Cheltenham week attracts just under a quarter of a million race goers for the Festival each March, with the Friday the busiest day when the Cheltenham Gold Cup takes place. The race is regarded as the Blue Riband of National Hunt steeple chasing and has over the years attracted the very best calibre of horse, with fewer excuses for defeat it in many ways is the race people want to win, even ahead of the Grand National.
Overlooking Cheltenham Racecourse is Cleeve Hill, the highest point in the Cotswolds. It was from this vantage that the first ever Cheltenham Gold Cup took place in 1819; albeit a 3 mile Flat race won by a horse named Spectre.
National Hunt racing grew in popularity in the early part of the 20th Century and the Cheltenham Gold Cup as it is known today began in earnest in 1924 on the “Old Course”, when it was won by the 5 year old Red Splash. In those days the race was not considered as prestigious as today and the National Hunt Chase was the main target for owners and trainers.
Today the race takes place over 22 fences and 3 miles 2 and a half furlongs, with that famous hill impacting on so many famous finishes.
The first dual winner of the race was Easter Hero who captured the Gold Cup in 1929 and 1930. His preparation for the 1929 race were four hurdles races which he duly won and h claimed the Gold Cup by 20 lengths. His second Gold Cup was recorded by the same distance when closest rival Gib fell at the final fence. Easter Hero retired and lived out his days at his owners Jock Whitney’s home in the USA.
In 1931 there was no Gold Cup and the following year saw the emergence of one of jumps racing’s all-time greats. That was the year that Golden Miller won the first of his 5 consecutive Gold Cups. Considering the quality of opposition in an average Gold Cup, not to mention the challenge to keep a horse sound and in good form, his record is one that might never be broken in the Gold Cup. Indeed, until Quevega’s 2013 Festival triumph, no other horse had won at 5 Cheltenham Festivals. He also remains the only horse to this day, to have won the Gold Cup and Grand National in the same season, recording the double in 1934 and breaking the course record for the Grand National in the process.
He was owned by the extraordinary Miss Dorothy Paget and ridden to victory in his 5 Gold Cups by 4 different jockeys. He might have won a sixth Gold Cup but the race was cancelled in 1937 due to flooding.
The race resumed in 1945 after the Second World War and the following year saw the first of Tom Dreaper’s 5 triumphs when Prince Regent won the prize for Ireland. However, looming large in the future was the next superstar to dominate the race.
Fortina’s 1947 success pre-empted the arrival of Vincent O’Brien, who was rapidly developing the finest string of racehorses in Ireland. His Cottage Rake was a classy individual who went on to win the Gold Cup on 3 occasions in 1948, 1949 and 1950, ridden each time by Aubrey Brabazon. He achieved all of this despite failing a vet on 3 separate occasions before embarking on his chasing career! As for his trainer, well such was his success at the Cheltenham Festival, that the Irish racing fans starting travelling to England in their thousands, kick-starting what has become an annual pilgrimage.
In 1952, Fulke Walwyn trained his first Gold Cup winner when Mont Tremblant took the race and the following year saw O’Brien claim a fourth Gold Cup with Knock Hard, before he began his hugely successful Flat training career.
The 1950s ended with well-known names such as Linwell, Kerstin and Roddy Owen taking Gold Cup glory – the race was moved to the “New Course” in 1959 and the following year saw the turn of a young chaser called Pas Seul. Fred Winter rode successive winners on board Saffron Tartan in 1961 and then the brilliant Mandarin the following year, giving Fulke Walwyn his second victory in the race. But more was to follow.
As Mandarin’s career was blighted by injury, Walwyn took charge of a prodigious young talent, a giant of a horse called Mill House. Standing 18 hands tall, the 6 year old won the 1963 Cheltenham Gold Cup in brilliant style and it seemed that racing at long last had a successor to Golden Miller. However, that same Cheltenham Festival saw the emergence of a lithe, athletic Irish chaser called Arkle, who won the Broadway Chase by 20 lengths.
The pair met in the 1963 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, where Mill House emerged from the fog and gloom a decisive winner. The English roared home their hero and believed that the argument had been soundly put to bed for all time. However, out in the gloom, Arkle had slipped on landing, costing him any chance of victory.
