Monday 11 March 2019

Leaps & Bounds: Cheltenham Festival Leading Jockeys

In the past decade at the Cheltenham Festival, while the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award has been presented to just four men, the Holland Cooper Leading Jockey Award has been presented to just three, Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty and, most recently, Davy Russell.

Thanks in large part to long, fruitful associations with Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins – multiple champion trainers on their respective sides of the Irish Sea – Ruby Walsh is, far and away, the most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival. Coincidentally, Walsh has ridden 58 winners, exactly the same number as Geraghty (36) and Russell (22) put together, which may account for the fact that he has won the Holland Cooper Leading Jockey Award eight times in the last ten years – and eleven times in all – whereas Geraghty and Russell have won it just once apiece.

Nevertheless, just over two decades ago, on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival in 1998, none of these leading jockeys had ridden a single winner at the so-called ‘Olympics of Horse Racing’, so it’s interesting to know how, and when, they began their quest for stardom.

Unsurprisingly, Ruby Walsh was the first to open his account at the Festival, when still an 18-year-old amateur, in 1998. That said, ‘Mr. R. Walsh’, as he was known to racegoers at the time, was reigning Irish amateur champion and rewarded the faith shown in him by Willie Mullins by guiding the five-year-old Alexander Banquet to a 2½-length victory of the favourite, Joe Mac, in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.

Barry Geraghty broke his duck at the Cheltenham Festival, at the age of 23, in 2002, partnering Moscow Flyer – who would later be rated alongside Burrough Hill Lad and Long Run in the top ten steeplechasers of the Timeform era – to a ready, 4-length win over the favourite, Seebald, in the Arkle Challenge Trophy. Now the fourth most successful jockey in the history of British National Hunt racing, and retained by powerful owner J.P. McManus, he still has time to increase his winning tally at the Festival.

Davy Russell, at the age of 39, is roughly the same age as Walsh and Geraghty, but was a relative latecomer to Festival success, partnering his first winner, Native Jack, in the Cross Country Chase in 2006. Even so, he has enjoyed a steady stream of winners – at least one at every Cheltenham Festival – ever since, including winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Lord Windermere in 2014. In fact, Russell enjoyed his best Cheltenham Festival ever, numerically, with four winners, including Balko Des Flos in the Ryanair Chase to win the Holland Cooper Leading Jockey Award  for the first time.

With International Women's Day just gone, let's not forget the contributions of female jockeys to the Cheltenham Festival. Nina Carberry rode her first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, Dabiroun, in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle in 2005 and subsequently rode six more winners to become the most successful female jockey in the history of the Festival. Historically female jockey participation at Cheltenham has been a rarity especially when compared to the Grand National. That's changing though, with a record breaking four wins for female jockeys at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival including Lizzie Kelly on Coo Star Sivola in the Ultima Handicap Chase.

Kelly will be back on the same horse in the 2019 Festival, in addition to two other rides. Other female jockeys such as Rachael Blackmore and Bryony Frost will feature too to the potential for another bumper year for the ladies is high!

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