Crowds are back at Cheltenham, and while last year was great to still be racing, it will be brilliant to have it back the way it was with the roar and the buzz of the crowds ramping up the atmosphere.
Cheltenham is unlike anywhere else, so last year at Cheltenham in our bubbles, the Irish in one and the UK jockeys and horses in another, was odd. It truly is the Olympics of racing for us, and the Holy Grail of a winner there still awaits me, but maybe this year it can come along, and that would be great.
Working as I do with the Willie Mullins team, and some other top yards, I’m never sure what I might be sat on right until very close to the time, but whatever you get a ride on will be good enough to compete. Having finished close up there a few times, the thrill of riding a winner at Cheltenham would be amazing and remains the aim!
Finding a horse that could be good enough to get you a Cheltenham winner really is what the whole year revolves around.
I’m not sure Willie Mullins knows himself which horses will go for which races just yet, so you wait for the call up where needed, but I’m lucky enough to go to Cheltenham with a good chance this year in the shape of Colm Murphy’s mare Impervious who will run on Thursday in the Mares Novices’ Hurdle, and she is a mare I really like.
She has really good form from earlier this season, won her maiden hurdle at Cork and then a winners’ race at Listowel. She then went on to win a Grade 3 contest at Down Royal and did it fairly well. In behind us at Down Royal was Party Central, who is fourth favourite with horse racing betting sites for the race next week, and on that line of form you’d be thinking she has a good chance. The form hopefully is staking up, and she is rated 133, which would put her right up there with the top mares in the race, so hopefully everything is adding up for her.
Colm Murphy has a great record in Cheltenham. Big Zeb, Voler La Vedette and Brave Inca spring to mind from the past, and he is just starting back now buying store horses - unbroken horses with potential - and he knows what it takes to go to Cheltenham and be competitive.
Preparation wise, all is good for the week. Days you wouldn’t be racing are often actually busier than the ones when we do. Willie has a lot of horses needing final bits of work at the Curragh, and it’s quite a busy time, but all is very much on track. I’ve ridden a few of the stars at Willie’s, and Dysart Dynamo has stood out. His work is exceptional, and he could be absolutely anything. He is freakish, and what he can do seems to be pretty special.
One thing you can’t recreate for the horses that go to Cheltenham for the first time is the atmosphere, and hopefully horses like Dysart Dynamo will enjoy it and take it in their stride, but you don’t know ‘til you get over there! It’s something that people looking out for betting offers and backing horses at Cheltenham don’t often factor in, but it’s a big thing and all part of the Cheltenham experience.
There has been a lot of talk again about a five-day Festival recently, and I wouldn’t mind it from the standpoint of more opportunity for jockeys like myself, owners and trainers alike. Lots of big festivals are going that way, so you can see why it’s being talked about, but you have the fear that the big races become more and more diluted if that was the case.
There is so much excitement this week about the possibility of Bob Olinger and Galopin Des Champs facing each other among other big clashes, and you’d have to worry a little bit that it becomes easier for those to be avoided with more races, but if it meant more chances I would take them!
We all know Willie Mullins of course brings a very strong team over, numbers wise and, importantly, quality wise. There are few I would surely pick out at this stage as key runners for the week.
Whatever race he goes for, he would be right at the top of my list. His work is exceptional; I’ve ridden him and ridden work alongside him, and he looks right up to being involved in whatever race they decide to go for at Cheltenham.
He hasn’t seen a hurdle yet for Willie on the track, but the French imports have always done a lot of jumping, even at this age. His schooling is good, and I wouldn’t have any worries about his jumping ability making the switch. He is exciting.
He is an extraordinary horse, comparable to other winners of the race from the yard. His work is exceptional, and he would have to be on the list of the best chances of the week for the yard.
I think Stattler is a proper graded horse. He is a very relaxed type of horse. He switches off in his races, and his mind is very good. I think Patrick Mullins will get him jumping, and some might be concerned about stamina perhaps, but he is bred to stay. Over fences, he has a much better chance of showing his best, plus at home he only ever does enough, and that’s a good sign. The owner loves this race - Patrick won on Rathvinden before for them - and he has a good chance again.
Outside of the Willie Mullins team, I’d have to say Honeysuckle wouldn’t I! She is a big Irish betting hope for the week in the Champion Hurdle for Henry De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore of course, and although Appreciate It will put it up to them, I do think Honeysuckle will come out on top. It’s fair to say she has become a pretty popular horse hasn’t she, and it's been brilliant for them both to keep winning as they do.
I won on Bardenstown Lad at Musselburgh, and I think he has a nice each each-way chance in the Albert Bartlett for John McConnell on the Friday. It’s always the type of race where you need lots of experience. He has had five runs over hurdles, and that seems ideal. John has trained him with this race in mind for a long time. He could be a good each way price for punters.
In the Gold Cup, I do like the chances of Galvin for Gordon Elliott. He won the Savills Chase, and it was a slowly run race but still he won, and that’s a good sign. He has great course form at Cheltenham already, and the new course will suit him and favour a proper stayer, which he surely is. For me, he is the most solid. You have to stay, and he’d be the one for me even though A Plus Tard will obviously have a big chance for Rachael, and Willie’s Al Boum Photo has to be in the mix as well. The Savills Chase win was very impressive, and I’d side with that form next week.
Last year for Rachael was unbelievable. It was a massive week for her, and when she got Honeysuckle across the line in front for the Champion Hurdle, I’m sure she wouldn’t have asked for any more. To get six winners was dream stuff, and everything just seemed to fall right for her, even picking up spare rides that she wouldn’t normally get and winning was amazing.
I’d say now, if you asked her again, she would take Honeysuckle to win in the Champion Hurdle and then see what happens from there onwards.
Then with the Grand National win a few weeks later too, that was even more special for her riding in the famous JP McManus colours. He puts so much into the horse racing betting game and is synonymous with Irish racing, you couldn’t make it up how it all unfolded for her, and I know she still pinches herself now.
For next week, we can surely only hope for the same great races and some luck. The Holy Grail of a winner is what I’ll be aiming for; best of luck to all!