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Horse Racing - Racing: Rachael's A-Plus show tops jumps charts

This weekend brings along the bet365 Jump Finale at Sandown Park as the National Hunt season in Britain expires and we're taking a look back over the season that was.

We saw A Plus Tard and Rachael Blackmore reign supreme in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, while Constitution Hill emerged as potentially the next superstar over hurdles and Sam Waley-Cohen signed off his career in the saddle with a famous Grand National win on Noble Yeats.

As always, the jumps season provided an endless amount of stories, here's our look back at some of the main headline-makers.

Rachael rules at Cheltenham

While 2021 will forever be remembered as the year Rachael Blackmore stole the show, this season surely serves as due warning that her supremacy is going to be anything but fleeting.

Racing's golden girl maintained her brilliance and was duly rewarded with two more Championship-race wins at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Honeysuckle, the darling of Ireland, won her second Champion Hurdle and remains unbeaten as she heads towards Punchestown to complete her season.

Trainer Henry De Bromhead has confirmed the star mare will have one more season of racing before retirement beckons.

Honeysuckle is 5/2 to match the greats of the two-mile division by adding a third Champion Hurdle in 2023.

For Blackmore that was not to be her zenith moment in the Gloucestershire amphitheatre. That came on Gold Cup Day as she powered home on A Plus Tard, reversing form with 2021 Blue Riband winner Minella Indo in convincing style.

Blackmore was at pains to learn from the defeat a year earlier. She was ice-cool late in the race, remaining patient when others might have panicked as Robbie Power and Minella Indo went for home. A Plus Tard joined the leader at the last and careered away to win by 15 lengths.

A Grand National and a Gold Cup within 11 months, Blackmore is racing's brightest star now and a beacon of positivity for her sport - and she's here to stay.

Nicholls stands tall despite lack of firepower

Paul Nicholls will be crowned champion trainer for the 12th time this weekend at Sandown. It's an incredible achievement as the Ditcheat handler lacks the top-class firepower of days gone by.

He has amassed winnings in excess of £2.6m with more than 130 winners saddled, enough to hold off Nicky Henderson.

The balance of power in the jumps game, however, remains very much with Ireland and, in particular, with one Willie Mullins.

Ireland's champion is going to retain his title and nowhere was his supremacy more in evidence than at Cheltenham, where he rewrote the history books again with ten winners at The Festival - the first time that that has been done.

Incredibly, Mullins' tally matched that of Britain's trainers - who emerged with credit after a 23-5 annihilation last year in going down 18-10 this time.

Mullins only saddled 15 winners in Britain this season, but that put him fourth in the trainers' championship with more than £1.7m and it remains entirely feasible that he'll be champion trainer on both sides of the Irish Sea in a single season before he's done.

Nicholls remains champ for now, a testament to his race-planning and placement, but the halcyon days of his Ditcheat operation are seemingly as far away as they ever were.

Constitution Hill looks a Supreme talent

The Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham was billed as the hottest renewal of the race in some years as Jonbon, Dysart Dynamo and Constitution Hill all lined-up for a mouthwatering contest.

Nicky Henderson's pair were left to fight it out after Dysart Dynamo fell, but it was to prove no real scrap as Constitution Hill left Jonbon flailing in his wake.

Nico de Boinville's mount powered clear and broke Annie Power's track record in doing so. It was an extraordinary display.

Owner Michael Buckley talked of going to Punchestown to stare down Honeysuckle, but he and Henderson have since elected to quit while they are ahead for this season.

Constitution Hill is 2/1 to win the Champion Hurdle in 2023 and all roads will inevitably lead to his meeting with the mare on that day.

The two-mile hurdles division has lacked depth in recent times but perhaps a change in trend is emerging. Constitution Hill is just five years old and clearly has a bright future, while Triumph Hurdle winner Vauban could be a major force too.

Throw in the outstanding Champion Bumper winner Facile Vega and even the possibility that Bob Olinger might return to hurdling at some point, and the next few years in this division are very exciting indeed.

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Britain's got talent too

The Irish may have held sway at Cheltenham, but it was no procession. Constitution Hill delivered the statement performance of the entire week, but L'homme Presse ran out an impressive winner of the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase for Venetia Williams.

He's a dual Grade 1-winning novice over fences and, while he was beaten at Aintree subsequently, that came at the end of a busy run of races.

Lucinda Russell's Ahoy Senor was the horse that won out at Aintree, winning a Grade 1 at the Grand National Festival for the second season running.

The pair have bright futures in the staying chase division and find themselves in the mix for next year's Gold Cup, with Ahoy Senor at 10/1 and L'homme Presse at 14/1.

Aintree, however, was a bump in the road for Bravemansgame, the erstwhile star in the making amongst Nicholls' squad.

Everything he'd done over fences until that point was impressive but he ran out of puff very quickly in the Mildmay Novices' Chase.

His trainer has already made clear his belief that Bravemansgame can be the King George horse come Boxing Day at Kempton, but he's got a question to answer now.

Add in the fine season of Milton Harris - who gained a Grade 1 breakout moment via Knight Salute at Aintree - and the continuing excellent of the likes of Dan Skelton, Harry Fry and Venetia Williams and there's plenty room for optimism amongst the ranks of the UK's National Hunt team.

Nationals provide plenty as always

The Grand National season ended on Easter Monday as local small-time Dermot McLoughlin bagged a second successive victory in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse.

A year on from 150/1 shot Freewheelin Dylan causing an almighty shock in the Easter feature, Lord Lariat got his name on the honours board at odds of 40/1 under 7lb claimer Paddy O'Hanlon.

Once more, these compelling contests provided more than their fair share of drama and narrative this season and nowhere more so than at Aintree.

Noble Yeats was a 50/1 winner of the Randox Grand National, fighting off the late challenge of favourite Any Second Now to prevail at Aintree for amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen in what was the last ride of his career.

It was some tale, Waley-Cohen also famously having won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Long Run back in 2011.

Add in that fact that trainer Emmet Mullins was the second-youngest to saddle the Aintree winner - behind only Gordon Elliott - with what was his first runner in the great race and the fact that Noble Yeats was the first seven-year-old to win since Bogskar in 1940, and it all added up to a landmark renewal laced with intrigue for many reasons.

A week before, Win My Wings turned the Scottish Grand National into something of a procession as trainer Christian Williams enjoyed a one-two up at Ayr with Kitty's Light behind in second.

Noble Yeats is 16/1 to retain the Aintree mantle in 2023, while Win My Wings is 20/1 to end the long wait for another mare to score.

There was a home-team winner at Chepstow over Christmas, meanwhile, as Iwilldoit took out the Welsh National for trainer Sam Thomas. The emergence of Thomas and Christian Williams certainly bodes well for the future as far as Welsh trainers are concerned.

That was the jumps season that was in 2021/22. With summer now on the horizon the stars of the winter months will take their hard-earned rest, but they'll return for another stirring campaign once the days begin to shorten again. Haste ye back, jumpers!

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