It has been a tough few weeks for racing, with the sport shaken to its core by the Gordon Elliott case. However, the show must go on and the Cheltenham Festival can give racing reason to smile again, with the Cotswold jamboree never failing to ignite the senses.
It will be a different Festival this year, with no crowds and strict Covid protocols in place, but we pinpoint five horses that could put racing back in the headlines for all the right reasons:
Rachael Blackmore has every chance of smashing through the final barrier for female riders with victory aboard the unbeaten Honeysuckle in the Unibet Champion Hurdle on the opening day. Blackmore dished out a tactical masterclass when steering Honeysuckle to Mares’ Hurdle glory last year, and the dynamic duo’s Irish Champion Hurdle domination last month showed just how close the rider could be to a landmark win in one of National Hunt racing’s showpiece events.
No one could forget the terrible misfortune that befell Goshen and Jamie Moore in last year’s Triumph Hurdle, when a freak incident at the last – with Goshen’s shoes catching after jumping the final obstacle – brought the rider crashing to the ground when wide-margin victory had seemed in the bag. Neither horse nor jockey has had it easy through this campaign either – with Goshen struggling for form before roaring back at Wincanton, while Moore has had the dual challenge of recovering from a broken back as his wife Lucie underwent treatment for cancer. Victory for them both would be a heartening good-news story we could all enjoy.
It was a long time between drinks for Kim Bailey before First Flow struck Grade One gold at Ascot in January. The trainer had last hit the heights at the top level some 26 years ago, when he enjoyed a dream Festival – winning both the Champion Hurdle with Alderbrook and the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Master Oats. The fact owner Tony Solomons has been with Bailey for 40 years adds an extra layer to what would be a fairytale strike in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. Throw in the fearless riding style of jockey David Bass, and First Flow’s remarkable rise through the ranks from slipshod handicapper to prolific winner, and it is fair to say roofs will be raised in living rooms nationwide one side of the Irish Sea at least if they can somehow get the job done against the might of Chacun Pour Soi.
A heart problem proved Paisley Park’s undoing when he tried for back-to-back Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle titles last year, but Emma Lavelle’s charge has bounced back in style. He will not be renewing battle with Thyme Hill, with his rival a late injury absentee. That richly-anticipated showdown will have to wait for another day. Paisley Park’s owner Andrew Gemmell – who was born blind – was a joy to behold when his star won this race in 2019, and while we will not be able to share his excitement in the same way, it would be another special victory.
Bryony Frost and Frodon are like salt and vinegar on chips – they just go together. The pair’s Ryanair Chase success of two years ago saw racing make the main news bulletins and front pages, so just imagine what attention victory in the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup would produce. Frost and Frodon broke new ground with their King George win at Christmas – and although they appear up against it with hat-trick seeker Al Boum Photo, a Gold Cup win for this pair could be just the rehabilitation racing’s reputation needs.