Both horses prepared for the re-match in the 1964 Gold Cup which would turn out to be one of the most momentous races in the history of the sport. Pas Seul was back for another crack at the race but it quickly developed into a match with the two champions jumping along in magnificent style. Then as Mill House tried to assert, Arkle loomed up effortlessly to his side and passed him with ease, drawing away. As hard as Willie Robinson tried to close the gap on Mill House, his efforts were in vain as Arkle cruised to the line and an uncontested victory.
The English fans could not believe this had been Mill House’s true running but Arkle went on to prove every bit of it as he swept up all of the major prizes on both sides of the Irish Sea. He was equally dominant in 1965 and 1966 and would surely have emulated Golden Miller’s record but for incurring an injury in the 1966 King George VI Chase which would end his career.
His appearance was almost stag like – he had a proud head and a neck that stood upright giving him a regal look. His performances on the track raised National Hunt racing to a new level and heightened the level of competition between Britain and Ireland at the Festival. There had never been a horse like him before and whilst Golden Miller had been a big, old fashioned type of chaser, Arkle was smooth and athletic.
He was the ultimate racehorse and provided trainer Tom Dreaper with a further 3 Gold Cups – he was to add a fifth in 1968 with Fort Leney, after Woodland Venture had won for Terry Biddlecombe in 1967. The decade ended with a win for What A Myth and then another era started.
L’Escargot was owned by US Ambassador Raymond Guest, who had owned many successful horses on the Flat. Trained in Ireland by Dan Moore, L’Escargot was to win the 1970 and 1971 Gold Cups and later beat Red Rum in the 1975 Grand National to record that rarest of doubles.
The Dikler took the race in 1973, as Pendil famously ran out of stamina on that tortuous climb to the finishing line. The following year the luckless Pendil was in contention 3 fences from home when brought down by Hi Ken. The incident left The Dikler in front, bidding for a second Gold Cup, from the inexperienced Captain Christy, with the Queen Mother’s Game Spirit galloping on in third place.
As they approached the final fence Captain Christy appeared to have assumed control but a shuddering mistake lost all momentum and The Dikler’s fighting spirit brought him level as the pair fought their way to the line on the Flat. However, the younger Captain Christy found his second wind to battle back into a decisive lead at the finish. Captain Christy was a quite brilliant chaser and he won back to back King George VI Chases, defeating Bula by 30 lengths in the 1975 renewal. Sadly he was struck down by injury and never got the chance to add further Gold Cup glory.
In 1975, Ten Up revived memories of Arkle as he won the Gold Cup for Anne Duchess of Westminster who had owned the mighty one. This time the winning trainer was none other than Jim Dreaper, Tom’s son. John Francome got his name on the roll of honour in 1978 when Midnight Court won a rescheduled Gold Cup, which took place in April after the initial race had been postponed due to bad weather.
Snow was also a factor in a memorable 1979 renewal, as the Irish chaser Tied Cottage galloped clear from the start and into the teeth of a blizzard, some 30 lengths clear of anything else. He was still in front coming down the hill for the final time but in behind, two pursuers had closed the gap and were within touching distance. Royal Mail tired however and would have his day in the sun in the Whitbread Gold Cup a year later. However, Jonjo O’Neill on board Alverton – who had won the previous season’s Arkle Trophy, maintained his progress to be upsides Tied Cottage at the last. With both horses out on their feet, Alverton cleared the fence and galloped on resolutely. In behind, Tied Cottage knuckled on landing and in exhaustion, could not get out his landing gear, crumpling to the floor. Alverton made his way through the snow flakes to record a wide margin win from Royal Mail, with Aldaniti back in third place. Tragically, whilst travelling incredibly well in the Grand National a couple of weeks later, Alverton took a fatal fall at Becher’s Brook.
