While the Cheltenham Festival is typically the playground of the best and most prominent jockeys in racing, amateurs have still played their part at the meeting in recent times.
Jamie Codd is a prolific winner at the festival, while JP McManus often turns to Derek O’Connor despite his amateur status. Sam Waley-Cohen and Will Biddick are just two more who are well respected for their talents.
Unfortunately, 2021 is shaping up to be somewhat different with a ban on amateur jockeys implemented in January, with no confirmed end date in sight.
There are plenty of trainers and owners who hope that limitation is lifted in time for the March spectacle; most notably Willie Mullins, whose son Patrick would form a key part of his arsenal across the Irish Sea.
He is a four-time winner at Cheltenham and enjoyed four runners-up finishes in 2020, and while he benefits from some plum rides gifted to him by his father – victories in the Kim Muir and the National Hunt Novices’ Chase have duly followed – there are many who believe Patrick Mullins to be amongst the most talented jockeys around, be it professional or amateur.
And Mullins snr, rebuilding his squad after the shock retirement of his nephew David, would have turned to Patrick to fill in the gaps.
“Certainly, Patrick would be a top member on our team riding at Cheltenham,” the multiple-time champion trainer said.
“He’d have half a dozen nice rides, especially with David retiring, that puts him in for a lot more. He’s a top guy to have on your team over there.”
As things stand, nobody is really sure as to whether the ban will be lifted in time for the festival, and plans are being made by all of the training teams to ensure they can still fulfil all of their declared rides where possible.
“I’m hoping that something can be done because we have six weeks to go before then,” Mullins confirmed.
“Hopefully, the figures on both sides of the Irish Sea will be better and governments will be looking at things differently. That’s the best we can hope for at this stage.”
A Bleak Winter for the Amateurs
It was in mid-January that amateurs were banned from taking on rides as part of a raft of changes introduced by the BHA.
As a continued drive to keep the numbers of virus positives down within the sport, all amateur rides were instead to be given to professionals or conditional jockeys instead.
The BHA has introduced its own emergency steering group during the pandemic, and that was becoming increasingly concerned by the growing number of people attending meetings at a time when in-person attendance is supposed to be at an absolute minimum.
A full shutdown of racing was averted in January when the government allowed elite sport to continue, but the sense within the BHA was that action needed to be taken to ensure no mishaps occurred.
Under governmental guidelines, amateur jockeys are classed as grassroots sportsmen and women, and as such they are unable to compete for the foreseeable future. While riding is not their sole source of income in many cases, it is still a crushing blow for many amateurs and they will be desperate to be restored in time for the Cheltenham Festival.