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Monday, 1 March 2021

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.


Tuesday, 12 January 2021

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.