Inaugurated in 1959, the Queen Mother Champion Chase has established itself as one of the highlights of the entire National Hunt season.
This two mile championship race leaves no margin for error and there have been numerous occasions where a small mistake has cost any chance of winning.
The 2 mile race takes place on the Wednesday of the Festival and is run over 12 fences on the Old Course at Cheltenham and is open to horses of 5 years and older.
The event was originally called the National Hunt Two-Mile Champion Chase but assumed its present name in 1980 – the year of the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday – in recognition of her support to jump racing. The Queen Mother was a successful owner of National Hunt horses, particularly chasers, and among these was Game Spirit who was second in the 1976 renewal of this race.
From the outset the Irish took a stranglehold on the race, with the Dan Moore trained Quita Que taking the inaugural running.
Tom Dreaper, trainer of Arkle, took the first of his 6 wins in the race with dual winner Fortria, who won the race in 1960 and 1961. Ben Stack was a third winner for Dreaper in 1964 and the following year the exceptional Dunkirk took the prize by 20 lengths. Sadly he was killed in the following season’s King George VI Chase.
As outstanding as Dunkirk had been, he was replaced on the winners’ rostrum by one of the greatest of all time in 1966, when Dreaper’s Flyingbolt, officially rated the second best chaser of all time, won by 15 lengths at odds of 1/5, the shortest priced winner of the race. Incredibly the horse reappeared 24 hours later to finish a mere third in the Champion Hurdle!
Drinny’s Double then became the second horse to win two renewals of the race. Trained by Bob Turnell, the horse ran in the black and gold colours of Paul Mellon, which would become so famous just a few short years later through the exploits of Mill Reef.
Tom Dreaper’s fifth and sixth winners followed in 1969 with Muir and in 1970 when Straight Fort won the race.
Then in 1971, another legend of the turf became Champion Chaser. The Australian chaser Crisp had already established himself as a great horse in his native land before embarking on a trip half way round the world to compete in England. At Cheltenham, he was a very easy winner and of course later went on to run in perhaps the most famous Grand National of all-time, where he made the large fences look like hurdles and was agonisingly denied by Red Rum in the dying strides, having made virtually every yard of the running.
Throughout the 1970s the Edward Courage colours were very well known and one of his leading runners was Royal Relief, a perennial runner in the big race, who added his name to the winner’s list twice, in 1972 and again in 1974, with the Dan Moore trained Inkslinger winning another title for Ireland in between.
The remarkable Skymas won the race at the advanced age of 11 in 1976 and again aged 12 the following year – and is arguably the finest jumper ever to be trained in Northern Ireland. The domination continued in 1978 and 1979 as Hilly Way became the latest dual winner.
Indeed, when Chinrullah sluiced up in the mud in 1980, it appeared that the trophy had a permanent home in the Emerald Isles. However, the horse was later disqualified – along with that year’s Gold Cup winner Tied Cottage, when both horses were the unfortunate victims of contaminated feed which resulted in failed dope tests. That 1980 renewal was consequently awarded to Another Dolly for Fred Rimell although on the day and in the conditions, Chinrullah was peerless.
Drumgora proved a worthy winner in 1981 as the Irish continued their domination, although Anaglogs Daughter, the previous year’s Arkle winner had been expected to win. It would clearly take something special to shake the Irish love affair with the Champion Chase and the change in fortunes duly arrived in the shape of young trainer Michael Dickinson.
Dickinson began to dominate the British National Hunt scene in the early 1980s and his hard work began to pay dividends in 1982 as Rathgorman presented him with one of his biggest victories to date when romping away with the Champion Chase. A day later of course, Dickinson saddled the first and second in the Gold Cup as Silver Buck beat Bregawn.
Whilst Rathgorman was very good, Dickinson’s stable housed another two miler who would etch his name into the highest echelons of the division’s history. Badsworth Boy had been a very good hurdler and had contested the 1981 Champion Hurdle. Over fences however, he became a superstar, winning the first of his 3 consecutive Champion Chases in 1983 in an imperious show of disdain. There were of course some exceptional horses in that line-up including Artifice, News King, The Mighty Mac, Drumgora, Rathgorman and Western Rose – none of them could live with Badsworth Boy though.
