A THRILLING renewal of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the season of all seasons for a Cork champion, and the rise of several stars – both human and equine – are among the standout moments that spring to mind, when one reflects upon these past 12 months.
From a local perspective, Davy Russell, and his remarkable year of success on the track, undoubtedly tops the bill.
The Youghal native demonstrated why he is regarded as one of the best horsemen of the modern era, delivering a third jockey’s crown, becoming leading rider for the week at the Cheltenham Festival (for the first time) and winning the world’s most famous steeplechase in the Aintree Grand National.
His run of big-race victories and remarkable achievements saw him nominated for a whole host of mainstream awards, including for the RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year accolade.
His victory in the iconic race at Liverpool, which came aboard Tiger Roll, arrived at the 14th attempt.
There was a photo finish to overcome, too, after Pleasant Company and David Mullins rallied late-on, ensuring that the race didn’t want for drama.
But Russell and his mount were not to be denied. He had finally won the race which he dreamed of riding in as a youngster.
It was an emotional success for the 39-year-old, made all the more poignant by the sad passing of his loving Mum, Phyllis, just weeks previously.
Speaking after his memorable triumph in the Grand National, Russell told this column: ‘‘It was a great day. You don’t ever really think you’re going to win it. It’s special when you do. I’ve gone past the Melling Road, going a lot worse, and finished third.
“This year, at that stage, I felt that there was going to have to be something come from behind to beat me. It was (a nervous wait at the end). He just tired up a small bit on me.
“I was there very early and the Mullins horse (Pleasant Company) rallied, which I didn’t think he would.
‘‘Tiger Roll is so brave. He’s unbelievably brave and he’s fierce clever. He’s limited with what he gives – even with his jumping – and he doesn’t kill himself.
“He’s very economical with what he gives you. He kind of saves a bit that way.’’
On his hat-trick of champion jockey titles, Russell added: ‘‘everybody wants to be champion jockey –
for the simple reason that you ride more winners than everybody else.
“For that reason alone, it is brilliant. But then it is so difficult over here.
“For me to be champion, something has to happen to the likes of Ruby (Walsh). Unfortunately, he has had a very tough year.
‘‘At the same time, I have gone into 100 or so winners for the year. Whatever would have been, I would have made Ruby work for it at least.
“It’s great to win it for a third time. I didn’t think that I would get to win it again, to be honest.
“It is extra special, to be able to win the championship now.’’
The 2018 edition of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for this writer, ranks as the race of the year.
For the purists, it is the day that matters most. A race run over a stamina-sapping three and a quarter miles, it is the ultimate test of the thoroughbred.
It is racing’s blue riband event and the race which every jockey, trainer, owner, and breeder wants to win.
Last March’s renewal developed into a pulsating duel between Native River and Might Bite, with both horses playing their part in what must surely go down as a classic.
The superb jumping, the relentless galloping, the sheer will of the main protagonists – which were at the front of affairs throughout – made this a sight to behold.
It was the best renewal for some time and, while Native River took the honours, Might Bite ensured this was a race, more than a performance, to savour.
As is often the case, there was a local connection to the winner of the big one, as the son of Indian River first appeared at a point-to-point in Dromahane, where he unseated at the last, back in the spring of 2014.
Of course, there were numerous other horses which made big impacts in 2018.
Presenting Percy was scintillating in the RSA, looking the real deal with this hugely impressive success at the Festival.
The same could be said of Footpad in the Arkle.
Buveur D’air became a dual champion hurdler, but perhaps the most memorable performance produced by Nicky Henderson’s charge (at the time of writing) was last month’s classy display in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.
There was Alpha Centauri’s hot run of form in the summer, where she mopped up four top-level victories under Cork’s Colm O’Donoghue.
Un De Sceaux was again bagging big-race victories, this time at Ascot, Punchestown and Fairyhouse, for his sporting local owners, the O’Connell family from Glanmire, and he more than played his part in a fascinating Tingle Creek earlier this month, when a gallant second behind the mighty Altior at Sandown.
Finally, no recap of 2018 would be complete without recognising the stellar campaign which jockey Rachael Blackmore is currently enjoying, as we enter the halfway point of the National Hunt season-proper.
The former champion conditional has surged towards the head of the jockeys’ standings after some terrific displays in the saddle this year have seen her already double her previous best tally and show that she is more than capable of mixing it with the best.