Johnny Ward: Blackmore's heroics, Kennedy's outstanding win and soul-searching for British racing

Our columnist reflects on the final day of the 2021 Festival.

Image: PA

SPORTING PERSONALITY AWARDS could hardly interest me less but it was pointed out more than once at the time that Sam Bennett failing to win the 2020 gong in Ireland was somewhat laughable.

Bennett’s green jersey in the Tour de France was a rare achievement. He won two stages of Le Tour and another in the Vuelta a España. He has become arguably the best sprinter in the world.

Taylor only had two fights in the second half of the year, one a mismatch against the 37-year-old Miriam Gutiérrez.

Boxing isn’t really for me so maybe Taylor was worthy of the accolade but it was hard to make any sense of her being deemed a higher achiever than Sam Bennett. Maybe the fact she is a female competing in a sport as gruelling as boxing makes her a special case.

If Taylor were worthy of winning it in 2020, what might Rachael Blackmore need to do more in 2021? Becoming the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle was one thing but to enjoy more winners over the four days than every British trainer put together was thousand-to-one stuff.

Blackmore was in demand this week: she had 20 rides. She rode winners for Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead, finishing with six winners, Jack Kennedy next with four, and I’d argue that Kennedy in some respects had a better week.

Kennedy has had a shocking run of injuries for a 21-year-old. A haul of four winners, taking the Gold Cup on Minella Indo advertised that he is in pole position to be the outstanding rider of his generation if he can keep sound.

Both have a terrific mindset and humility.

“That tops everything, without a doubt. It’s definitely the best day of my life,” said Kennedy after Minella Indo’s victory over stablemate A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup, another big win for Henry de Bromhead.

jack-kennedy-celebrates-after-winning-with-minella-indo Jack Kennedy celebrates after winning with Minella Indo. Source: Dan Abraham/INPHO

“You dream about winning these races as a child. I know I’m still young, but I’ve been in the position to win them for a couple of years so it’s brilliant.

“I thought I had as good a chance as any horse in the race to be honest. I’d gone down to Henry’s to school him and a few of the lads there were fairly keen on him, so I was fairly confident going out.

“The fact that Rachael chose A Plus Tard took the pressure off me a bit as well.”

There was a remarkable moment before the second-last in the Gold Cup as Blackmore essentially tried to hem Townend in on Al Boum Photo, gaining a vital length or so at a crucial stage. It was, ultimately, immaterial to the result, but illustrated the swagger with which Blackmore is riding.

Little doubt that Blackmore’s heroics were what newspaper editors focussed on most this week but within the sport there needs to be a period of soul-searching in Britain.

Paul Nicholls, who not long ago was the dominant Cheltenham force, was an irrelevance. Nicky Henderson did better but his two horses in the Gold Cup ran shockers and it was frightening as a British racing fan to consider the 2022 Gold Cup this evening.

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The best home finisher today was Frodon, who doesn’t even stay the Gold Cup trip and was out of his depth at the finish today. The other British Gold Cup horses seem to have had their day and the star novice prospects are all Irish, not to mind the three made the podium today.

This is not good news for Irish racing, as the two industries are so entwined, but we can bask in the glory of an amazing Cheltenham 2021. Prize-money needs to be at a respectable level to sustain a sport but it is hard to conclude other than that the best trainers and jockeys are over here and the biggest owners want the best to they come here, even if they are not even Irish.

There were more Irish mares winning races at Cheltenham this year than British-trained horses. A haul of five British winners from 28 races is nothing short of pathetic and, apart from Shishkin, it is hard to be excited about a single young horse trained in Britain that ran at the Festival. If their present is bleak, the future seems apocalyptic.

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Johnny Ward

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