When Paul Townend and Rachael Blackmore left the tarmac on the Dublin to Birmingham flight last night, both did so feeling very differently to how they felt taking off on the corresponding flight 12 months earlier.
Last year one came chasing a first festival winner and still slightly under the radar, the other came as Willie Mullins’ number two rider, knowing that I would pick the wrong horses at some point and hoping he would benefit from it.
Rachael rode two winners and left a heroine, Paul rode two also, but one was the Cheltenham Gold Cup — a first for him but, crucially, a first for his boss too. He also left a hero.
Cheltenham, in their eyes, was a wonderful place and by this Friday it still may be.
But it could also be a place they can’t wait to leave.
Last night both took off in a slightly quieter, more reflective and intense mood than a year ago. Both know tomorrow is massive. Both are now in the spotlight and their hope from 12 months ago has been replaced by public expectation.
I wasn’t on their flight, but I know what they are feeling and it’s how they will manage the expectation of the throngs of punters that will determine how they feel, emotionally, by Friday.
They will need to be realistic, and cold, about what to expect.
Paul will want to trust his own instinct and ride in the cool calculated manner he always does. Nothing flamboyant, just solid and consistent in the realisation that avoiding mistakes is crucial.
We sat outside Willie Mullins’ tack room on Saturday morning, just him and me, when everyone else had gone to tack up and in a conversational way he recounted the last 10 Supreme Novices’ Hurdles and how all the pacesetters in the Arkles of years gone by had fared. His homework is done, and he is ready to go. I smiled to myself as I walked away to ride third lot: I was that soldier, keen to bounce ideas and plans off someone, focused to the point of obsession and just needing someone to agree with you.
He is ready.
Rachael will look serious and stone-faced as she goes about carrying out the plans she has. With rhythm being a key factor to what she does, Rachel doesn’t really interfere much with the horses she rides, allowing them to use themselves. Tactically, I think she has become one of the best in the business.
Most people of any athletic ability can learn to ride to a certain level, but very few, even professionals, can grasp the art of race-riding as she has. Her ability to control races and the fearless manner she attacks jumps will all help her this week, but it’s mentally where she has an edge too.
Her ability to stay calm and level, leave the race just run behind her and refocus on the next one is what has struck me most.
Her body language in the preliminaries never changes, polite yet cold, focused yet relaxed.
Either could win the Supreme — a bonus for either if they do so — but the Arkle will be their first test. Notebook for Rachael, Cash Back for Paul. Neither horse is a good thing, both tricky in their own ways, but both in the top three in the betting. Both riders will need to be brave and take a chance or two but not be reckless.
Free-talking pundits are expecting a cut-throat gallop and the knives are already sharp to attack the one that goes too hard.
But here is the catch: playing it safe won’t be enough for either to win and, not that losing will affect either after just two races, a bad tactical judgement could be the difference between winning and losing.
Too fast or too slow, which might still be playing on one’s mind when they literally go head to head in the Mares’ Hurdle three races later.
Benie v Honeysuckle is a match. For Paul, victory will be relief more than joy as that is what punters expect of odds-on shots. For Rachael, even if she has unwavering belief in Honeysuckle, it will be seen as a big scalp taken by her.
They will face off again on Wednesday, in the RSA Chase with Minella Indo and Allaho, but Champ will take some of the heat there — a lot more than Frodon will when they go at it again in the Ryanair on Min and A Plus Tard on Thursday.
IF either were to be three up on the other by then, a reverse here would be hard to see, with momentum firmly with the other. Of course, both have plenty of other fancied rides: Al Boum Photo and Chacun Pour Soi for Paul, and Monalee and Aspire Tower for Rachael. And that’s to name just two for each.
Paul is 2/1 to be leading rider, Rachel 9/2, but Paul only rides the one odds-on shot and Rachael has none, so there lies the problem for both.
It doesn’t matter that Paul is getting the chances he deserves for all the years spent as number two to me, getting the chances any champion jockey should be getting or the chances a rider of his talent deserves.
Nor will it matter that Rachael has worked so hard to get from nowhere to the top table, smashing glass ceilings others weakened for her or the fact that she has taken every opportunity given to her. Both have a little age on their side to deal with a setback, but by tomorrow night either could be staring into darkness.
One of their characters is going to be tested because sentiment won’t last long this week and all the goodwill in the world will quickly boil down to those who really have their back.
They have to remember that until the Grand Annual, the final race of the meeting, is run, they will get another chance.
I would love to be handing either the leading rider trophy on Friday evening. That could happen, but it’s easy to deal with that good fortune.
It’s the bad luck they need to prepare for because the margins are very fine over here.
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