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Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The Long & the Short of it: Cheltenham ‘Championship’ Races


The four main ‘championship’ races at the Cheltenham Festival – the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Stayers’ Hurdle – represent the pinnacle of achievement in each division of National Hunt racing. They have often been won by the out-and-out champions of the sport, who were ‘expected’ to win, and did so, at correspondingly short odds. Every now and again, though, they throw up highly unlikely winners, who defy monstrous odds to have their names carved on one of the hallowed trophies.


Legendary Irish steeplechaser Arkle, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in a row, in 1964, 1965 and 1966, has the distinction of being the shortest-priced winner of the most prestigious race at the Cheltenham Festival. On his third, and final, attempt, in 1966, such was his apparent superiority over his three rivals that he was sent off at eyewateringly prohibitive odds of 1/10.


By contrast, in 1990, Norton’s Coin, one of just three horses trained by Carmarthen permit holder Sirrell Griffiths, was the longest-priced winner in the history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. ‘More a candidate for last than first’, at least according to the official Cheltenham racecard on the day, the nine-year-old defied odds of 100/1 to beat Toby Tobias and defending champion Desert by three-quarters of a length and four lengths, breaking the course record in the process.



In 1954, Sir Ken, trained by Willie Stephenson, became only the second horse – after Hatton’s Grace – to win the Champion Hurdle three times a row. He started favourite on all three occasions but, in 1953, he was sent off at 2/5, making him the shortest-priced winner in the history of the race. At the other end of the scale, Kirriemuir, trained by Fulke Walwyn, popped up at 50/1 in 1965, as did Beech Road, trained by Toby Balding, in 1989; they share the spoils as the joint-longest-priced winners.


In the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the supremely gifted Flyingbolt, a stable companion of Arkle, was returned at odds of 1/5 after putting five rivals to the word in 1966. In 1980, Chinrullah was first past the post, but later controversially disqualified after failing a post-race urine test, in favour of Another Dolly, trained by Fred Rimmell. Returned at 33/1, Another Dolly is officially the longest-priced winner of the race.



The Stayers’ Hurdle – or ‘World Hurdle’, as it was known for a while – was first run, in its current guise, in 1972. Since then, Big Buck’s, who won the race four consecutive times, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, was twice returned at odds of 5/6, in 2010 and 2012, making him the shortest-priced winner of the modern era. In 1983, BBC pundit announced that he would ‘eat his hat’ if A Kinsman, trained by Cumbrian farmer John Brockbank, won the Stayers’ Hurdle. Nevertheless, A Kinsman duly obliged, at 50/1, to become the longest-priced winner in the history of the race.


Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Female Jockeys at the Cheltenham Festival


Caroline Beasley, aboard Eliogarty, was the very first female jockey to ride a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, on Eliogarty in 1983. Although this win in the St. James’s Place Foxhunter Chase signalled what was possible for female jockeys it wasn't exactly a sign of the flood gates opening.  In fact winners ridden by female jockeys in the following years were very much few and far between. Outlier events.


Katie Rimell, on Three Counties, in 1989, Polly Curling, on Fantus, in 1995, Fiona Needham, on Last Option, in 2002 and Rilley Goschen, on Earthmover, in 2004, all followed in the footsteps of Caroline Beasley by winning the St. James’s Place Foxhunter Chase. After that time came a barren period though, propped up only by the successes two skilled female jockeys, Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh.  
Nina Carberry is the definition of 'start as you mean to go on' with an impressive first Cheltenham Festival win on Dabiroun in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle in 2005. The six winners that followed let her to becoming the most successful  female jockey in the history of the Festival. Those six winners were all trained by Enda Bolger in Co. Limerick and owned by John McManus. They included a record four wins in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase and back-to-back victories in the St. James’s Place Foxhunter Chase. Katie Walsh, on the other hand, won the County Hurdle on Thousand Stars, the National Hunt Chase on Poker De Sivola and the Weatherbys Champion Bumper on Relegate, for a total of three Festival winners.


Bryony Frost, now conditional jockey to former Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls, opened her account at the Festival, while still an amateur, when steering Pacha Du Polder to victory in the St. James’s Place Foxhunter Chase in 2017 and another amateur, Harriet Tucker, repeated the feat on the same horse a year later. Katie Walsh and Harriet Tucker were also joined, in 2018, by the first two professional female jockeys to ride winners at the Cheltenham Festival, Lizzie Kelly on Coo Star Sivola in the Ultima Handicap Chase and Bridget Andrews on Mohaayed in the County Hurdle.

