Under Starter’s Orders: The Ones to Watch as Cheltenham Festival gets Underway

Under Starter's Orders: The Ones to Watch as Cheltenham Festival gets Underway

The 2020 Cheltenham Festival starts on Tuesday.

Here are the key characters, stories and issues likely to make the headlines at jump racing’s showpiece event.

Cheltenham Festival
Crowds topping 60,000 are expected on all four days of the Cheltenham Festival, which starts on Tuesday
Cheltenham Festival 2020
Dates: 10-13 March, Cheltenham Racecourse Races: 13:30-17:30 GMT, big race 15:30
Coverage: Commentaries: BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, feature races 5 live. Racecards, live text, results, reports: BBC Sport website/app

Townend replaces Walsh in Mullins hot seat

The name of Ruby Walsh, the Festival’s winning-most jockey with 58 successes, will be missing from the racecard for the first time in more than two decades following his retirement in May 2019.

It means that Paul Townend, 29, part of Willie Mullins’ County Carlow-based operation since his schooldays, now carries with him most of the vast number of hopes and expectations associated with the master-trainer’s latest powerful assault on Cheltenham.

He’s slipped seamlessly into Walsh’s boots, but with multiple contenders from the stable in most of the Festival’s 28 races, he’s now finding himself with a lot of hard choices.

He said: “I think that the most important thing is to be confident in your decision and don’t ride this one and be watching that one, or think ‘what if that one wins’ – if you’re not riding one it may as well be trained by somebody else.”

He picks out Benie Des Dieux (Mares Hurdle), Chacun Pour Soi (Queen Mother Champion Chase) and Min (Ryanair Chase) as his best mounts along with – of course – Al Boum Photo, which attempts to become the first back-to-back Gold Cup winner since Best Mate (2002-04).

As Mullins’ first success in the blue-riband race after six second places, it was a result brimming with emotion.

“It was nice that I was able to something for him that Ruby hadn’t already done – he didn’t leave too many blank spaces,” said Townend.

That sentiment grew markedly when considering the criticism Townend had received after the Joe Donnelly-owned horse and his jockey ran out at the final fence when set to win a high-profile trophy at Punchestown in Ireland the previous spring.

Whatever happens, the week will start the only way in which superstition dictates it should; since an early one of his 10 Festival winners was preceded by a takeaway pizza dinner, there’s always now an early call for to an Italian takeaway.

Female jockeys looking to improve on a record four successes in 2018 and 2019

Cheltenham Festival
Jockey Bryony Frost made history at last year’s Cheltenham Festival

The issue of female jockeys is a funny old thing for horse racing.

On the one hand, the sport, which has been pushing a #JustJockeys hashtag for International Women’s Day, insists that women are considered in exactly the same way as their male counterparts – with whom they compete on level terms, unlike in most other sports.

But, despite some frustration, it also has to acknowledge that the interest taken in Rachael Blackmore, Bryony Frost, Lizzie Kelly, Bridget Andrews, Harriet Tucker and Katie Walsh, all of whom have won at least one race at the 2018 and/or the 2019 Festivals, is also gold dust in the struggle to get coverage in the wider media.

Blackmore has the best chance of making headlines in 2020 with a string of quality bookings, most notably perhaps Notebook (Arkle Trophy) and Honeysuckle (Mares’ Hurdle), while Frost’s association with defending Ryanair Chase champion Frodon is as popular as it’s been profitable; and Lizzie Kelly will be busy as she’ll be combining race-riding with speaking as a BBC Radio 5 Live pundit.

Blackmore is a leading contender to be top jockey during the week, an accolade never previously achieved by a woman although in the 1980s Gee Armytage rode the same number of winners – two – as Peter Scudamore but he won on the number of second and third places.

It was in 1983 that Caroline Beasley, riding her own horse, Eliogarty, was the first female jockey to win at the Festival when successful in the Foxhunter Chase, a race which has proved lucky for women over the years with eight wins, including four of the last five stagings.

Paisley Park looking to continue being a Sign o’ the Times?

Cheltenham Festival
Trainer Emma Lavelle celebrates with Paisley Park’s owner Andrew Gemmell after last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle victory

Named after the Minnesota recording studios and the record label developed by musician Prince, Paisley Park has become king of the long distance hurdlers over the last 18 months.

Since October 2018, the Emma Lavelle-trained eight year old, ridden by jockey Aidan Coleman in the silks of owner Andrew Gemmell, has been the winner of all of his seven races including the Stayers Hurdle at the 2019 Festival.

