The effects of COVID-19 put a clamp on many things, racing-wise and beyond, over the course of the last year. And Christmas time probably hit hardest.
The Festive period saw emptier houses than usual thanks to restrictions, just as it saw emptier stands at such as the King George on Boxing Day. Not since Edredon Bleu had there been anything French Hen’s saddled with a chance in that Festive highlight, and this year there wasn’t even one Lord, let alone ten, to be seen a leaping in the Kempton parade ring, with owners long since banished by then.
All the more welcome, then, that a matter of weeks earlier authorities had resolved a case that had involved some laying, just none of it, at least as far as has been revealed, by a goose or six.
So, with numbers, countdowns and history in mind, it seemed sensible to approach the task of a seasonal review in traditional Timeform style – by throwing out a list of random figures for public consumption, safe in the knowledge some will be sufficiently triggered to write a tweet or email to complain but far more won’t even take the time to read it. Enjoy!
24 – If ever a race set the tone for a major Festival then it was this year’s Sky Bet Supreme. Appreciate It, backed as if defeat was out of the question, had the best the British could muster reeling by the second last en route to a scarcely believable twenty-four length winning margin, only Blue Lord’s fall at the last preventing an opening race Irish 1-2-3, which, surprisingly in hindsight, didn’t arrive until the Ryanair two days later.
178 – The Timeform rating handed to Allaho, following a Cheltenham performance that didn’t yield only a Ryanair trophy and its trappings but also the inaugural ‘Best National Hunt Impression of Frankel’s Guineas’ award. Brutish. Bruising. Bludgeoning.
179 – Like Mike Powell no sooner losing his world record as regaining it again in his gripping head-to-head with Carl Lewis at the 1991 World Championships in Japan, Chacun Pour Soi came roaring back from his Queen Mother setback to edge his way back to the summit of Timeform’s Top Jumpers list (update imminent!). A track as flat as that Tokyo long-jump runway is seemingly the key to this most exuberant two-miler.
6 – The total of Cheltenham winners saddled by Messrs de Bromhead and Mullins. The most dramatic 6-6 draw since Hibernian went to Motherwell more than a decade ago (credit Google).
23 – The Last Dance, a Netflix series chronicling Michael Jordan’s career, rightly garnered significant praise following its release last spring. And Jordan might have been the only ‘23’ to get more coverage during the last year than Ireland’s final haul from their Cheltenham Festival domination. Any result that could translate seamlessly as a rugby scoreline – or in modern-day bookmaking, a price on a comparison grid slightly bigger than 9/2 - rarely reflects well on the losing side.
5 – Alan Partridge, on returning to his hotel room following an ill-fated attempt to steal a traffic cone, once lamented the prospect of becoming ‘infamous’ rather than ‘fa-mous, famous’. British trainers would have been forgiven for suffering a similar crisis of confidence following their ‘Infamous Five’ haul of winners at the Cheltenham Festival. Next season will be all about Bouncing Back. Also, five was the maximum number of days without a Brian Hughes or Harry Skelton winner.
3 - A handful of Cheltenham Festival winners makes the current plight of top-level British jumps racing sound positively rosy compared to the paltry number of home-trained runners to even complete the course in the latest Grand National. Maybe the £300,000 paid for Blaklion, the only British finisher in the first half-dozen, wasn’t so steep after all.
28 – The number of jumps meetings lost during the January coldsnap, eight of which I was due to cover for Racing TV (cue world’s smallest violin).
19 – A number in the news for all the wrong reasons thanks to COVID – but one making headlines for all the right ones in racing circles, after Mullins made his Cheltenham haul of six look small beer by adding a far-from-unlucky thirteen more to that amount during an incredibly dominant Punchestown. Rivals to Mullins don’t tend to match him Forlonge.
1 - Number of swear words muttered under breath by yours truly on a Racing TV video call, plus the amount of void races during the season (2.05 Plumpton, March 1), a figure matched on the very first day of the new campaign (!) at Hexham. Also, more happily, the updated figure for the number of female jockeys to have won the Champion Hurdle (that burst to the front gets better with each viewing) and Aintree Grand National. Rachael Blackmore, as irresistible as the apparent urge to omit the second ‘a’ from her first name.
3824 – Spare a thought for Mark Grant, for it had been fairly well publicised that a mundane Newton Abbot card in April would be the scene of his final ride. Seeking and hogging the limelight wouldn’t quite be Richard Johnson’s style but it’s fair to say the news broken later that day that the multiple Champion Jockey would also be hanging up his breeches rather overshadowed Grant’s farewell. An honest pro if ever there was one, strong and committed to the end, Johnson’s final total of 3824 winners, second only to A. P. McCoy, will take some eclipsing in the years and indeed decades ahead.
10 – One of Brian Hughes’s final act as Champion Jockey was to deliver a late ride-of-the-season candidate aboard Cyclop in the Highland National at Perth. The game was already up by then, however, as title rival Harry Skelton had increased his advantage to double figures, which is how it remained as close of play at Sandown on Saturday signalled the end of a season that brought home quite like no other that stark reality between the potential highs and lows faced by the jump jockey fraternity.
104 – There are many metrics from which to deduce Willie Mullins might well have the most powerful stable ever assembled, and an unheralded method – number of horses given a Timeform ‘p’ during the season – doesn’t contradict the wider feeling. A staggering 104 Mullins horses were afforded the ‘sure to progress’ banner throughout 2020/21, eight ahead of nearest pursuer Paul Nicholls.
32 – The season-ending strike-rate of Ann Hamilton, whose handling of the likes of Tommy’s Oscar and Pay The Piper – alongside the emergence on the big stage of stable star Nuts Well – represented a transformation in the yard’s fortunes. Expect more of the same on the northern scene in 2021/22.
46 – When Danny McMenamin wasn’t busy showing the bigger names that he doesn’t take any nonsense aboard Nuts Well in the Melling, he was marking himself down as one of the brightest riding prospects, not just in the North, but in Britain as a whole. His success on Millie The Minx on April 20th was his forty-sixth – across a range of nineteen trainers in total, including ten for Ann Hamilton and eight for Millie The Minx’s trainer Dianne Sayer - and final winner of a superb campaign.
20 – Dedanann (17 runs), Bitview Colin (16) and Ardera Cross (15) might have walked this award in most seasons, except the latest one featured Cluan Dara, who made it to the track fully twenty-times during the campaign, or ten times an Altior, or twenty more than a Monsignor.
4 –It isn’t quite Crimewatch, but four horses, frustrating to some, overbet to others, or plain roguish to a few, went odds-on in-running on Betfair and got turned over as many as 5 (FIVE) different times in 2020/21. Photofits of the guilty parties - Court Jurado, Discko des Plages, Glory And Honour and Jackson Hill - will be published soon.