Hopes high for Rachael Blackmore at Dublin Racing Festival
Top jockey to partner Honeysuckle and Minella Indo in feature renewals at festival
Rachael Blackmore on Honeysuckle celebrates winning the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse. File photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Rachael Blackmore could emerge as the face of this weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival action with both big-race favourites to look forward to in Leopardstown.
Even by the 31-year-old rider’s pioneering standards, success on Honeysuckle in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle and Minella Indo in Sunday’s Paddy Power Gold Cup is a heady prospect.
Crucially, it’s also a prospect to lift the spirits of a sport in the throes of a crisis of self-confidence.
Rocked by a series of high-profile regulatory own-goals, including last Sunday’s false-start fiasco at Naas, this weekend’s action takes place ahead of Tuesday’s appeal by trainer Charles Byrnes in relation to the notorious Viking Hoard case.
Byrnes will appeal a six-month ban over serious negligence that regulatory authorities concluded helped lead to Viking Hoard being “nobbled” with a sedative by an unidentified third party at Tramore in 2018.
It ensures an uncomfortable spotlight will continue to shine on a wider industry under fierce reputational pressure anyway relating to doping generally.
In addition, the catalogue of official errors at Naas last weekend, which provoked an unreserved apology from the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, ensures a sharp focus on all levels of procedure is inevitable at this weekend’s showcase festival.
Action at Leopardstown will contain two Byrnes trained runners, including the likely favourite, Advanced Virgo, for Saturday’s handicap feature, the €125,000 Ladbroke Hurdle.
The controversial trainer is chasing a fourth win in a row in the valuable prize. Off You Go won it back to back in 2018 and 2019. This weekend that JP McManus-owned horse is a leading player for Sunday’s Leopardstown Chase.
It all makes for a stark contrast to Blackmore who goes into the fourth renewal of Irish jump racing’s €1.8 million shop-window event with her form, status and reputation on a high.
Tied with Paul Townend at the top of the jockeys championship on 74 winners, the woman who has transformed the face of her sport can anticipate a full book of 13 rides in the races open to her over Saturday and Sunday.
They include all eight Grade Ones and is perhaps the inevitable result of being the most in-demand jockey in the country. Blackmore’s 423 rides this season are the most of any jockey in Ireland.
Cheltenham apart though this weekend’s action is possibly the greatest concentration of quality in the entire campaign.
It’s ironic that with so much negativity off course, the level of on-course excellence is so high.
Admittedly, dual-Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo and the exciting young star Envoi Allen skip it, and Sunday’s Gold Cup has only a handful of runners. However, overall competitiveness still looks intense.
There’s no Envoi Allen but Saturday’s feature has its own hugely popular and unbeaten star, not to mention defending champion, in Honeysuckle. She and Blackmore are favourites to make it a perfect 10 career wins together, earning a potential tilt at the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March in the process.
To do so they will have to overcome the combined strength of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott who field five opponents between them.
They include Mullins’s course-specialist Sharjah who completed a hat-trick in the Christmas Grade One here over Christmas. That makes him the official top-rated horse in the race.
The complicating figure in the statistical equation though is the 7lbs sex allowance Honeysuckle receives from her male opponents.
If that gives her a slight mathematical edge then a much less tangible element is how much more there may be to come from an unbeaten mare who should now be reaching her peak.
Last year, after narrowly holding off Darver Star, connections opted to keep Honeysuckle to her own sex at Cheltenham rather than tackle the Champion Hurdle itself.
A greater apparent willingness already to take on the bigger challenge in March suggests confidence in the Honeysuckle camp that their star performer might be getting even better.
If that’s the case, then a defending champion armed with a sex allowance shapes as being very hard to beat.
That it would also underline how her jockey requires no allowances of any kind to compete at the peak of the toughest game of all would also be the sort of positive narrative an entire sport will be keen to embrace.