It was and could only ever be a Cheltenham Festival like no other. The absence of crowds from the Cotswolds’ extravaganza ensured it was something few in racing were quite sure of leading into it.
After a turbulent couple of weeks for racing pre-Cheltenham, the action on the course and the stories it produced well and truly helped to recreate a feel-good factor for the sport.
Here are our six special memories to take away from Cheltenham 2021.
1 – Rachael Blackmore – Queen of the Cotswolds
Rachael Blackmore had ridden Festival winners before but from the moment she steered Honeysuckle home in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, this Festival took on a whole new dimension for the Irish jockey. The outstanding mare Honeysuckle stamped her class on the two-mile Championship event and Blackmore did likewise across four days at Cheltenham.
She rode six winners – joining Ruby Walsh as the only rider in history to achieve such a haul in one sitting – and her skills were evidenced throughout. Tactical awareness won her the Champion Bumper on Sir Gerhard, while she picked perfect pathways on the likes of Bob Olinger and Telmesomethinggirl; alongside a front-running masterclass on Allaho in the Ryanair Chase.
A Plus Tard could not deny stablemate Minella Indo in the Gold Cup, the only wrong call of an outstanding week for Blackmore, but that won’t diminish what was a landmark Festival for the jockey.
2 – Ireland’s Call – Raiders enjoy total dominance
The Prestbury Cup, the annual contest between Britain and Ireland to send out the most winners over the four days, is something of a sideshow in all honesty, but it was never supposed to be as one-sided as this. Ireland held sway by 23-5 over the four days, leaving National Hunt racing in Britain facing quite an inquest at the end of a chastening week.
Irish horses won all four of the Championship races, with only Shiskin and Chantry House plundering Grade 1s for the home side. The spread of winning connections from the Emerald Isle was also impressive and suggests real depth to their team. Britain must seek out answers and a riposte to try and level out the playing field and, seemingly, that begins with re-assessing a standpoint that puts Cheltenham in March ahead of all other targets.
3 – Shishkin’s Arkle – Henderson star is the real deal
It wasn’t a total washout for Britain and Nicky Henderson will point to his horses winning two of the three Grade 1 novice chases as a major plus. Chantry House had some help on his side after Envoi Allen departed the Marsh early on, but Shishkin’s Arkle triumph was all class.
He maintained his perfect record over fences in fine style, adding to last year’s Supreme Novices’ win at this meeting too. Allmankind simply couldn’t hack it when Nico de Boinville’s mount served it up. Energumene’s absence took away from the race but this would surely have been one battle Britain came out best in on the evidence we saw from the imperious Shiskin.
4 – De Bromhead’s Treble – History for Irish handler
Honeysuckle was dominant in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday and it would prove the start of a very special Cheltenham for Henry De Bromhead. Last year’s Arkle winner Put The Kettle On once more displayed her love for this special place as she galloped strongly up the Cheltenham hill to win the Champion Chase on Wednesday and make it 4-4 at the track. The best was still to come, Minella Indo determinedly holding off stablemate A Plus Tard to win the Gold Cup on Friday. That meant De Bromhead became the first trainer in history to land Cheltenham’s ‘Holy Trinity’ in the same season and it truly was a remarkable achievement.
5 – Appreciate It – Supreme demolition job
All the way back to Tuesday’s opening race is where we must go to recall the absolute pummelling Appreciate It served out to his rivals in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle for Willie Mullins and Paul Townend. Denied by stablemate Ferny Hollow in the Bumper at this meeting a year ago, there was to be no repeat this time as Appreciate It piled the misery on his rivals from the home bend and roared home to give his record-breaking trainer yet another win in the curtain raiser.
Mullins couldn’t get his hands on a Championship race in 2021, but he kept finding winners and Galopin Des Champs’ success in the Martin Pipe book-ended The Festival for the Closutton maestro, whilst also ensuring he pipped De Bromhead to be officially crowned leading trainer yet again.
6 – Kennedy’s Gold Cup – Highs and lows of Cheltenham
The beauty of Cheltenham for participants and punters alike is the unerring ability to provide a rollercoaster of emotion and Jack Kennedy personified that in 2021.
He had a first-day double with Black Tears and Galvin but it was on Thursday afternoon that the spotlight really shone on him when he partnered hitherto unbeaten Envoi Allen in the Marsh Novices’ Chase. They didn’t see out a circuit and the image of a dejected Kennedy walking back up the home straight was beamed around the world.
Just over 24 hours later, the young rider was on Minella Indo in the Gold Cup itself and experienced the ultimate Cheltenham high. After a career already blighted with serious injuries, this was some turnaround from Kennedy, who had also managed to give Mount Ida a near miraculous steer to win the Kim Muir on Thursday evening.