With 43 winners to his name, Barry Geraghty is the second most successful jockey in the history of The Festival™ supporting WellChild. And while he might now be retired from the saddle, his association with Cheltenham lives on as our Festival Ambassador.
In the first of three exclusive blogs for thejockeyclub.co.uk, he looks ahead to next month’s Jump Racing spectacular…
I’ll admit straight away that it’s going to be strange not riding at Cheltenham this year. It’s such a buzz and your whole season is just geared around getting there.
From the time your winter horses come in from their holidays, you’re thinking about which ones will be good enough for The Festival and as a jockey you want to get there in once piece. It’s your Champions League Final and while I can’t tell you how many winners I’ve had at Aintree, Punchestown or Fairyhouse, I can tell you how many I’ve had at Cheltenham - and I can name them.
I knew going into last year’s Festival that it was going to be my last, and with that in mind I was desperate to have a winner. It doesn’t matter which race it comes in, but winning the Champion Hurdle with Epatante meant the world to me.
I probably showed more emotion riding winners at Cheltenham last year than I had done for a long time because I knew it was my last one, so to get Epatante in on the first day was the perfect way to start.
But there’s no doubt that my winner that people remember best from last year was another horse who gave me a special moment and in the most dramatic of circumstances – Champ in the 3m Festival Novices' Chase.
He did really well to come from where he did, and it was very similar to when I won the 2013 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Bobs Worth, in that you’re flat to the boards from halfway and just hanging in there. The two leaders in both races kicked for home and on both Bobs Worth and Champ I made a conscious decision that if I go now I won’t get home.
I had to just try and sit and suffer and hope my horse would find for pressure late on - and it worked on both occasions. With Champ, I saw Minella Indo fluff the last and straight away I was thinking ‘I’ve got a chance here’. Luckily for me he found loads!
So it was interesting watching him run at Newbury with Nico De Boinville on his back on Sunday. He was brilliant, I thought. He surprised me how easily he found the transition back to two miles. It’s never easy going back in trip like that and I don’t think many of this year’s Gold Cup contenders would be as competitive over two miles.
Champ proved how well he stayed in the 3m Festival Novices' Chase, so for me he was ticking a big box this weekend. It’s more a reflection of his wellbeing than the pace – it’s good to have but it’s not what’s tested in a Gold Cup.
His jumping was better. In the 3m Festival Novices' Chase last year his jumping wasn’t as fluent. He didn’t school as well beforehand for whatever reason – but he was a little bit more limited and wasn’t showing the same amount of scope going into the 3m Festival Novices' Chase for whatever reason as he showed yesterday. He was on springs!
I think he’s the biggest threat to Al Boum Photo in the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup. It’s very hard to put anything else in front of him and Al Boum Photo is there as defending champion. Champ’s run yesterday would be a better level of form than Al Boum Photo has going into the race, but you’re taking it on trust because he took the same route last year and the year before.
I’d be siding with Champ. If he can put it all together again at Cheltenham like he did yesterday then Al Boum Photo will need to bring his A-game.
I’m also looking forward to seeing Epatante defend her Champion Hurdle title. She holds a special place in my heart after our win last year and if she brings her best on the day, I think she’s the one to beat.
Her performances to win both at Cheltenham and in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle were brilliant. She has improved a lot physically and, although she underperformed at Kempton Park over Christmas, she has the potential for a lot of improvement this year.
She’s in the best hands with Nicky Henderson as nobody has trained more Champion Hurdle winners than him and I don’t think there’s a better trainer in England or Ireland with a filly or a mare.
That’s the difference in great trainers - if you look at the great Flat trainers and how well they do with fillies, I think it’s the same with Nicky and she’s in the right hands to get the best out of her.
If I was going to come out of retirement to ride just one of my winners from last year at this year’s Festival then it would definitely be Champ or Epatante. You’d be happy lining up on either of those.