Tied Cottage was back the following season to try to put to rights his unlucky fall. In heavy ground the veteran chaser galloped off into his usual wide margin lead and never came back to the field, galloping them into the ground. A very long way behind, Master Smudge galloped through tired horses ahead of the gallant 15 year old Mac Vidi and Approaching. However, Tied Cottage’s career was a case of rough justice and the horse was disqualified when failing a dope test afterwards. It transpired that his feed had been contaminated with tiny traces of a banned substance and Master Smudge was awarded the race.
The 1981 race was a vintage renewal as Night Nurse, the ever-popular dual Champion Hurdle winner attempted to become the first horse to win that race and the Gold Cup. Up against him was the dual King George winner Silver Buck, Diamond Edge and his own stable mate in the Peter Easterby yard, Little Owl. Turning for home Night Nurse held the advantage but Silver Buck and Little Owl were hot on his heels. The three were virtually in line approaching the second last fence and it looked as though Night Nurse was back pedalling.
Silver Buck then struggled as Little Owl asserted going to the final fence and a good jump appeared to have sealed victory. However, that final climb from the last fence is a wide and lonely expanse and Night Nurse on the inside began to find extra reserves, closing on his stable mate but never quite catching him. It was a brave effort from the veteran, while Little Owl sadly suffered a series of injuries that disrupted his career.
As for Silver Buck, his attempt to win a third consecutive King George VI Chase was denied by the weather in December 1981. Indeed, he had also suffered injuries and made his comeback only a few weeks before the 1982 Festival in a race at Market Rasen. In the Gold Cup, he faced 21 rivals in the largest ever field for the race. Night Nurse was back, along with Sunset Christo, Tied Cottage and Diamond Edge. Michael Dickinson also had a second runner in the race in the shape of improving chaser Bregawn.
Tied Cottage lead the field his usual merry dance but his stamina ran out as they turned for home as age caught up with him. That left four horses in contention and Diamond Edge and Sunset Christo were quickly unable to sustain their efforts. Approaching the last fence Silver Buck held a narrow lead from Bregawn and sealed the race with a good jump, making amends for his defeat the previous year. It was a much deserved success for the 10 year old, who always provided a touch of class. For Michael Dickinson, it was a wonderful achievement to saddle a Gold Cup one-two!
Going into the 1983 race, Dickinson was hopeful of training a second Gold Cup winner. Silver Buck was back but now entering the veteran stage, while Bregawn had improved again to capture the Hennessy Gold Cup. However, there were other runners too: Wayward Lad had proven he belonged in this class with a victory over Silver Buck in the King George VI Chase, while Captain John had also made his mark when giving Bregawn a real battle at Newbury. Ashley House made up a quintet of Dickinson runners in the race.
Up against them were two smart Fred Winter trained horses in Mackeson winner Fifty Dollars More and the Sun Alliance Chase winner Brown Chamberlin, while Comb’s Ditch had also proved a smart young chaser. In the race Brown Chamberlin pulled up while Fifty Dollars More proved most disappointing and when Richdee and Comb’s Ditch started to struggle, Dickinson appeared likely to have the first three. Over the final fence Wayward Lad, Captain John and Bregawn were still there and it was the latter, under Graeme Bradley, who asserted close home to go one better than in 1982. Captain John finished second as Wayward Lad’s stamina gave out up that final hill. There was a respectful distance back to the fourth horse, whom it transpired, was Silver Buck – his old legs were just unable to keep up with those of his younger stable mates. And then – incredibly – Ashley House finished fifth. Michael Dickinson had saddled five runners and they had filled the first five places in the 1983 Gold Cup! All five were permitted into the Winners’ Enclosure in an unprecedented move.
The following season Bregawn’s behaviour started to become erratic as he started to develop a trait for pulling himself up. Wayward Lad won a second King George and appeared to be the stable’s main Gold Cup hope. Brown Chamberlin had come back to form with a win in the Hennessy Gold Cup but the emerging star in the chasing ranks was Jenny Pitman’s Burrough Hill Lad, who had won the Welsh National and Gainsborough Chase and had a real presence to him. With John Francome committed to riding Brown Chamberlin, Phil Tuck got the ride and going to the last fence, there was little to separate Francome and Tuck, save for the width of the fence as the two rivals raced wide apart. On the Flat it was Burrough Hill Lad who gained most momentum climbing to the winning post and made Mrs Pitman the first lady trainer of the Gold Cup winner. Burrough Hill Lad was a very talented horse but niggling injuries prevented him from ever running in the Gold Cup again.