In 1984 the manner of victory was just as decisive and that summer Dickinson, having achieved almost everything it was possible to win in National Hunt, switched codes, leaving his mother Monica with a stable of superstars including Badsworth Boy.
The 1985 renewal of the Champion Chase was billed as a match between the reigning champion and Ireland’s up and coming force and Arkle Chase hero Bobsline. As the field raced down the hill though, Bobsline lost his balance and fell, leaving Badsworth Boy to gallop home a very easy winner of an unprecedented third Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Both horses were back for the 1986 renewal but by now Badsworth Boy was in the veteran stage and Bobsline was perhaps not quite as brilliant as before. The new generation of Very Promising and Buck House proved a real threat with the latter a brilliant winner. Having raced against his career nemesis Dawn Run in a famous match race at Punchestown, Buck House tragically died of colic in the same week Dawn Run lost her life in France.
The 1987 renewal of the Champion Chase produced one of the finest finishes in the race’s history. David Elsworth’s grey horse Desert Orchid had won the King George VI Chase over 3 miles but dropped back to 2 mile for this race. Up against him was an on-song Very Promising and the smart and progressive Pearlyman. In a three-way fight up the Cheltenham hill, John Edward’s Pearlyman got the better of a tight finish from Very Promising. He would follow up in 1988 too, before injury affected his career.
With Pearlyman on the sidelines, Very Promising ageing and Desert Orchid aimed at the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the 1989 Champion Chase had a different look to it. David Elsworth had a second strong string to his bow at this level though, as Barnbrook Again, that smart hurdler, had progressed to become an outstanding chaser. He won the 1989 renewal in great style and followed up in 1990 beating a strong field that included the exciting chasers Waterloo Boy, Sabin du Loir and the old champion Pearlyman.
Barnbrook Again was missing for most of the 1990/91 season and unable to defend his crown. In his absence Waterloo Boy was expected to become the Champion Chaser but suffered a surprise reversal when the improving chaser Katabatic claimed the biggest prize of his long and successful career.
That Cheltenham Festival of 1991 however unleashed a future champion in the shape of Remittance Man. Relatively small, Remittance Man had been a very good hurdler before embarking on a wonderful run of victories in novice chases which culminated in his brilliant defeat of Uncle Ernie in the 1991 Arkle Chase.
By 1992 Remittance Man appeared to have established himself as the leading 2 mile chaser but faced both Katabatic and Waterloo Boy in the Champion Chase. In a memorable renewal Remittance Man got the better of the revitalised defending champion and looked set to dominate for years. Sadly Remittance Man picked up an injury the following season and although he did come back in 1994, he was never the same horse again.
Both Katabatic and Waterloo Boy were back again in 1993, where they were vanquished by Josh Gifford’s Deep Sensation, who beat the Martin Pipe trained Cyphrate.
Then in 1994, a sensational line-up featured Katabatic, Deep Sensation and Remittance Man. However this race had real depth to it and Sybillin, Wonder Man and Travado all held strong claims. Remarkably none of these horses won the race though. Remittance Man fell 3 fences from the finish and it was the tough as teak Viking Flagship, never a flashy horse but the hardest battler on the scene, who fought best up the Cheltenham hill to mark a new era.
Viking Flagship won his second Champion Chase in 1995 for David Nicholson, beating Deep Sensation again, while Katabatic was running in his fifth renewal. It was clear that Viking Flagship had become a very tough horse to pass in races and that hill played to his strengths.
Two February victories suggested that Viking Flagship was on course to emulate Badsworth Boy’s record of a hat-trick of Champion Chase wins in 1996. However, he had been demolished by the exciting young Irish chaser Sound Man in the Tingle Creek Chase the previous December and that horse started a hot favourite. Sound Man ran no sort of race however and it was left to his old Irish rival Klairon Davis to record the first Irish win in the race since Buck House a decade before. A day later of course, Imperial Call repeated the same achievement in the Gold Cup as Dawn Run had been the last Irish trained winner in 1986.
The 1997 renewal saw the return to the track of a horse who had been sadly missing from the National Hunt scene for the 2 previous years. Martha’s Son had been a brilliant young 2 miler and had featured in a memorable race with Viking Flagship and Deep Sensation at Aintree in 1995 when stepped up to the highest class. He had looked a future champion but then injury had prevented him from racing.
