From Bristol to Blackmore, it has been a jumps season like no other
The bet365 Gold Cup meeting brought the curtain down on another fantastic National Hunt campaign. The coronavirus pandemic might have meant crowds of any size were missing for much of the 2020-21 season, but the action on the track was no less enthralling. Here’s hoping the world returns to some sort of normality by the time the jumps game really gets going again in the autumn…
Bristol bags third Betfair
The first Grade One of the season in Britain is Haydock’s Betfair Chase, which saw Bristol De Mai continue his love affair with the Merseyside venue by bagging a third victory in the race. The Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained grey found Lostintranslation too strong when bidding for the hat-trick 12 months earlier, but reversed that form in no uncertain terms to match Cue Card’s record of three Betfair Chase wins. It would be a brave man who backs against him matching the legendary Kauto Star’s four victories in the race come November.
Bryony and Frodon claim King George glory
While much of the pre-race attention focused on a rematch between dual King George hero Clan Des Obeaux and stablemate Cyrname, it was in fact the popular Frodon who provided trainer Paul Nicholls with a record 12th victory in the King George VI Chase at Kempton under an enterprising ride from his regular partner Bryony Frost. Frost became the first female rider to win the Boxing Day showpiece, having previously become the first woman to win a Grade One over jumps at the Cheltenham Festival aboard the same horse in the 2019 Ryanair Chase.
Racing rocked by Gordon Elliott photo
Just weeks before the start of the Cheltenham Festival, shockwaves were sent through the sport after an image of leading Irish trainer Gordon Elliott sat on a dead horse was released on social media. While the authenticity of the image was initially questioned by many, Elliott would go on to confirm the photograph was in fact genuine, sparking consternation and outrage both within racing and in the wider community. Several high-profile horses, most notably Envoi Allen, were removed from Elliott’s yard by leading owners Cheveley Park Stud, even before the trainer was handed a year-long ban, with the last six months suspended. Denise ‘Sneezy’ Foster moved into Elliott’s yard shortly after his suspension was confirmed, ensuring the horses still based at Cullentra could continue to race.
Rachael Blackmore steals the show at Cheltenham
Rachael Blackmore’s status as the Queen of National Hunt racing was cemented in no uncertain terms at the Cheltenham Festival, with the brilliant jockey shattering records left, right and centre over the course of four high-octane days in the Cotswolds. After becoming the first female rider to win the Champion Hurdle aboard the brilliant mare Honeysuckle, the 31-year-old went on to enjoy five more victories, ensuring she was the first female to be crowned the Festival’s leading rider. While beaten by Willie Mullins for the leading trainer award on countback, special mention must also go to Henry de Bromhead in becoming the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Gold Cup in the same week. Just for good measure, the Waterford wizard saddled the one-two in the Gold Cup, with Blackmore and A Plus Tard chasing home Jack Kennedy-ridden stablemate Minella Indo.
Johnson bows out
Four-times champion jockey Richard Johnson made the surprise announcement he was retiring from the saddle after riding at Newton Abbot on a Saturday night. The 43-year-old, whose many big-race successes include a Champion Hurdle on Rooster Booster and two Cheltenham Gold Cups aboard Looks Like Trouble and Native River, was a perennial runner-up to 20-times champion jockey Sir Anthony McCoy for much of his career – but following his great rival’s retirement, he too made the title his own for four successive years, from 2015/16 to 2018/19.
History is made at Aintree
While Blackmore’s Cheltenham heroics transcended the sport to a certain degree, her profile was taken to stratospheric levels after becoming the first female rider to win the Randox Grand National at Aintree aboard the De Bromhead-trained Minella Times. A second winner in the race for JP McManus, the eight-year-old travelled and jumped like a dream and had enough in the tank from the final fence to repel stablemate Balko Des Flos. Speaking a few days after her historic triumph, Blackmore said: “It’s still hard to process it all, to be honest. It’s been unbelievable.”
Skelton crowned champion after thrilling title race
With McCoy and Johnson no longer part of the weighing room, it will be left to the new generation of jockeys to fight out the jockeys’ championship for the next few years. Northern-based rider Brian Hughes was a new name on the roll of honour last season and put up a staunch defence of his crown, but was ultimately unable to resist Harry Skelton’s charge over the last couple of weeks of the season. Son of the legendary showjumper Nick Skelton and brother of leading trainer Dan, Harry has firmly established himself as one of the leading jockeys in the weighing room over the last couple of years. He is a fully deserving champion – and with the Skelton team only growing in strength, he will remain a force to be reckoned with for many years to come if he can stay injury-free.