The 1985 race had an open look to it and there were plenty in contention coming to the second last, including Half Free, Drumadowney, Righthand Man and Earl’s Brig. However, it was Forgive N’ Forget, who had been unlucky in the previous year’s Sun Alliance Chase, who surged up the hill to victory. Jimmy Fitzgerald’s horse became a real Gold Cup favourite with racing fans and was fancied to win the following year’s race against Wayward Lad, Comb’s Ditch, the improving Run and Skip and the Irish mare Dawn Run. It had been 9 years since an Irish trained horse had officially won the Gold Cup and no horse had ever pulled off the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double.
Dawn Run had endured a spell on the sidelines through injury but gradually gained experience over fences which showed her to be perfectly adept. However, a trip to Cheltenham at the end of January 1986 resulted in her blundering badly at the top of the hill and losing her rider Tony Mullins. In the Gold Cup the mare was reunited with Jonjo O’Neill who had ridden her in her Champion Hurdle win in 1984.
Run and Skip lead the field and turning for home there were four left in contention. Approaching the final flight it appeared that Run and Skip and Dawn Run were beaten and the race lay between Forgive N’ Forget and Wayward Lad. The latter was 11 years of age now and running in his fourth Gold Cup and for a second it appeared he was finally going to beat that Cheltenham hill and win a Gold Cup. But then his stamina gave out half way up the climb and Forgive N’ Forget went on. However, in behind, O’Neill was rousting another effort out of Dawn Run and the mare was rallying. With a weight concession too, her momentum carried past Forgive N’ Forget with yards to spare to record one of the most dramatic and famous Cheltenham scenes of all time. Pandemonium broke out soon afterwards as hats flew into the air and tears were shed.
Dawn Run went on to beat Buck House the two mile Champion Chaser in a famous match at Punchestown but then travelled to Autueil in June where she sadly lost her life.
Drama of another kind ensued in the 1987 Gold Cup, as a snow storm caused a major delay to the start of the race. Eventually the storm relented and the course was partly cleared, allowing the race to get under way as the light faded. Again Forgive N’ Forget and Earl’s Brig were in the line-up, as was Wayward Lad, in his final Gold Cup. Coming down the hill and into the home straight, Cybrandian held a narrow advantage from the veteran, with Arthur Stephenson’s The Thinker a close third. Door Latch and Forgive N’ Forget followed these. The order didn’t change over the final fence, with Cybrandian in front. But again that final climb would prove too much and the leader started to roll around as on his inside, Wayward Lad’s brave effort again petered out. The Thinker meanwhile continued to gallop straight and caught and passed Cybrandian with a few exhausting yards left. In behind, Door Latch and West Tip fought out a tremendous tussle for third place just ahead of Wayward Lad.
A year later, the race went the way of Charter Party and Richard Dunwoody, who stayed on well to beat Cavvies Clown and Beau Ranger. Sadly he race lost its lustre when Forgive N’ Forget, travelling well at the time, snapped a leg. The race was also notable for the participation of Nupsala, a French trained horse who had shocked racing when he won the King George VI Chase at Christmas, for the virtually unheard of Francois Doumen.
The late 1980s had been dominated by a grey chaser called Desert Orchids, who had won two King Georges and a Whitbread Gold Cup. He had always come up just short in the Champion Chase and in 1989 trainer David Elsworth and the owners took the brave decision to go for gold.
However, the horse did not seem to perform so effectively going left-handed and on the morning of the race, snow and rain had left the day’s racing in doubt and conditions so soft it was questionable whether Dessie would even run.