Klairon Davis and old Viking Flagship were back in the line-up with Tom Tate’s exciting chaser Ask Tom. However Strong Promise, a 6 year old giant of a horse was made the favourite. Having fallen on his preparation run at Kempton, Martha’s Son proved the revelation of this race as he ran out a brilliant winner from Ask Tom. Sadly, he went wrong again at Huntingdon the following season and his career was over.
If pushed to nominate their favourite Queen Mother Champion Chase, it is a fair bet that the majority of people will list the 1998 running very highly. This was a race of crowning glory and redemption – and tragically the last glorious hurrah of a horse that had dominated the mid-Nineties National Hunt scene.
Despite winning 2 King Georges and a Hennessy Gold Cup, One Man had never lasted home in the Gold Cup. Theories abounded as to why he just seemed to stop in the home straight and eventually Gordon Richards decided to run his 10 year old in the Champion Chase instead.
Even against such seasoned 2 mile veterans as Viking Flagship, Klairon Davis and Ask Tom, One Man’s talent was expected to give him a great chance and so it proved as he finally bounded up that Cheltenham hill with exuberant energy, to record one of the finest victories seen at the Festival in recent years. Racing lost one of its torch bearers a matter of weeks later however, when One Man was killed at Aintree, leaving a massive hole in the sport.
The following year saw an unusually large field of 13 runners for the race – perhaps underlining the more open nature of the division, now that Viking Flagship was retired, Ask Tom and Klairon Davis were no longer in the same form and One Man had sadly been lost to the sport.
Paul Nicholls at this time was a rising force in racing and had won his first ever Festival race the previous day when Flagship Uberalles won the Arkle Chase. In the Champion Chase he ran Call Equiname, a talented but injury prone grey horse who had come back to win the Victor Chandler Chase at Kempton.
In the Champion Chase, he got the better of a scrap with Edredon Bleu and Direct Route and Nicholls continued his amazing week with Gold Cup victory the next day thanks to See More Business.
Call Equiname’s fitness did not last but the 2000 renewal featured many of the same cast, with Flagship Uberalles a valuable addition, having proved himself an outstanding 2 miler during the season. In one of the great races in Cheltenham history, AP McCoy forcefully rode Edredon Bleu from the front but turning for home, both Direct Route and Flagship Uberalles loomed large. IT seemed as though Edredon Bleu would bow to the inevitable but incredibly he got up to deny Direct Route in a three-way finish of inches.
With foot and mouth claiming the entire 2001 Festival, Flagship Uberalles won the 2002 renewal from the Irish challenger Native Upmanship and the ageing Edredon Bleu. However, as so often happens at the Festival, the Arkle Trophy was to produce another future significant challenger.
Ireland’s once domination of the Champion Chase had long since vanished but Jessica Harrington had real hopes that her young chaser Moscow Flyer – a horse who had raced against Istabraq over hurdles, just might rekindle the old glory days.
Moscow Flyer had a tendency to either win his races or fall – and at Cheltenham in 2003, he was a very easy winner from Native Upmanship with Flagship Uberalles, Edredon Bleu and Florida Pearl well in arrears. The horse just never seemed to be extended but once again, a new rival would come to the fore thanks to the Arkle Trophy, when Azertyuiop staked his claims.
Moscow Flyer had looked unbeatable over fences when standing up and the two horses clashed in the Tingle Creek Chase in December, where the champion got the verdict. However, at Cheltenham, Moscow Flyer’s old problem with the fences returned with a vengeance and he unseated Barry Geraghty, to leave Azertyuiop to beat Flagship Uberalles by an easy 9 lengths.
Well Chief was a good winner of the Arkle Trophy in 2004 and the three horses met in a memorable Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown Park, in which Moscow Flyer displayed all of his old verve. All 3 were in the line-up for the Champion Chase of 2005 and this time it was Azertyuiop who made a decisive mistake which cost him any chance of winning. Moscow Flyer ran out a brilliant winner with Well Chief galloping on bravely for second place.
By now Moscow Flyer was starting to show his age and lost his unbeaten record over fences (when completing) at Punchestown that spring. Further defeats followed at Navan and Leopardstown. Worse was to befall Azertyuiop whose career was ended by injury and Well Chief was also sidelined. In their absence, a young ex-French chaser called Kauto Star won the Tingle Creek Chase in brilliant style and was all the rage for the Champion Chase of 2006.