Gemmell adds considerably to the whole story, partly because of his infectious enthusiasm, but even more because he refuses to allow the fact that he’s been blind since birth to impede his enjoyment of Paisley Park nor any of the other horses, mainly talented ones it seems, of which he’s owner or part-owner.

He follows the action via commentary either through racecourse loudspeaker systems or by radio, and what drama the horse, which has its own colourful back story having nearly died as a youngster, can provide.

Famously, he’s tended to hit a ‘flat spot’ late on, which means that on occasions it’s looked as though he might be up against it only to power home – and in 2019 he was far from fluent at the final obstacle.

All was ultimately well however and such was the feel-good factor from that result, plus the win by the equally charismatic Frodon and Frost just a few minutes earlier, that it was dubbed ‘the Golden Hour’.

Tiger Roll attempts to roll on

Cheltenham Festival
Two-time Grand National winner Tiger Roll will be seeking a fifth Cheltenham Festival win

So many eyes are on Tiger Roll with April’s Grand National in mind as he looks to match the Aintree success of the iconic Red Rum with a third win.

But just as significant – perhaps more so for owner Michael O’Leary and his Gigginstown House Stud operation – is a fifth victory at the Cheltenham Festival when he lines up in the Cross Country Chase.

The Gordon Elliott-trained 10-year-old, being ridden as usual at Cheltenham by jockey Keith Donoghue, is on a hat-trick in the three and three-quarter mile race staged over a unique, maze-like course of obstacles on the track’s in-field, having already galloped off with the Triumph Hurdle (2014) and National Hunt Chase (2017).

Though a fifth victory would not be a Festival record – that’s the six achieved by Quevega, though all in one race, the Mares Hurdle – Tiger Roll’s versatility is what marks him out. A recent return when fifth in a race over hurdles at home in Ireland was encouraging.

Tiger Roll, the unbeaten Envoi Allen (Ballymore Novices Hurdle) and big Gold Cup fancy Delta Work head a formidable challenge by the Elliott team on the Festival where he’s notched up 25 winners in double-quick time having recorded the first as recently as 2011.

The race to be top trainer over the week is likely to be between him, Mullins – the event’s most successful trainer – and Henderson.

In 2019, the challenge between Britain and Ireland to produce most winners was tied, 14 apiece, but the Irish are favourites this time.

But it was not always thus: prior to the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom-time of the 1990s, many of Ireland’s best horses were sold to the UK, and in 1989 they actually drew a blank. It seems a long time ago now.

Welfare remains in the spotlight

After a series of stewards’ inquiries, and a great deal of chat, when just four of the 18 horses completed the very muddy course, the distance of the four-mile National Hunt Chase for amateur jockeys, was reduced by a quarter-mile and two fences.

Other regulations for horses and riders taking part in what is the oldest continuous Festival prize, dating back to the mid-19th century when the Corinthian dominated, have also been altered on welfare grounds.

That’s the main change for 2020, but with the issue of welfare generally, and at Cheltenham in particular, high on the sport’s agenda, the regulating British Horseracing Authority has a raft of safety measures in place.

For example, seven veterinary officers and 10 veterinary surgeons – more than four times as many as the Authority’s code requires – will be at the track for the four days.

The ever-emotive subject of riders and their whips was brought into sharp focus – among other things – with the publication in February of the new Horse Welfare Board’s strategy plan.

Though it acknowledged that the number of whip infringements was well down since a tightening of the rules in 2011, the amount still taking place was described as “unpalatably high” and, importantly, research showed it was a turn-off for potential new fans.

A review by the Authority is now underway, and it’s widely expected that punishments for whip offences – mainly bans – will soon be increased. Misuse of the whip, particularly in those so-called ‘win at all costs’ moments, will be scrutinised closely during the Festival.

And, for what it’s worth, a few tips…

Tuesday: The Champion Hurdle (3:30) looks hard to fathom so I’m with Notebook and Rachael Blackmore in the Arkle (2:10).

Thursday: It’s hard to see by Paisley Park in the Stayers (3:30), but former winner Penhill may not be far away and at rewarding odds.

Friday: Al Boum Photo has obvious credentials in the Gold Cup (3:30), but it’s so hard to win it back to back and Delta Work is the form-horse; Presenting Percy should never be underestimated.

News from BBC Sport

Written by Editor

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