This was a vintage renewal with the young Irish pretender Carvill’s Hill in the line-up, Bonanza Boy, West Tip, The Thinker, Charter Party and Fulke Walwyn’s fast-improving Ten Plus. As they raced down the hill to the third last fence Desert Orchid and Simon Sherwood were still there pitching, but Ten Plus was moving ominously well. In behind, the mud-loving outsider Yahoo was staying on and the race appeared to be between these three. Sadly Ten Plus fell at that obstacle, incurring a broken leg in the process and in behind, Ballyhane also crashed out. Desert Orchid was left to face the long straight and hill with Yahoo in close order and Charter Party under a strong drive trying to cling to them.
Turning for home, Yahoo took the advantage on the inside and appeared to be going strongest of all. Over the last two fences Yahoo maintained his lead but Desert Orchid was not losing ground. The two horses drifted further apart across the course and halfway up the hill, Desert Orchid started to close again. Under strong right hand driving, Dessie put his head in front but drifted back across the course towards Yahoo, almost eye balling his rival. His momentum became irresistible and he passed the post with Sherwood punching the air as a crescendo of noise rained down on Cheltenham.
Desert Orchid continued to dominate National Hunt racing and a breath taking win in the 1990 Racing Post Chase made him a hot favourite to retain his crown. However, in one of racing’s great shocks, a chestnut horse with a white blaze got the better of Desert Orchid and Toby Tobias in a thrilling finish.
Norton’s Coin was perhaps something of a spring horse and had won at Cheltenham before, albeit at a much lower level. He was trained by Welshman Sirrel Griffiths, whose focus was more on his herd of cattle than training racehorses. Even so, Norton’s Coin lined up for the Gold Cup at odds of 100/1 and found a level of form nobody in their wildest dreams could have expected on a fast surface.
Norton’s Coin and Desert Orchid were back for the 1991 renewal, with Dessie having won his fourth King George between Gold Cups. That Kempton victory had been achieved at the expense of a young French horse called The Fellow who had attempted to follow in the footsteps of Nupsala 3 years earlier.
Norton’s Coin was a faller during the Gold Cup and going to the final fence Desert Orchid appeared beaten, as the race developed into a dual between The Fellow and Jenny Pitman’s injury-prone Garrison Savannah. At the line the latter got up in the narrowest of finishes to deny the French horse who was only 6 years old. Desert Orchid ran into an honourable third place ahead of Cool Ground.
A year later Cool Ground was back to record another shock win in another dramatic finish. The 1992 Cheltenham Gold Cup was meant to be all about Carvill’s Hill. The former Irish champion had since moved to Martin Pipe and had been utterly devastating since being re-taught how to jump, winning the Rehearsal Chase, Welsh National and Irish Hennessy Gold Cup from the front. He had looked bombproof – so long as his jumping held up.
Toby Tobias was back for the 1992 renewal as was The Fellow, who had gained some form of compensation for his two near misses in England, when winning the 1991 King George VI Chase. Docklands Express was an improving chaser and King’s Fountain and Norton’s Coin both held chances. Golden Freeze was a second runner for the Pitman stable and had run in the race 3 years earlier. This time he went on from an early stage with Carvill’s Hill; the latter was not used to being taken on for the lead and started to make bad mistakes, hitting several fences.
By the descent and turn into the home straight for the final time, the writing was already on the wall for the favourite, while Toby Tobias was also held. What developed was an enthralling three-way fight between The Fellow, Docklands Express and Cool Ground, with the later just gaining the advantage in a dramatic finish. Sadly Carvill’s Hill never ran again, while Cool Ground was never able to repeat this level of form.
The following season saw two young chasers come to prominence as Jodami and Rushing Wild replaced the existing hierarchy. The Fellow had won a second King George too but in the Gold Cup, Jodami proved too strong for Rushing Wild.
The Fellow’s form was less impressive the next season, while Jodami looked set to retain his crown. Bradbury Star and Young Hustler had also put themselves in the picture. However, at the final fence, Jodami was suddenly confronted by The Fellow and it was Adam Kondrat’s mount who finally got up to record a much-deserved victory and deny Jodami the double.
The 1995 Gold Cup evoked memories of Tied Cottage’s success in the mud of 1980, as Master Oats, a confirmed mud-lover and hugely progressive chaser, steamrollered his rivals. Sadly injury prevented him from lining up in 1996 but by then the picture had changed again.
