Jockey Davy Russell reflects on Ireland’s dominance at this year’s Cheltenham Festival
I WAS gutted to have to sit out this year’s Cheltenham Festival, having broken my neck in October, but there were some great highlights to enjoy.
Of course, all the headlines have been about Rachael Blackmore as leading jockey of the Festival with six winners. She really is the complete package – she’s very brave, she has a marvellous pair of hands, she can suss out a race and seems to get into just the right position early in proceedings. Even when she looks as if she’d struggle, all of a sudden she’s in the box seat.
Like me this year, jockey Jack Kennedy was out injured last year and he missed the Festival but he came back brilliantly to ride four winners, including in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Then for Henry de Bromhead to train the winners of three championship races – the Champion Hurdle and the Queen Mother Champion Chase with the fillies, Honeysuckle and Put The Kettle On, and the Gold Cup with Minella Indo, is a huge achievement and a credit to his training ability.
But what also struck me this year was the spread of winning owners – 25 in total with just Cheveley Park Stud and Kenny Alexander taking more than one race apiece; gone was the dominance of the big names.
But then again, the likes of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede were knocking on the door, and in any other year they could have had a brilliant Cheltenham. That just tells you how competitive it was.
Everbody’s talking about Ireland’s dominance this year, with 23 wins to Great Britain’s five over the four days. You look at Brazil for football, New Zealand for rugby and Ireland for horse racing – it’s what we’re born and reared to do, so it’s no surprise that we’re finally getting really good at it!
These things always come in cycles, but are there things England needs to tweak to catch up with us? Maybe Ireland has hit on something with the Dublin Racing Festival that probably has catapulted us to another level.
We’re a small country and we often end up taking each other on with our horses, but our clashes are concentrated at the right time of year – we like to find out which are our best horses before we come to Cheltenham. But from our point of view, it’s no good unless the English horses are very competitive, too – we need that for the sport.
“The old Tiger was definitely back”
OF course, we were roaring Tiger Roll up the hill to win the cross-country race – he has a big fanclub here at home!
We were confident he was back ahead of Cheltenham. I schooled him one morning then Keith Donoghue schooled him another couple of days.
At home his work has always been the same, but he gets quicker, lower and faster at his jumps the better form he’s in, and he was starting to get back that speed in the past three weeks. The old Tiger was definitely returning.
He’d got a bit deliberate in his races and was jumping the fences a bit up in the air, so they’ve done a marvellous job with him at home – he went hunting and he does a lot of different things.
For the first time this year, they even jumped him into the water at a cross-country schooling place and he seemed happier again after that. You just have to keep changing things up with him because he gets bored pretty easily.
About halfway through the race, he really got away from the back of one of the fences and I knew from thereon he was going to be very hard to peg back. He’ll probably go for the Betway Bowl at Aintree next, which again will be something different for him. You never know, he could be back for the Grand National next year.
This exclusive column is also available to read in this week’s issue of Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 25 March
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