The 2022 Cheltenham Festival is tipped to be like no other as it attempts to put Covid behind it. In 2020, the fixture, now amongst British sport’s most sought after events attracting around 250,000 spectators, took place as pandemic storm clouds gathered, while a year later Government restrictions excluded fans so Honeysuckle, Rachael Blackmore and co. returned to near-silent stands after their triumphs. Tickets have been selling fast, and just like 2002, when the Festival bounced back in style after being cancelled the previous year because of an outbreak of Foot-and-mouth disease, managers are anticipating a spectacular four days.
The never-beaten Honeysuckle and her rider are being talked up as stars of the show again. Having got the better of a tight finish to the Mares Hurdle in 2020, they ran away winners with the most recent Champion Hurdle; at home in Ireland, they recently completed a hatrick in the Leopardstown equivalent. Blackmore, the first female jockey to win the Grand National, has been on board her charismatic partner, trained by Henry de Bromhead for owner Kenny Alexander, for all of her fourteen wins under Rules, but – pub quiz alert – Mark O’Hare was the jockey for her point-to-point success.
The Prestbury Cup
With leading British trainers fielding a series of quality runners, cautious optimism abounds for some recovery from the 5-23 drubbing by Ireland in 2021. Nicky Henderson has the strongest list, headed by Shishkin in the Queen Mother Champion Chase against arch-rival Energumene, but Paul Nicholls, Venetia Williams and Alan King all have notable fancies too. However, the formbook indicates a gargantuan effort may be required against the formidable raiding parties of Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott – back from suspension – Gavin Cromwell and Henry de Bromhead, who has current Gold Cup titleholder and runner-up, Minella Indo and A Plus Tard, as well as Honeysuckle.
That said, it is not just about the highest profile names: ask Ann and Ian Hamilton, farmers and racehorse trainers – prolific ones too, operating at a 40% strike rate – from rural Northumberland, north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Among six horses, all their own, that the Hamiltons prepare alongside sheep and cattle is Tommy’s Oscar, an eight-time hurdle-race winner, which has climbed up the ladder sufficiently high to earn a tilt at the Champion Hurdle. Honeysuckle apart, the race has an open look, and with his form figures and romantic back-story, Tommy’s Oscar is sure to be a popular each-way shout.
The Cheltenham Festival represents the year’s most lucrative week for the horseracing economy with revenues from sources as varied as betting, media rights, admissions and sales in the track’s bustling Guinness village. And it is not just racing’s economy: the Gloucestershire area is said to receive an injection of £100 million-plus – yet another reason that absent crowds were so missed. All kinds of numbers are bandied around for the total betting spend with Fitzdares and its rivals – £100m is again about right – and, assuming not too many big gambles land, that equates to a highly significant Levy boost to racing’s balance sheet.
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