Four female jockey winners in a year was a new record for the Cheltenham Festival, and it was pleasing to see a renewed enthusiasm and momentum building. Unlike with the Grand National, historically female jockeys have struggled at the Cheltenham Festival and it looks like a corner may well have finally been turned in that department.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Best Cheltenham Festival Ride Ever?


At the time of his retirement, in April, 2015, Sir Anthony Peter ‘A.P.’ McCoy had ridden 4,348 winners under National Hunt rules, including 31 at the Cheltenham Festival. His Festival haul included the Champion Hurdle three times, the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice and the Queen Mother Champion. However, the former 20-time Champion Jockey believes, and few would argue, that he enjoyed his finest hour in the Festival Trophy Handicap Chase – at that time, run as the William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase – on March 10, 2009.


The race was run, as it is today, over 3 miles and 80 yards on the Old Course at Prestbury Park and Mcoy rode Wichita Lineman, a 7-year-old owned by John Patrick ‘J.P.’ McManus and trained by Jonjo O’Neill. Although having just his fourth start over fences, Wichita Lineman was sent off 5/1 favourite on his handicap debut; he was hardly an unlikely winner, at least not according to the betting market, but it was the manner of his victory, from a nigh on impossible position, for which McCoy earned deserved plaudits.


After a false start, Wichita Lineman raced in mid-division, on the inside, before making a mistake at the ninth fence, and another at the tenth, which led to a reminder from McCoy heading out onto the second circuit. Only tenth or eleventh when hitting the fifteenth fence, Witchita Lineman was still making little or impression on the leaders when hitting the third last fence. However, coming down the hill, the horse rallied, under maximum pressure and, turning into the home straight, had reached sixth place.


Switched to the wide outside, he was still only third jumping the final fence, but made relentless progress up the famous Cheltenham hill, collaring Maljimar, who had led from the second last fence, in the final two strides to win by a neck. Sadly, the story does not have a happy ending; Wichita Lineman was killed in a fall at the first fence on his very next start, in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse the following month, but he will always be remembered as the subject of possibly the best ride ever seen at the Cheltenham Festival.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Biggest Cheltenham Festival Flops


The Cheltenham Festival regularly provides the most competitive racing in the British National Hunt calendar, so short-priced, even odds-on, losers are commonplace. Even so, from time to time, the public latches on to a horse which, for whatever reason, is backed as if defeat is out of the question. Of course, it isn’t, but such horses are often forced in to short, sometimes ludicrously short, prices. ‘Following the money’ can pay dividends, but can, equally, be a total disaster.


The most obvious recent example of a Cheltenham Festival ‘flop’ was Douvan, trained by Willie Mullins, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2017. In a race that has had more than its fair share of odds-on losers down the years, Douvan was sent off at prohibitive odds of 2/9 to continue his unbeaten run, which stretched back 14 races over hurdles and fences. Even so, there were still takers, including one anonymous punter who reportedly placed a bet of £100,000/£500,000 at odds of 1/5. In any event, Douvan jumped poorly, was soon outpaced and trailed in seventh of the nine finishers, beaten 11¾ lengths, behind the winner Special Tiara.

Kasbah Bliss, trained in France by Francois Doumen, was a regular at the Cheltenham Festival in the Noughties, but having been beaten in the Triumph Hurdle and twice in the Stayers’ Hurdle – or the World Hurdle, as it was known at the time – he was surprising made odds-on favourite, at 10/11, for the latter race in 2009. The previous year, on the Old Course, he had failed by just a length to overhaul Inglis Drever, but the year before that, on the New Course, he had had his stamina limitations exposed when beaten 17 lengths by the same horse. Back on the New Course in 2008, he fared no better, weakening on the run-in to finish fourth, beaten 21 lengths, behind Big Buck’s.

Another fine Irish steeplechaser, Beef Or Salmon, trained by Michael Hourigan, had already been beaten three times in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, before he lined up, as 4/1 favourite, for the 2006 renewal. On his previous attempts he had fallen at the third fence in 2003, finished fourth, beaten 3½ lengths, behind Best Mate in 2004 and been tailed off when pulled up two out behind Kicking King in 2005. However, in the absence of Best Mate, who’d won for the previous years, he was suddenly considered favourite material. He wasn’t, finishing eleventh of nineteen, beaten 19 lengths behind War Of Attrition.