Every year at the Cheltenham Festival, one jockey is recognised as being the top performer of the four-day meeting. Being crowned as the top jockey is an accolade any National Hunt rider would truly love to win as the festival is the highlight of the entire jumps racing calendar and, for many fans of racing, it is the pinnacle of the sport in general. It is no easy task though as all the biggest names in racing regularly make their way down to Gloucestershire in the hope of getting even a slither of the limelight and the battle for overall glory is fierce.
The top jockey award has long been a part of Cheltenham Festival history so there are many familiar names on the roll of honours. Some feature more than others but there is one jockey who is miles out in front with a record that is likely to survive for a very long time indeed.
Top Jockey Award – How Does It Work?
Deciding on which jockey is the top performer during any given Cheltenham Festival is not a subjective call, it is purely a matter of results. The rider with the most victories during the meeting will always end up claiming the award. Other factors are irrelevant including the quality of the races won, so a pair of Grade 3 wins is better than one Grade 1 win as far as the award is concerned. Similarly, the odds of the winning horse do not matter so three odds-on victories work out better than a pair of 50/1 upsets in the context of the Top Jockey award.
In the event that two or more jockeys end up with the same number of victories, which happens fairly often, the tiebreaker used is the most number of runner-up finishes. If there is still a tie then any third-placed results will be looked at. By this stage, it is almost certain we will have an outright winner and this is important as the award cannot be shared. The official title of the award is the Holland Cooper Leading Jockey Award, although this is a sponsored name and it is liable to change in future.
On the final day of the festival, the most successful jockey is presented with a formal trophy to recognise their achievement. In 2020, this itself was renamed as the ‘Ruby Walsh Trophy’ following the retirement of the legendary National Hunt jockey. Lifting the trophy in 2021, an ecstatic Rachel Blackmore said “getting an award from AP McCoy in the shape of Ruby Walsh – that’s crazy!”. Although it may have felt like she was imagining things, the trophy itself was indeed a mini-statue of Ruby Walsh with his hands behind his back.
Top Jockey Betting
The Top Jockey award is something you can bet on every year at the Cheltenham Festival should you fancy one rider to outperform the rest. At times the market can be quite open like it was in 2019 when you had four jockeys priced at odds between 3/1 and 6/1 (Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty, Davy Russel, and Jack Kennedy) plus Nico De Boinville was a credible 12/1 outsider.
In other years though, the market ends up being spearheaded by a strong favourite, as was the case in 2021. This time around Paul Townend led the way at very short odds of just 2/5 with only one other jockey priced in single digits (Jack Kennedy at 7/2). It would be wrong to think only the leading couple of names can prevail in this market though so do not be put off looking a little down the market. As it happened, in 2021, Rachel Blackmore delivered the goods at a very nice price of 10/1, handsomely rewarding anyone who backed the first female recipient of the Top Jockey award.
For any top jockey bet at the Cheltenham Festival, rider form and ability should certainly shape your decision but looking at which horses each jockey is confirmed/likely to ride is even more important. One jockey riding three or four odds-on favourites will stand a much better chance than a colleague whose strongest runner is trading at a price of 10/1.
From a betting perspective, what happens when two or more jockeys end up topping the table with a joint number of winners can vary between bookmakers. Some settle the market just like they do at the festival, so by looking at how many second and third place finishes each jockey has registered. It is possible, however, that the bookie may decide to implement dead heat rules, meaning the tied leading jockeys will all be paid out as winners, but at a significantly reduced price.
Top Jockey Winners
Now we’ve been through how it works, let’s take a look at the jockeys who have claimed the Top Jockey award at the Cheltenham Festival at least once. The majority of winners between 1980 and 2021 only claimed the accolade once and only two riders in this period managed to claim it more than twice. When compared to the rest, you can see just how phenomenally well Ruby Walsh regularly performed when at Cheltenham. Between 2008 and 2017 there was only one year when he failed to scoop the prize so it is fair to say that the top jockey market has been much more interesting following his retirement.
|Number of Top Jockey Awards
|2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2004
|1991, 1987, 1986
|A P McCoy
|Nico de Boinville
|Steve Smith Eccles
How Many Winners Does a Top Jockey Record?
Now, before looking at the records of previous jockeys, it is worth mentioning that in 2005 the Festival expanded from three days to four. Although each day only saw seven races rather than the previous eight, it meant the full schedule still had four extra races overall. With jockeys now given four extra attempts to record a winner, a 16.7% increase, this has helped increase the average number of winners posted by the eventual winners of the Top Jockey award.
This only goes some way to explaining the significant jump in the data, however. Before 2005 the average number of winners the Top Jockey had was 2.92, yet between 2005 and 2021 it shot up to 4.29. Ruby Walsh himself is partly responsible for this increase as he was very much something of a Cheltenham specialist and subsequently was trusted to ride so many exceptional horses.
|Number of Wins Recorded by Top Jockey
|Number of Years
As you can see, s the most common number of victories obtained by the top jockey is three, so quite often they do not even need to get a winner on each day to top the charts. Jonjo O’Neill was the rider who somehow scooped the award with just one winner in 1982!
When considering who is the best jockey of the Cheltenham Festival, one approach would be to look at the number of Top Jockey awards they have collected. The other approach would be to look at the total number of winners they have ridden at the Festival. Looking at it this way would benefit those who regularly pick up two or three winners but often find themselves short of the number one spot.
|All-Time Festival Winners
|A P McCoy
|Davy Russell* & Pat Taffe
|Charlie Swan & Fred Winter
|Paul Carberry & Mick Fitzgerald
Looking at Cheltenham Festival performances this way gives us an entirely different outlook. The legendary A P McCoy for instance, the greatest National Hunt jockey of all time, features third on the list but he was only crowned top jockey at the festival twice. It is quite surprising given his career record that he did not outperform the rest of the riders at Cheltenham more often but there you have it. The Irishman’s best performance came in 1998 with five wins, while he also recorded a trio of victories on several occasions.
Barry Geraghty is also underrepresented on the top jockey wall of fame given he is very comfortably the all-time second-best jockey to feature here. His total of 43 winners, including five in his final Festival in 2020 only resulted in two top jockey trophies. He was particularly unlucky to miss out during his farewell year with five wins but Paul Townend pipped him on an account of having two second-place finishers.