CORK jockeys look set for an historic Cheltenham Festival with all eyes on Paul Townend who will have an outstanding book of rides throughout the week.
Following the retirement of Ruby Walsh, the Cork rider assumed the role of number one stable jockey for champion trainer Willie Mullins.
That extra responsibility also brings massive pressure as Mullins will have so many fancied runners across the week. But Townend has waited his turn for this job and has an outstanding chance of being the leading rider of the week.
The Lisgoold rider will be aiming to retain the Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo, while he will also fancy his chances in the Champion Chase aboard the progressive Chacun Pour Soi.
Another Corkman, Aidan Coleman (below), rides Paisley Park in the Stayers Hurdle and is regarded as one of the bankers of the week.
The final leg of the four championship races is the Champion Hurdle and this looks a very open contest. Townend now looks likely to ride Cilaos Emery who needs to be supplemented for the race, while Davy Russell will ride a lively outsider Coeur Sublime who finished runner- up in the Triumph behind Pentland Hills last year.
Of course, Russell will also be riding the ‘Irish banker of the week’ Envoi Allen who looks likely to stay in novice company and run in the Ballymore novice hurdle.
There have been calls for this season’s leading novice to run in the Champion Hurdle, but trainer Gordon Elliot has ruled it out. Punters have been piling into Envoi Allen all season after his brilliant bumper victory at Cheltenham last season.
Davy Russell rides Cheltenham as good as anyone and will thrive under the pressure. The Youghal rider has already won the Gold Cup with Lord Windemere and will ride Presenting Percy in the big one.
Of course, Russell will also be looking forward to the Aintree Grand National where Tiger Roll is trying to emulate Red Rum and complete a historic three-in-a-row in the most famous race in the world.
But Russell, Townend, and Coleman are in the big league and crave these high-class horses. Al Boum Photo was a fairytale Gold Cup victory for Townend and a first for trainer Mullins, who had finished runner-up on six previous occasions. His owner Joe Donnelly was a well-known bookmaker in greyhound and racing circles here.
He has invested heavily in racing and has a number of outstanding novice hurdlers, including Shishkin, who is the favourite for the Supreme which will get the Festival underway.
Trainer Nicky Henderson has put Shishkin forward as one of his best bets of the week. Interestingly, Donnelly also owns the second favourite, Asterion Forlonge, who really impressed at the Dublin Racing Festival and will be ridden by Paul Townend.
With Jack Kennedy out injured, there is every chance that Davy Russell (below) might ride Abacadabras in this red hot opening contest. Getting a winner early in the opening day is very important and such a confidence booster for any jockey.
Johnny Burke, Adrian Heskin, Gavin Sheehan, and Jerry McGrath have all hit the headlines across the water lately and are more than capable of making the headlines at Cheltenham.
The festival is full of drama and huge emotion with Paisley Park grabbing the headlines last year. His owner Andrew Gemmell, who is blind from birth, emerged as a real hero and as Aidan Coleman hit the front, the roars of approval provided a never-to-be-forgotten moment for racing fans on track.
The fact that Paisley Park was the 11/8 favourite certainly helped, but Gemmell is a sports nut and a hugely popular figure within the sport. Jockey Bryony Frost is a darling of the British sporting media and her charming smile after Frodon’s victory was front page news across the water.
Obviously the highlight from a local perspective was the victory of Al Boum Photo and the scenes of joy for the Townend family were something else.
Familiar faces from the point-to-point circuit appeared in the parade ring in a truly joyous moment for national hunt fans down south.
Looking ahead to this year’s festival, it will take on a life of its own. The Nicky Henderson-trained Altior is a real superstar and is chasing a third Champion Chase crown.
After suffering a defeat earlier in the season over a two and a half mile trip he bounced back to form with his trademark finishing kick at Newbury recently. This Champion Chase is shaping up to be the race of the festival with Altior, Defi Du Seuil, and Chacun Pour Soi set to lock horns.
Everyone loves a comeback in sport and Altior was written off by plenty of pundits during the year. But Henderson is a genius when it comes to these big meetings and expect Altior to go very close in this clash of the titans.
Incidentally, Un De Sceaux is likely to turn up here and the O’Connell crew will be praying for all this rain to continue. However, this iron horse is now a 12-year-old, although he put in two excellent performances to finish runner-up to Defi Du Seuil already this season.
Finally, the Cheltenham preview circuit reaches Leeside next Monday night (24th) in the Stable Bar, Carrigaline with Davy Russell, Joseph O’Brien and Gary O’Brien joining Jimmy Mangan to discuss the key clashes of the meeting. Russell is always a fascinating guest and all proceeds go the ‘Hurling for Cancer’ charity.