Eight-time champion jockey Peter Scudamore says Cheltenham Festival favourites Monkfish and Envoi Allen provide horse racing with the hope it needs after a difficult year behind closed doors.
Monkfish of Willie Mullins and Envoi Allen – formerly of Gordon Elliott, now with Henry de Bromhead – have been well backed for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase and the Marsh Novices’ Chase, respectively.
The Irish-trained pair already head the betting for the 2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup and are set to put their unbeaten records over fences on the line this week.
Scudamore, speaking as a Freebets.com ambassador, told Sky Sports News: “Of all of them, I’m looking forward to Monkfish. I don’t know if he’s as good as Envoi Allen, but he just captures my imagination.
“He’s the epitome of what a chaser should be. He looks a magnificent horse.
“I hope they both win and come through Punchestown or Aintree and then we build-up for next season.
“We talk about Covid. Well, we need hope and these two great horses can give us hope.”
‘Cheltenham marks the end of winter, it’s a pagan festival’
Last year’s Cheltenham Festival was one of the final meetings to host fans before racing’s shutdown, since returning behind closed doors.
Scudamore admits the absence of the famous Cheltenham ‘roar’ will be a “sad” occasion, but says racing has been “privileged” to continue during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve been to FA Cup finals, England versus France in the rugby, cricket matches, but the greatest sporting reception I’ve ever seen is Dawn Run coming in [after winning the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup]. To me that’s what makes Cheltenham special,” Scudamore said.
“It will be sad. I always say Cheltenham is a pagan festival. It marks the end of winter. There’s so much good in humanity about it and it’s seen in the appreciation of the horse.
“We’ve been very fortunate to carry on. It’s a little surreal at some stages that we continue to race when people are struggling and our life isn’t changing that much.
“We all realise we’ve been immensely privileged through this to continue racing.”
Scudamore on Jockey title battle, weighing room nerves
This season, the Jumps Jockeys Championship looks set to go right down to the wire, with defending champion Brian Hughes just a handful of winners ahead of Harry Skelton and Harry Cobden.
Hughes has indicated he will look elsewhere for rides this week, while Skelton [for brother Dan] and Cobden [for Paul Nicholls] take the pick of their yard’s horses at Cheltenham.
Scudamore, who successfully defended the title on six occasions between 1987 and 1992, believes Hughes’ decision to miss days at the Festival could give him the edge.
“I thought the jockeys’ championship was the be-all and end-all,” Scudamore said. “You can win a Gold Cup or a Grand National, that’s great and you might be lucky enough to be in a stable that has the Gold Cup winner, but you can’t necessarily plan that.
“If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to ride for a good stable, you can really work hard to be champion jockey.
“Brian (Hughes) has said: ‘I’m not just going to turn up at Cheltenham, I want to be champion jockey’. I very much admire that and like to think that’s lifting the championship back up to what it was.
“Against the power of (Paul) Nicholls and (Dan) Skelton, it’s going to be very difficult for Brian, but he has given himself another week.
“They [Harry Cobden and Harry Skelton] probably will go and ride one or two winners but Brian could well ride three or four somewhere else.”
Even without the thousands of watching eyes present this week, the pressures of riding at jump racing’s biggest meeting will be felt in the weighing room.
Scudamore rode 13 Festival winners and says starting the week well can make all the difference.
“What is extraordinary about Cheltenham is that, because of the pressures, it all seems to roll into one,” Scudamore said. “You would get there early on a Tuesday, then suddenly you are walking out on the Friday.
“You are walking out into an ocean of people with a level of expectancy, whether it’s the crowd or the owners and trainers.
“Your nerves are up. When that first race gets going, your nerves go. It adds to the tension but it must be like cricket: When you make your first 20, you relax.
“If you have a good run in the first then you feel like you are in rhythm with the game and things get going.”
‘The British have to pull their socks up’
Willie Mullins is a man who knows a thing or two about saddling Cheltenham Festival winners, with a record 72 to his name.
The Closutton-based trainer again leads the Irish charge in the battle for the Prestbury Cup, which Ireland won 17-10 over Britain at last year’s meeting.
“In my time, I’ve seen (Michael) Dickinson, (Fred) Winter, all these marvellous trainers, but Willie has taken it to another level,” Scudamore said. “It’s extraordinary.
“I thought I would never see better than Michael Dickinson and Martin Pipe but he’s raised the bar again.”
Scudamore added: “They [the Irish] have got favourites or second favourites in every championship race. They have invested in the best horses and it’s paying its rewards.
“At the moment, the Irish are dominant and the British have got to pull their socks up.”
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