In a dramatic renewal, Kauto Star was an early faller in a race which saw two fallers, one horse brought down and another three horses unseat their riders. The largely unconsidered Irish challenger Newmill avoided the melee to run out a convincing winner, while Moscow Flyer, who had been hampered, galloped into retirement.
Kauto Star of course stepped up in distance and in 2007 Newmill had to contend with two Arkle Trophy winners as Well Chief returned to action and the 6 year old Voy Por Ustedes took on the defending champion. Well Chief was an early faller and it was Alan King’s Voy Por Ustedes who proved a worthy winner.
With Newmill and Voy Por Ustedes back for the 2008 race, Paul Nicholls threw two young horses into the white hot atmosphere of the Champion Chase. Twist Magic had already proven himself a classy horse at this level with a superb win in the Tingle Creek Chase. Master Minded had taken time to adjust to English racing but had defeated the reigning champion in the Game Spirit Chase. In the Champion Chase, that 5 length victory was almost quadrupled, as Master Minded simply ran away from his rivals, recording a phenomenal 19 length success aged just five! It revived memories of Flyingbolt.
Master Minded duly followed up in 2009 by the slightly less emphatic 7 lengths, defeating the returning Well Chief, Petit Robin, Newmill and Twist Magic, while the fancied Irish runner Big Zeb was a faller. Master Minded was all set to bid for the hat-trick in 2010 and again faced old foe Twist Magic and Well Chief, who was back from another injury. However, Master Minded ran below par and Big Zeb, who had dominated the Irish 2 mile scene, ran out a deserved winner from Arkle winner Forpadydeplasterer. The Master Minded era in the Champion Chase was over.
Once again, The Arkle Trophy was to provide important clues for the following year’s Champion Chase and Henry de Bromhead’s once brilliant hurdler Sizing Europe, capped a fantastic comeback season over fences with Cheltenham victory.
The 2011 Champion Chase however, still saw the public favour Master Minded, who at the age of 8, was sent off favourite. Sadly he was no longer the horse he had once been and Sizing Europe brilliantly lead home a 1-2-3-4 finish for Ireland, with Big Zeb running well again, ahead of Captain Cee Bee and Golden Silver, with Somersby the best of the British runners in fifth place.
Sizing Europe had long loved Cheltenham and had first come to prominence with a victory in the Greatwood Hurdle in 2007.
He was back to defend his title in 2012, after another successful campaign in Ireland. Big Zeb was also back but age seemed to have blunted his speed, while Nicky Henderson ran the progressive Finian’s Rainbow. In a dramatic race, Wishfull Thinking was a dramatic early faller, careering through the rails and into a crowd of onlookers. Consequently the last fence was dolled off and was to play a significant part in the finish.
Sizing Europe held the inside of the course with Finian’s Rainbow on the stands side and the two horses were locked in a bitter battle up the hill. As the horses ran towards the dolled off final fence, Barry Geraghty refused to give ground and Sizing Europe lost momentum at a vital time, enabling Finian’s Rainbow to gain the advantage and just win the race in a controversial finish.
Yet again however, the Arkle Trophy provided a winner of a rare vintage, who looked set to challenge the two previous victors. Sprinter Sacre was simply imperious over fences and destroyed his rivals in the 2012 Arkle Trophy – including the very smart Al Ferof. Throughout the 2012/13 season he remained unchallenged and unbeaten over fences, racking up facile wins in the Tingle Creek Chase and Victor Chandler Chase and effectively vanquishing all legitimate English challengers in the 2 mile division.
With Finian’s Rainbow under a cloud and failing to cope with persistent heavy ground during the season, he was out of the picture and his stable mate Sprinter Sacre, was left to contest the Champion Chase against the ageing but still talented Sizing Europe.
Just 5 other horses contested the race and racing down the hill only the big 2 mattered and it was soon apparent that Sizing Europe was in trouble He stumbled slightly and lost momentum but by that stage was already fighting a losing battle as Sprinter Sacre effortlessly pulled away to a 19 length win.
