Rachael Blackmore looking to cap dream year with King George success on Minella Indo

Jockey will ride Henry de Bromhead’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner at Kempton

Leopardstown is ready to welcome its biggest crowd in almost two years for the start of the Christmas festival action on St Stephen’s Day.

Government restrictions due to Covid-19 mean a 5,000 spectator limit will apply at both Leopardstown and Limerick for each of its four festival days. There is also racing on St Stephen’s Day in Down Royal.

However, with so much other sport cancelled on the back of rising cases of the Omicron variant, racing’s authorities are adopting a glass half-full attitude.

"A lot of events are not taking place at all. It's great that over the last 18 months horse racing has been able to show how it is able to run events very successfully under limited attendances and this hopefully will be another example of how well to do it," Leopardstown's chief executive, Tim Husbands, said on Thursday.


“We’re delighted to get any amount of people in here and it’s going to be an important day for us. We want to make sure we do everything we should do and comply with all the public health protocols.”

The focus will be on making it as much of an outdoor experience as possible for racegoers with tented areas similar to when 4,000 were allowed through the gates at September’s Irish Champions Weekend fixture.

Over 57,000 people attended Leopardstown’s festival in 2019. Last year’s Christmas action was held behind closed doors.

The day one feature at Leopardstown is the €100,000 Racing Post Novice Chase but one notable absentee will be Irish racing's brightest star, Rachael Blackmore.

The record-breaking jockey, who swept the board in last week’s sports awards, including being crowned BBC world star of the year, is riding at Kempton and will be on Minella Indo in the King George VI Chase.

It will be a first ride in the traditional cross-channel festive highlight for Blackmore.

There has been no Irish winner of the King George since Kicking King won it back to back in 2005.

Minella Indo will be joined in the race by the Willie Mullins pair, Asterion Forlonge and Tornado Flyer. Mullins was a King George winner 20 years ago with Florida Pearl.

Bookmakers reported on Wednesday that the ‘Blackmore Factor’ had pushed Minella Indo into favouritism ahead of two former winners, Frodon and Clan Des Obeaux.

Frodon was a surprise 20-1 winner of last year’s race under jockey Bryony Frost, who is again on board.

St Stephen's Day will see top jockey Jack Kennedy return to action with three rides at Leopardstown.

The jockey who partnered Minella Indo to Cheltenham Gold Cup success in March dislocated his shoulder in a fall at Navan last month.

Other riders who will return from injury at Christmas are Seán Flanagan and Jordan Gainford, who has half a dozen rides for Gordon Elliott at Limerick on Sunday.

They include Farouk d’Alene for Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary in the Grade One Boylesports Faugheen Novice Chase. Gainford fractured a wrist last month.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column