey to also be visiting the winners’ enclosure as well really shows the strength in depth in Ireland at the moment.
You could write an essay on the highlights from last week, but what Rachael Blackmore achieved tops the bill. To be crowned top jockey with six winners, including five Grade 1s, was a fantastic achievement and I’d be pretty confident it won’t be the only time it happens to her either. She is a jockey, not a lady jockey or female jockey, she’s a jockey like anyone else, and to do what she did was astonishing, regardless of the fact she’s a woman. She’s clearly made of pretty stern stuff because she also had four falls through the week, but to get up and ride as impeccably as she did on such a high-pressure stage is a credit to her and her abilities. She’s always in the right place at the right time and seems to know exactly when to press the button – both attributes of any world-class jockey. She has a degree in equine science, which I don’t think many jockeys have, and she’s obviously a very smart girl, you can see that knowledge and intelligence in her riding.
There is no bigger stage for Jump jockeys than Cheltenham and so for those who didn’t know about Rachael and her abilities, they certainly do now. In Ireland, we’ve seen her strut her stuff on numerous occasions over the last couple of years. In 10 years, she’s gone from riding her first winner to being Champion Jockey at Cheltenham, which just shows the rapid rise she’s enjoyed in such a short amount of time. I don’t think many people have progressed quite as quickly as that and let’s just hope she can stay fit and healthy because she’s in a real battle with Paul Townend for the jockeys’ championship this season. She’s five winners behind Paul at the moment, and it is going to be fascinating watching the two of them going toe to toe.
Like Rachael, Jack enjoyed a stellar Cheltenham with four winners with the obvious highlight being Minella Indo’s win in the Gold Cup. The mental capacity of this young man is quite staggering. He’s not even 22 yet and he’s already broken his leg four times and his collarbone on a number of other occasions too, but he keeps coming back and riding winners on the biggest stage. His ability is there for us all to see, but to keep getting back up from the setbacks shows the mental strength Jack has and it’s fantastic to see him riding these big-race winners. What’s so amazing about Jack is he could be riding for another 20 years. To think of the success he’s already had combined with that period of time means we could easily be talking about one of the most successful jockeys ever when he eventually retires. He rode his first Cheltenham winner when he was 17 aboard Labaik and he hasn’t really looked back.
He’s got a fantastic gig being attached to Cullentra and let’s just hope he can stay fit. He showed with his ride on Mount Ida the ability he has and if he can stay in one piece he’ll ride a host of winners, that’s for sure.
It was fantastic to see Bryan Cooper back in the winners’ enclosure at Cheltenham. It wasn’t very long ago that he was carried away from Prestbury Park on a stretcher with a broken leg which was so bad that it was thought that at one point he might have to have it amputated. Like Jack, he’s had to come back from that and he’s shown his mental capacity to dig deep and put in the hard yards. He’s got his due rewards with that winner last week and again let’s just hope he stays sound because he’s another top-class jockey who deserves a spell of clean health.
Kevin has also had his troubles, but he’s bounced back and it was a deserved winner for both him and Peter Fahey. Kevin is another example of a jockey showing that mental strength to get back up when things aren’t going your way and if you put in the hard work, the results will come. Belfast Banter’s win was evidence of that resilience.