CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL 2023

RYANAIR CHASE

The Times,  16th March 2023

Sometimes races can transcend to something beyond the bounds of sport, something better. That’s what happened when Envoi Allen took the Ryanair Chase for Rachael Blackmore and trainer Henry Bromhead.

There was excitement in the preliminaries, plenty of drama in the race but what happened afterwards was what really counted. This was the race in which Shishkin was set to return to the heights which had seen him star at both the 2020 and 2021 Festivals before flopping behind Energumene last year. He looked fit and hard enough led round in the drizzle by Jaydon Lee still smiling at the memory of his other horse Constitution Hill on Tuesday. Blue Lord and jockey Paul Townend led a three pronged entry from the Willie Mullins camp, Harry Cobden hacked away on Hitman still brimming with confidence from earlier success on Stage Star. And then the enigma that was Envoi Allen.

In his early career Envoi Allen went 12 races unbeaten until crashing out here on the first day two years ago. An attempt at the two mile chasing championship didn’t quite work last season and while this one started grandly at Downroyal it sunk to ignominious defeat at Kempton on Boxing Day. We had not seen Envoi Allen since although he was certainly keen enough beforehand, Blackmore having to circle him before the start to prevent chargeaway. But at least his mind was ready at flag fall. The same could not be said for Shishkin.

This was one of those races when rhythm was everything. Blackmore had a horse she could immediately place in pole position outside the leader with room to jump and all tactics possible. Nico De Boinville had a very different deal on Shishkin. Despite being a former two mile star the odds on favourite now always seemed in a hustle over this two and a half mile trip. After half a mile you could see De Boinville’s elbows moving as he tried to improve his position. Coming to the stands on the first circuit, he pushed forward to try and draw some response from this aggression. But Shishkin still looked hurried and snatched at his fences . De Boinville had to opt for patience and hope for a supercharge to kick in later on.

Up front Chacun Pour Soi was looking like the monster he once promised to be. Stable mate French Dyanmo was providing a bit of companionship up front but Blackmore and Envoi Allen always looked to have them covered on the outside with Cobden and Hitman still spinning sweetly along on the inner. Swinging down the hill Fury Road and Blue Lord got into the increasingly hectic argument and just as Shishkin at last began to close, he galloped slap into the third fence from home.

It was a the sort of blunder that sends a horse into a somersault and jockeys into orbit. Somehow Shishkin stayed upright and only a piece of prehensile, stirrup-clamped horsemanship kept De Boinville in the saddle. Shishkin’s chance was surely spent. Chacun Pour Soi and French Dynamite duelled for the lead with Envoi Allen outside them, Hitman still there and Blue Lord a possibility. French Dynamite was level at the second last but coming to the final fence here was Rachael Blackmore in her pomp, a force very much of mind as of matter. Both her hands on the reins as she hurled Envoi Allen down towards us, the whip slapping on the horse’s shoulder with a hand-bagging urgency in those last three strides for take-off.

Cobden got a soaring leap out of Hitman to go second but this was all Blackmore and Envoi Allen now with the only surprise in how Shishkin finally caught wind to course Hitman out of second and make one wonder if next year’s Gold Cup would be his better target.

Envoi Allen has starred at two previous Festivals, Blackmore and De Bromhead have already gone into Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup legend and furthered it with Honeysuckle’s farewell on Friday. But this latest bravura piece of training and riding had the difference of 12 year old Jack De Bromhead’s tragic death last September, and afterwards it showed.

As Rachael Blackmore stood with the huge silver Ryanair Trophy and Mia and Georgia Blackmore beside her, the girls’ father paid a tears-in-the-eyes tribute to his rider “On the Sunday morning” he said, “probably 12 hours after Jack had died, I met my assistant Davy Roche in the yard. It was eight o’clock in the morning and this girl came out of one of the stables. Rachael lives an hour away from us, but it was her.”

“She is amazing with the girls. She takes them off go-karting and does all sorts of things with them, the three of them and Zoe Smalley, who does all our travelling, and are very competitive. Everyone has been amazing to us. We get so much support and Michael (O’Leary)has been amazing, putting on Jack’s race and giving us tickets.”

“I keep looking for a rainbow but he’s not around,” Henry De Bromhead added before turning wistfully and saying, “there might be one just starting to come there now. This is a massive day for us, a day to celebrate his unfortunately very short life. The support we get is ridiculous. We’re so lucky. There are so many people in our situation who don’t see this support. We are extremely lucky.”

Sometimes it is just sport. But sometimes something sadder but, yes, better.

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