One of the many great things about the Cheltenham Festival, and horse racing in general, is that women compete against their male counterparts on equal terms. There are no special allowances for a horse trained or ridden by a female. And why would there be?
Sport has had its share of great women over the years. Serena Williams has been a dominant force in tennis for over two decades, Annika Sorenstam was unstoppable on the LPGA tour throughout her golf career and Katie Taylor is among countless other Olympians to win a huge haul of medals and titles.
What’s different about the great women of the Cheltenham Festival is that they didn’t achieve their greatness by competing exclusively against women. They took on the very best in their sport, male and female.
With the highlight of the horse racing calendar never far from horse racing fans’ minds, we take a look below at some of the women – past and present – who have shown that the Cheltenham Festival isn’t a man’s world.
Trainer of one of the all-time great horses of the Festival, Moscow Flyer, Jessica Harrington’s Cheltenham CV doesn’t just consist of an Arkle win and two Queen Mother Champion Chase victories.
Since sending out Space Trucker to win the 1999 Grand Annual, Jessie has racked up over 10 Cheltenham Festival wins, making her one of only 12 current trainers to have won that many.
Arguably her greatest triumph came in 2017, where Harrington’s Sizing John finally gave owner Alan Potts the race he’s always wanted – the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
While injury has disrupted his career since, there are few better hands for him to be in if he’s to get back to racing’s top table. Despite being in the game for over 30 years, there’s still more to come. Harrington continues to be one of Ireland’s leading trainers, both over jumps and on the flat.
Few trainers can say they’ve won a Cheltenham Gold Cup. Even fewer have won two in a row. Only three trainers in the history of the race have won three Gold Cups in a row. Henrietta Knight is one of those three.
Best Mate was the horse to accomplish it for Knight, who, by winning the Festival’s premier race in 2002, 2003 and 2004, joined the likes of the legendary Arkle in the history books. Such a feat would not have been possible without expert handling.
Knight campaigned Best Mate perfectly, plotting his season to ensure her star was ready to perform on that big Friday in March.
By scooping other big prizes at Cheltenham before retiring, such as the Champion Chase with Edredon Bleu and Kershi’s Stayers Hurdle success, you soon see that Henrietta Knight has a record any trainer would be delighted to have.
The accomplishments of Jessica Harrington and Henrietta Knight are undoubtedly impressive, but there’s a case to be made for saying they wouldn’t have been possible without Jenny Pitman.
In 1984, Pitman became the first female trainer to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. That victory for Burrough Hill Lad was proven to be no fluke, when she sent out the winner of the race again in 1991, this time with Garrison Savannah.
Ranked among racing’s great trainers and after adding two Grand National wins to her seven other Cheltenham wins, Pitman called time on her training career in 1998.
Her legacy lives on though, as evidenced by the countless female trainers following in her wake, arriving at the Cheltenham Festival year after year with live chances in National Hunt racing’s top races.
It comes as no surprise that a jockey with the surname Carberry is classy in the saddle. A win in the 2005 Fred Winter Hurdle was a sign of things to come for Nina.
By striking up a fantastic working relationship with trainer Enda Bolger and owner JP McManus, Carberry was responsible for more than her fair share of Cheltenham Festival success.
Her status as an amateur jockey led to multiple successes in the Foxhunter Chase aboard On The Fringe to go along with victories in the Cross Country Chase on Garde Champetre and Heads Onthe Ground.
The powerful combination of Bolger and McManus putting so much faith in Nina’s hands and her repaying that faith with a host of Festival wins only goes to show that she was as capable as anyone in the weighing room prior to her 2018 retirement.
Obviously a little different to the rest of this list, in so far as Quevega wasn’t a woman, but she does rank among the all-time greats of the Cheltenham Festival, so hear me out!
A horse running at the festival six times would be testament to their consistency and toughness. Quevega went far beyond that though, and didn’t just run at six Cheltenham Festivals – she WON at six Cheltenham Festivals.
A feat that will likely never be repeated by any horse in any race at Cheltenham, Willie Mullins’ superstar mare cemented her place in Festival folklore by scooping the Mares’ Hurdle every year from 2009 to 2014 inclusive.
Not afraid to mix it up against the boys, Quevega – whose daughter Princess Vega has enjoyed a successful start to her career – added four Grade One successes at Punchestown too, where she beat some of the best male staying hurdlers in training at the time.
The Current Crop Of Female Jockeys
There’s been a lot of success for amateur female jockeys at the Cheltenham Festival, with Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh flying the flag. A quick look at the results from the 2019 festival will show that success has now translated to the professional ranks too.
Bryony Frost famously rode Frodon to victory in the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase with a strong, never-say-die attitude from both horse and rider. She wasn’t alone though. Lizzie Kelly steered Siruh Du Lac to Festival success in the Brown Advisory Plate and Ireland’s Rachael Blackmore scooped the Albert Bartlett and Close Brothers Handicap Chase on Minella Indo and A Plus Tard respectively.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise though. Lizzie Kelly has been riding winners, including big race successes, for years. Similarly, Blackmore has very quickly become one of the best jockeys around, and heads into the 2020 Cheltenham Festival in third place in the season’s jockey standings, behind only Paul Townend and Davy Russell.
These jockeys will have a great opportunity in 2020 to add to previous glory at the Festival for female jockeys. None, perhaps, more so than Blackmore, who goes into the four-day festival with an exciting book of rides, including Arkle favourite Notebook, the unbeaten Honeysuckle and last year’s Cheltenham winner Minella Indo. It would be a story for the ages were she to go on and become Cheltenham top jockey for the year, which many believe she’s capable of.
It has long been said that women in racing, particularly jockeys, were every bit as good as men, and that all they needed was the opportunity to show it. Thanks to these Cheltenham greats, the current generation of female jockeys has never had a better chance to show what they can do and they’re really making the most of the chance to show it. Here’s hoping that continues long after the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.
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