The Cheltenham Festival Top Jockey is a prestigious award that very few riders get the opportunity to achieve. It is awarded to the leading jockey over the four days and invariably goes to a retained rider from one of the biggest yards in Great Britain and Ireland.
Ruby Walsh, associated with the powerful stables of Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, racked up an incredible eleven Cheltenham leading jockey awards. Even the legendary Tony McCoy could only win this award on two occasions. Paul Townend has won the coveted trophy twice since stepping into Walsh’s shoes as number one rider for the Mullins stable.
The Cheltenham top jockeys award received extra publicity in 2021 when Rachael Blackmore became the first female rider to lift the trophy. She rode six winners and carried all before her going on to make history in the Grand National at Aintree. Blackmore will be eyeing up some more top prizes at the 2023 Cheltenham Festival but Townend will start clear favourite to retain his crown.
The Cheltenham leading jockey award has been much more competitive over the last five seasons with four different riders taking the title. It had previously been dominated by Ruby Walsh with nine victories in ten seasons from 2008 to 2017. Walsh had also won it twice previously in 2004 and 2006 and it was only fitting that the trophy would carry his name. Rachael Blackmore was truly honoured to receive a figurine of Walsh from the Sir Anthony McCoy when winning the award in 2021.
Walsh also holds the record of seven winners at the Cheltenham Festival, a feat he achieved twice in 2009 and 2016. Blackmore finished just one short of equalling the record in 2021. Twenty times Champion Jockey, McCoy won 31 races at Cheltenham including all of the major prizes except the Stayers’ Hurdle. He rode a career-best five winners at the 1998 Festival meeting.
Townend stepped almost seamlessly into the role as number 1 rider for Willie Mullins upon the retirement of Ruby Walsh in 2019. The appointment came as no surprise with Townend having partnered Al Boum Photo to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup that season, a race that had previously eluded Mullins.
Mullins, a nine times winner of the Trainers’ Title at the Cheltenham Festival, is expected to have another strong team assembled for 2023. He broke his own record by saddling ten winners at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival. Townend was aboard five of them; Energumene (Queen Mother Champion Chase), Sir Gerhard (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle), Vauban (Triumph Hurdle), State Man (County Hurdle) and Allaho (Ryanair Chase).
Those victories proved sufficient to give Townend a second Cheltenham Festival jockeys award having also won it in 2020. He has now won all of the major races at the Festival meeting with the exception of the Champion Hurdle. He rode Al Boum Photo to a second Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in 2020 and won the Stayers’ Hurdle on Penhill in 2018. With 21 Festival winners already under his belt, the County Cork-born rider will be a hot favourite to secure a third jockeys’ title in 2023.
Rachael Blackmore’s achievements at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival and in the Aintree Grand National were truly astonishing. The Tipperary rider remained modest and calm as she rode her way into the history books. Winning the Cheltenham leading jockey award was the icing on the cake after her six winners, highlighted by Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle.
Blackmore laid much of the credit for her success firmly at the door of Trainer Henry de Bromhead. He had no hesitation in appointing her stable jockey and has been duly rewarded. Her six 2021 Cheltenham Festival winners were Bob Olinger (Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle), Sir Gerhard (Champion Bumper), Honeysuckle (Champion Hurdle), Telmesomethinggirl (Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle), Allaho (Ryanair Chase) and Quilixios (Triumph Hurdle).
It was always going to be difficult to follow such a momentous year but Blackmore achieved further glory at Cheltenham 2022. She rode a copybook race on heavily-backed favourite Honeysuckle to win a second successive Champion Hurdle. She then went one better than a year previously by winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on A Plus Tard. Bob Olinger recorded a second festival victory in the Golden Miller Novices’ Chase, albeit a fortuitous one. Blackmore now has 12 festival victories under her belt and will be a big player in the feature races once again in 2023.
Davy Russell won the Cheltenham top jockeys title in 2018 with four winners, highlighted by Balko Des Flos in the Ryanair Chase. He missed the 2021 Festival through injury and was unable to add to his tally of 25 winners last year, going closest aboard Tiger Roll in the Cross Country Chase.
Russell was formerly number 1 rider to the powerful Gigginstown operation and famously rode Tiger Roll to back-to-back Grand National victories in 2018 and 2019. Besides his two Grand National victories, Russell also won the 2013 Triumph Hurdle on Gordon Elliott’s star chaser. These days he is part of the Elliott team along with Jack Kennedy but his vast experience ensures that he is always in demand at Cheltenham.