It was a performance that evoked memories of Flyingbolt, Badsworth Boy and Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre was a worthy addition to the roll of honour for race that defines a champion.
The following season that air of invincibility was blown away however, as jockey Barry Geraghty took evasive action and pulled up Sprinter Sacre in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton Park over Christmas. It quickly emerged that the champion had suffered from an irregular heart-beat which was soon corrected, but meant that he was unable to defend his crown.
Ironically, the Desert Orchid Chase was won by the heir apparent, Sire De Grugy. The popular chestnut gelding with the big white face had already claimed Sprinter Sacre’s Tingle Creek Chase crown and in January the Clarence House Chase (formerly the Victor Chandler Chase) was also annexed.
Going into Cheltenham there remained concerns in many quarters about Sire De Grugy’s record at Prestbury Park. However, Gary Moore’s charge dispelled any suggestions that he didn’t handle the track with a brilliant performance to beat Somersby by 6 lengths. Like Sprinter Sacre before him, Sire De Grugy had mopped up all of the major 2 mile prizes in England and was a deserving champion.
The following season saw Sire De Grugy on the sidelines in the autumn and early winter, before making a belated reappearance in February and looking far from in the same form. Sprinter Sacre was another former champion on the comeback trail and his prospects looked good as he chased home the new kid on the block, Dodging Bullets, in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January.
Dodging Bullets, bred by Flat jockey Frankie Dettori, had already served notice on his burgeoning talent when winning the Grade 1 Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown Park. By the Ascot contest, he was following in the footsteps of the two former champions.
All three met in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March and it was apparent that the division had moved on for both Sire De Grugy and Sprinter Sacre, as Dodging Bullets saw off his Tingle Creek rival Somersby in a thrilling finish, with Special Tiara third.
However, 2015/16 saw one of racing’s greatest ever comebacks.
With Dodging Bullets held up in his work by a splint, in November 2015, Sprinter Sacre put up an astonishing performance in Cheltenham’s Shloer Chase – which looked every inch the vintage of past glories.
With Sire De Grugy landing the Tingle Creek Chase, there was enormous expectation going into the 2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Special Tiara and Un De Sceaux ensured there was a good gallop, but under Nico De Boinville, Sprinter Sacre simply rolled back the years to power clear in the home straight for a quite stunning seven-length success, his second in the big race.
The second coming extended to April 2016 and a glorious victory in the Celebration Chase, but in November 2016, Nicky Henderson retired the brilliant Sprinter Sacre after his charge had sustained a leg injury.
Whilst Sprinter Sacre had been wowing audiences, a growing force in Ireland had been the exciting – and hitherto unbeaten Douvan, who had landed the Arkle Trophy.
With Sprinter Sacre retired, expectations were high that Douvan would be the heir apparent.
But as Special Tiara set the tempo, Douvan ran a lack-lustre race in the Champion Chase and was never in contention, having suffered a back injury.
Special Tiara, already twice-placed in this race, kept on gamely under Noel Fehily and was still in contention in the home straight.
He was challenged by Fox Norton and in a terrific finish, just held on to win by a head, with Sir Valentino third.
Special Tiara had often been considered a spring horse who revelled on good ground. At his best he was cut from the finest cloth and capable of putting in the most exuberant leaps which would draw grasps from the crowd. So his win, a second in the race for trainer Henry De Bromhead, proved a popular one.
In 2018, Special Tiara was back in the line-up, but faced not only unsuitably heavy ground, but racing’s latest superstar.
Altior’s run of success had continued over fences, but after winning the 2017 Arkle Trophy, his following campaign had been held up by a wind operation.
Two warm-up runs tuned-Altior up, but he was the subject of an injury scare, having been lame on the Monday before.
He also faced Douvan, who, after a frustrating winter, had made the line-up to add enormous intrigue, along with his stable mate Min.
Douvan was travelling imperiously well, but came to grief at the fourth last fence, when still very much a contender. There were a million cries of what might have been.
Altior meanwhile, hit a flat spot and momentarily looked to be in trouble, his long unbeaten run under threat.
But in the home straight, Nico De Boinville’s mount found his wings and he cleared the last and bound up the Cheltenham hill, to beat Min comfortably, with God’s Own staying on for third.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase winners
Next week Course-specialist takes a look at the history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.