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How the Ryanair Chase grew to become one the Cheltenham Festival’s biggest races

Where does the time fly? No pun intended. It’s hard to believe that we’ll soon be approaching two decades of the Ryanair Chase — just three years away in fact. Moreover, it’s hard to believe how quickly the Cheltenham Festival itself has come back around, considering how the coronavirus pandemic has managed to overshadow the best part of horse racing over the last couple of years.

With spectators finally allowed back into Prestbury Park for the first time since 2020, casual fans and racing enthusiasts alike will be relishing the opportunity to get back into the stands and frantically scroll through the latest horse racing betting odds in hopes of choosing a champion. While the usual discourse over prestigious races like the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup tend to dominate the headlines in the build-up to the Festival, it’s important to emphasise the significance of other races — particularly the Ryanair Chase.

Having been introduced in 2005, when the Festival added a fourth day to its calendar, initially registered as the Festival Trophy Steeple Chase, the race was intended for Grade Two horses and sponsored by the Daily Telegraph. However, as the years went by and interest grew, the two-mile, four-and-a-half-furlong race emerged as one of the more popular races, and moved to Group One status in 2008 whilst being picked up by popular Irish airline Ryanair. It just so happens the race falls on St Patrick’s Day this year, so read on as we go through the history of the Ryanair Chase.

Getting things started

To say the race’s origins were humble is certainly overstating it. Cheltenham’s popularity was on the rise and a fourth day was added to the schedule, which would see six races on each day. With it, we saw the introduction of four new races and with the Cathcart Challenge Cup being run for the final time the year before, the Festival Trophy Steeple Chase would run for the first time and grow into what we now know as the Ryanair Chase.

The race is for five-year-olds and up, so a degree of experience is required to be in with a chance of winning, with the first three races all at Grade Two level. Thisthatandtother was the race’s inaugural winner, and although the four-day Festival was something of an unknown entity, those in attendance on a blustery spring day in Gloucestershire seemed to enjoy themselves, as the originally named Telegraph Chase, abruptly switched to Ryanair.

Memorable races

Perhaps the best edition of the Ryanair Chase we’ve seen was in 2017. Ruby Walsh was right in the middle of a purple patch when the race approached, and alongside the legendary Willie Mullins, they secured a victory with Un De Sceaux. Having come in as a favourite thanks to a valiant effort in the 2016 renewal of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, they went on to beat the likes of Aso and Henry de Bromhead’s Sub Lieutenant, despite some leaps that had hearts in mouths — such was the degree of risk with some of the jumping on a day where the conditions played into Walsh’s favour.

The duo currently holds the record for both leading jockey and trainer in the race, racking up four wins apiece with Mullins training current champion Allaho as he won the most recent edition behind closed doors. It looked like the eight-year-old struggled getting to grips with new jockey Rachael Blackmore having switched from Paul Townend, but eventually the rider, who would go on to win the Grand National a few weeks later, found her feet and pulled away from the pack to capture yet another accolade for Mullins’ seraphic cabinet.

Blackmore finished as the Top Jockey, and gave Allaho plenty of credit, saying: “It’s incredible! I’m very grateful to be getting these opportunities. He put in a fair performance; he jumped and galloped everywhere. I never felt like I was out of my comfort zone anywhere. It was fantastic.

“I was happy to let my lad gallop and jump and it worked today. He was happy, travelling underneath me and comfortable [in front]; when they aren’t comfortable and you are forcing them, that’s when you are maybe going too quick.”

Albertas Run won the Ryanair Chase consecutively in 2010 and 2011, becoming the most successful horse in the race’s admittedly short history with those consecutive wins under the iconic AP McCoy.

This year at Cheltenham

As always, the form guide is essentially tossed out of the window as far as the Cheltenham Festival is concerned. Regardless of good performances might have been at Leopardstown, during a Dublin Racing Festival dominated by Mullins’ stable, or how influential a good run in the Denman Chase might appear, there is nothing like a packed out Prestbury Park to determine who will make the cut and take home over £200,000 in winning prize money.

The unpredictability of Cheltenham certainly makes the Ryanair Chase interesting, especially with the plethora of previous Grade One winners entering this year. It could be suggested that Allaho is a shoe in to retain his title having beat a host of Ireland’s best chasers in the last few months, his stablemate Energumene also has a chance after looking to write the wrongs of Ascot when Nick Henderson trained Shishkin pipped him to the Clarence House Chase back in January. Whatever the outcome, the race is hotly anticipated and will be sure to make at least a few Paddy’s Day punters very happy indeed.

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