Nico De Boinville is the number 1 rider for the Nicky Henderson stable, second only to that of Willie Mullins in Cheltenham Festival history. De Boinville won the Cheltenham top rider award in 2019 with three winners; Altior (Queen Mother Champion Chase), Pentland Hills (Triumph Hurdle) and William Henry (Coral Cup).
Henderson does not have the volume to compete with the big Irish stables at Cheltenham but he invariably goes to the Festival with two or three leading contenders. De Boinville’s hopes of featuring in the race for leading rider in 2023 will probably rest largely with Constitution Hill and Shishkin. The rider has fifteen Festival winners to his credit including three Champion Chase victories and won the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup on the novice Coneygree.
Jack Kennedy rides primarily for the Gordon Elliott stable but famously stepped in for the ride on Henry de Bromhead’s Minella Indo to win the 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He rode four festival winners that season, matching his previous best tally in 2018. His first Cheltenham Festival winner was 25-1 shot Labaik in the 2017 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. The horse defeated hot favourite Melon by two lengths but developed a habit of refusing to start.
Kennedy showcased his talents with a perfectly-timed challenge on Black Tears in the 2021 Mares’ Hurdle and also landed the National Hunt Chase on Galvin and the Kim Muir Challenge Cup on Mount Ida. The 2022 Cheltenham Festival was largely frustrating for the Elliott stable, although Kennedy was seen at his strongest to win the Cross Country Chase on Delta Work for the yard.
Mark Walsh has made the most of limited opportunities at recent Cheltenham Festival meetings, riding seven winners since 2018. In 2019 he won the Champion Hurdle aboard the talented but ill-fated Espoir d’Allen. He also won the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle on City Island. The following year his only success came on Aramax in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.
Walsh was back amongst the Cheltenham Festival winners in 2022. He was at his brilliant best to drive home Brazil to claim a second Fred Winter Hurdle and also won the Liberthine Mares’ Chase on Elimay. Both horses were in the colours of leading owner JP McManus for whom he rides regularly. He has also worn the green and gold to victory in the Irish Gold Cup on Carlingford Lough (2016) and both the Melling Chase (2021) and Ascot Chase on Fakir d’Oudairies (2022).
Ruby Walsh is the most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival with 59 winners. That included eleven Cheltenham leading jockey awards, his last coming in 2017. He was Irish Champion Jockey on twelve occasions, this despite often having riding commitments on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Kauto Star provided Walsh with many of his career highlights, including two Cheltenham Gold Cups. The horse is best remembered for his record five victories in the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park. Walsh also famously teamed up with the record six-time Mares’ Hurdle winner Quevega (2009 – 2014).
Barry Geraghty sits second in the all-time winners list on 43 winners, winning the Cheltenham Festival top jockey title in 2003 and 2012. He won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Kicking King in 2005 and Bobs Worth in 2013. Geraghty also won the Champion Hurdle four times and the Queen Mother Champion Chase on five occasions. He currently shares the record for most victories in each of those two races.
Tony McCoy was Cheltenham top jockey in 1997 and 1998, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Mr Mulligan (1997) and Synchronised (2012). He also won the Champion Hurdle three times; Make A Stand (1997), Brave Inca (2006) and Binocular (2010). McCoy won the Queen Mother Champion Chase aboard Edredon Bleu (2000) and famously rode his final festival winner aboard Uxizandre in the 2015 Ryanair Chase. He had won the Ryanair in 2010 and 2011 on Albertas Run.
Rachael Blackmore made history to become the first lady rider to win Cheltenham Festival top jockey in 2021. Her remarkable success came just two years after Bryony Frost made Cheltenham history by becoming the first woman to win a Grade 1 over jumps at the Festival. She won the Ryanair Chase on the popular Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon.
Davy Russell, on 25 winners and top jockey in 2018, is the most successful Cheltenham jockey still riding. He won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2014 on 20-1 outsider Lord Windermere, trained by Jim Culloty. Other one-time winners of the Cheltenham top jockey award include Richard Johnson (2002), Graham Lee (2005), Robert Thornton (2007) and Nico de Boinville (2019).
Harvey Mayson has worked as a horseracing writer, blogger and tipster for several of the UK’s leading bookmakers and numerous other specialist racing sites. Harvey has great knowledge of horse racing history and was the author of the Paddy Power Cheltenham Festival and Aintree Grand National blog for three years. Harvey’s blog at the Cheltenham Festival in 2014 included a 100,000-1 ante-post four-timer while he correctly forecast the first four winners on Grand National day in 2015. He also tipped three Grand National winners in a row and eleven consecutive winning nap selections.