In horse racing, blinkers are one of the most commonly used types of headgear. Standard blinkers consist of pair of fabric, leather or plastic cups positioned, one either side, on a headpiece. The cups are placed next to the horse’s eyes with the intention of restricting its field of vision to the rear and, in some cases, to the side. Naturally, horses have a 275° field of vision, such that they can be easily distracted or upset by events on either side or behind them. Thus, by restricting the field of vision – to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the design of the blinkers – trainers hope to encourage a horse to focus on looking, and moving, forward and thereby improve its racecourse performance.
So-called ‘French’ blinkers, also known as ‘cheek pieces’, are less restrictive than standard blinkers, but serve a similar purpose. They consist of strips of sheepskin, which are attached to the straps on either side of a horse’s bridle and restrict how much the horse can see behind it. Blinkers and cheek pieces must be declared overnight and horses wearing these types of headgear can be identified by a small letter ‘b’, or ‘c’, next to the their names on a racecard.
Although perhaps not quite a household name, Tiger Roll requires little or no introduction. For the uninitiated, in 2019 Tiger Roll became the first horse since Red Rum, in 1974, to win back-to-back renewals of the Grand National. The diminutive horse, who stands just 15.2 hands high and was once described as ‘a little rat of a thing’ by owner Michael O’Leary, was denied the chance to complete an unprecedented hat-trick when the Grand National was cancelled, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020.
In 2021, the Grand National returned, but O’Leary took exception to the handicap mark of 166 awarded to Tiger Roll by British Horseracing Authority (BHA) handicapper, Martin Greenwood, and withdrew his horse several weeks before the race. Nevertheless, Tiger Roll headed to the Cheltenham Festival for what had previously been his preparatory race for the Grand National, the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase. He won, easily, reversing previous form with 2020 winner, Easyland, to the tune of 35 lengths, leaving O’Leary keen on the idea of a return to Aintree for the Grand National in 2022. He said, ‘Red Rum was dropped 7lb as a 12-year-old. Hopefully, Tiger will get the chance to go back to Aintree.’At the time of writing, Tiger Roll is a top-priced 33/1 to emulate Red Rum and win his third Grand National in five years.
Following what was termed a ‘greenwash’ at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, where Irish-trained horses secured a record 23-5 victory over their British-trained counterparts in the Prestbury Cup, the 2021 Grand National proved to be an equally one-sided affair. At Aintree, British-trained horses, including the favourite, Cloth Cap, comprised 22 of the 40-strong field field.
However, of those 22 runners, just three – priced at 50/1, 50/1 and 100/1 – completed the course and just one finished in the first ten horses home. Of course, victory went to Minella Times, trained by Henry de Bromhead and ridden by Rachael Blackmore, who made history by becoming the first female jockey to win the Grand National. Minella Times was followed home by stable companion Balko Des Flos, Any Second Now, trained by Ted Walsh, Burrows Saint, trained by Willie Mullins and Farclas, trained by Denise Foster, to complete an Irish 1-2-3-4-5.
The horse that fared best of the British-trained contigent was Blaklion, who had started favourite for the Grand National when a highly creditable fourth behind One For Arthur in 2017, when trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies. Nowadays a doughty 12-year-old, in the charge of Dan Skelton, Blaklion was sent off at 50/1, but ran perfectly respectfully, weakening from the final fence to finish sixth, 37 lengths behind the winner.
In the equine world, the term ‘cheek pieces’ can be used to describe the two straps that connect the part of a bridle that sits over the top of a horse’s head, a.k.a. the ‘crown piece’, and the bit, which fits into the horse’s mouth. However, in horse racing circles, the term more often refers to a type of headgear that consists of two, equally-sized strips of sheepskin, or similar material, which are attached to the aforementioned straps and thus run down the side of a horse’s face.
Also known as ‘French blinkers’, cheek pieces serve a similar purpose to standard blinkers, insofar as they restrict the horse’s field of vision, particularly to the rear and, in so doing, force the horse to concentrate on what is happening in front of it. Cheek pieces have become popular with British horse racing trainers seeking to improve the racecourse performance of easily distracted, unseasoned or unpredictable horses, so much so that, like certain other forms of headgear, they must be declared overnight. On race cards in the ‘Racing Post’ and elsewhere, a horse wearing cheek pieces can be identified by a small letter ‘p’ following its name.