When Davy Russell picked up a gong to mark his retirement at Monday night’s Horse Racing Ireland awards, it was the day after Grade One ‘Winter Festival’ action at Fairyhouse underlined how seamlessly jump racing’s generation gap has been filled.
Russell calling time at Aintree last April brought a golden age of Irish National Hunt jockeys to a close. In a few short years, a vintage crop of riders that for a couple of decades had dominated the toughest game of all decided enough was enough.
Russell along with Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty and Paul Carberry, as well as AP McCoy, transformed standards and expectations in a profession unlike any other when it comes to demands on dedication and courage.
So called golden generations have enjoyed mixed sporting fortunes over the years. But no one could dispute the substance of this one. It helped too that their distinct personalities cemented their status in the public gaze.
Walsh’s flintiness contrasted with Geraghty’s wry image. A more combustible Russell always seemed capable of arguing with himself if no one else was around. If McCoy seemed to consciously play up some ascetic instincts, they could hardly have been more different to Carberry’s cavalier impulses.
All were compelling figures as well as outstanding practitioners of the strange craft of getting horses from A to B faster than anyone else. Their departure inevitably prompted fears of a hangover at the top of the jockey tree in this country. We needn’t have worried.
That the gap has proved no more than a slight bump in the road could be boiled down to last Sunday’s Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and the fascinating game of tactical one-upmanship that saw Jack Kennedy on Teahupoo overcome Paul Townend on the odds-on Impaire Et Passe.
The two top jockeys in the country riding for the two top yards delivered a wonderful finish preceded by a tactical masterclass from Kennedy. On the apparent slower horse, his determination to make a quicker rival go faster than he wanted was an exhibition of subtle horsemanship.
If Townend found himself on the receiving end on that occasion, a first ever HRI award on Monday reflected his capacity for brilliant improvisation that last season delivered a pair of superb big-race triumphs in particular.
Persuading I Am Maximus to ignore his neuroses long enough to win the Irish Grand National was superb. Dropping out the favourite Galopin Des Champs in the Cheltenham Gold Cup was an exhibition of icy judgement in the most pressurised context of all. It set a new benchmark for nerve. McCoy’s judgement that it was the best big race ride he’d ever seen is hard to dispute.
Rachael Blackmore brings up Ireland’s ‘Trifecta’ of top professionals. She is a singular figure known to much of the broader public simply through her first name. Quite what the sport owes her probably won’t be fully appreciated until such a pioneering career is over.
It is a trio of riding talent, backed up by other top performers such as Mark Walsh, that continues to set a benchmark compared to most cross-channel competition. Earlier this year the retired dual Champion Hurdle-winning rider Noel Fehily bemoaned standards there, labelling many professionals as merely reaching the standard of very good amateurs.
Expecting Ireland’s cream of the crop to all be natural media performers into the bargain is expecting too much. Nor should the sport presume it is entitled to its leading figures being able to turn the publicity button on and off on demand.
Nevertheless, Walsh and Geraghty were naturals in front of a microphone. If Russell is as adept a mover as a talker, then he’s past the post already in Dancing With The Stars. No one appeared to relish examining the supposed complexities of McCoy’s drive to win more than McCoy himself.
In contrast, it can feel like Blackmore is tiptoeing her way through interviews like they’re a minefield, constantly wary of upsetting owners and trainers. Townend shares his thoughts with a Ladbrokes blog but is often shy of sharing them with some other media.
He is 33, a year younger than Blackmore. That it already feels like Kennedy has been around for almost as long as both underlines how he sprang to prominence as a 16-year-old. Still only 24, the young Kerry man shapes as the future for many years to come.
Gordon Elliott is in no doubt about his protege’s abilities, pointing to there being only one winning line and Kennedy’s apparently preternatural capacity to judge the business of getting to it first better than anyone else.
Kennedy has been the game’s most-likely-to-succeed for some time. A horrific run of injuries, including five seperate leg breaks, has been interspersed with superb big race victories such as Minella Indo in the 2021 Gold Cup.
Tempting fate is a dangerous exercise in such a dangerous business. But that superb display on Teahupoo underlined Kennedy’s status as surely a champion jockey in waiting. With top-flight rivals sure to have plenty to say about that, it makes for a jockey picture that’s everyone else’s good fortune.
Something for the Weekend
Champion jockey Brian Hughes makes a rare trip south for a single ride at Sandown today and despite topweight Dreams of Home (1.15) could make the journey worthwhile. He has a big weight but still looks attractively rated considering the mark that he won off at this time a year ago.
Maura’s Gift (6.30) has a pull at the weights with Sioux Princess on their running last month and can secure a second course and distance victory at Dundalk this evening.