Rachael Blackmore stole the show at the Cheltenham Festival last year, winning six races at the behind-closed-doors meeting — including major victories in the Champion Hurdle, Ryanair Chase, and Triumph Hurdle — as she won over the nation’s heart, set records tumbling, and became the first female rider to win the Festival’s sought-after Top Jockey award — a personal accolade that must be at the top of every rider’s wish list during their career.

It’s a great shame that Blackmore tasted that incredible success without the iconic ‘Cheltenham Roar’ spurring her over the line in what could prove to be the best week in her racing career, as the eerie silence of Prestbury Park hardly did her immense achievements any justice. There’s no doubt that the 32-year-old, and trainer Henry de Bromhead for that matter, will be hoping to replicate some of that success in front of the packed Cheltenham concourses at this year’s renewal — but Paul Townend will be out to get his trophy back.

With Ruby Walsh, an 11-time Festival Top Jockey, hanging up his whip in 2019, Townend took the reins as Willie Mullins’ number one rider and roles don’t come much bigger than that in jumps racing. But with being in the saddle of some of the best horses in the United Kingdom and Ireland comes with it a lot of pressure, and Townend has so far dealt with the weight on his shoulders brilliantly — winning the Cheltenham Top Jockey award with five winning rides in 2020.

Last year’s meeting was a surprisingly quiet one for the 31-year-old, as he rode just three winners across the four days and failed to pick up a victory in any of the Championship races — with Mullins’ only success in one of the big five contests delivered by Blackmore and Allaho in the Ryanair Chase. The early signs this year, as far as the Top Jockey award is concerned, are all pointing in the direction of Townend though.

Yes, Blackmore will be in the saddle of at least two horses almost guaranteed to win — Honeysuckle (Champion Chase) and Allaho (Ryanair Chase) — but the horse racing betting markets have Townend as the heavy favorite to regain his Top Jockey crown at this year’s Festival. Mullins is set to saddle eight favorites in the 28 races next month, and aside from Allaho, Townend will be in the saddle of the vast majority of those market leaders.

The Irishman, who recently landed his 1,000th victory and claimed his best trait is ‘riding for Willie Mullins’, will have plenty of opportunities to add to his 15 career winners at Prestbury Park — with Sir Gerhard (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle), Blue Lord (Arkle), Appreciate It (Champion Hurdle), Galopin Des Champs (Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase), Facile Vega (Champion Bumper), Allegorie De Vassy (Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle), Vauban (Triumph Hurdle) and Concertista (Mares’ Chase) just some of the more favored horses he will be in the saddle of across the four days.

Walsh currently holds the record for the most winning rides in a single year, picking up seven victories in 2016 and 2009, so it will be interesting to see if Townend can level, or even succeed his predecessor at this year’s meeting. He would need most of those rides to go in his favor though, which is unlikely at a meeting like Cheltenham, but he is still the man to beat next month!

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