One Man had been a smart novice chaser in 1993/94 and had then won the following season’s Hennessy Gold Cup before a heavy fall at Kempton had curtailed his season. In the early winter of 1995 One Man served notice that he was back with a brilliant win in the Tommy Whittle Chase and he later annihilated a strong field, including Master Oats, Monsieur Le Cure and Merry Gale, in the rescheduled King George VI Chase of January 1996.
Meanwhile, Couldn’t Be Better beat Rough Quest in the Hennessy Gold Cup and a young Irish challenger came to the fore in the shape of Imperial Call, who had beaten Master Oats and Monsieur Le Cure in the Irish Hennessy at Leopardstown that February. However, all expectations were set for the popular grey chaser One Man, who looked the natural successor to Desert Orchid in the affections of the public.
With three left to jump, the scene was set for a thrilling battle as One Man and Imperial Call took the fence together, a few lengths clear of Rough Quest and the under pressure Couldn’t Be Better. The two were locked together and both were being held together by their jockeys, without being asked a serious question as they approached two from home. In behind, Rough Quest started to make ground as One Man suddenly began to stop. Up front Imperial Call asserted with Rough Quest in hot pursuit, while the favourite, now under strong pressure, dropped tamely away. A big leap at the final fence and Imperial Call stayed on strongly, to become the first Irish-trained winner since Dawn Run. Rough Quest gained his glory a few weeks later when he won the Grand National.
Imperial Call was back to defend his crown in 1997, with One Man and Barton Bank also back again. Among the rest of the field, Danoli had won the Irish Hennessy as a novice chaser and Doran’s Pride had also been a smart novice – both were set to take their chances. One Man had beaten Rough Quest to win his second King George at Christmas and had finally broken his Cheltenham hoodoo with a January victory over Barton Bank. Mr Mulligan meanwhile, a smart novice chaser the season before, had fallen in the King George.
In the Gold Cup, the race was between four runners third last Mr Mulligan, ridden by the young riding sensation AP McCoy then asserted ahead of the closing One Man and Barton Bank, with Doran’s Pride apparently held in fourth place.
Between the last two fences One Man closed on the leader and looked a real threat but yards from the final fence, he again started to gallop up and down on the spot and quickly faded out of contention. Mr Mulligan jumped the fence well and galloped on clear of Barton Bank and Doran’s Pride to record a famous double for McCoy, who two days earlier had also won the Champion Hurdle on Make A Stand.
In 1998, the former hunter chaser Cool Dawn got the better of the giant horse Strong Promise and Doran’s Pride. See More Business had won that season’s King George and was strongly fancied for Gold Cup glory after winning at the course in January. However, an injury to Cyborgo saw AP McCoy pull his horse up and in pulling out of the race he inadvertently carried out Indian Tracker and See More Business.
That year saw the emergence of Florida Pearl as a new challenger and when that horse won the RSA Chase, he became favourite for the following year’s Gold Cup. 1999 looked to be a vintage year though with the hugely exciting grey Teeton Mill winning the Hennessy Gold Cup, King George and Ascot Chase in brilliant style. Doran’s Pride was also back, while See More Business had seemed under a cloud.
However, drama struck early on as Teeton Mill was dramatically pulled up after sustaining a tendon injury on the first circuit. As the race got serious, Florida Pearl was unable to respond and the race developed into a fight between See More Business and outsider Go Ballistic, with the former horse asserting close home under Mick Fitzgerald.
In 2000, Florida Pearl and Strong Promise were again thwarted, this time by the young chaser Looks Like Trouble, who had won the previous year’s RSA Chase. Sadly the race would also be remembered for the fatal fall of the novice Gloria Victis, who was bang in contention when coming to grief at the second last fence.
Foot and mouth put paid to the 2001 Cheltenham Festival but that 2000/2001 season had seen the rise to prominence of an exciting novice chaser called Best Mate, who with portent, in December 2000 had been described by his trainer as thinking he was Arkle.
Whilst Best Mate was beaten by Florida Pearl in a memorable King George VI Chase, his first Gold Cup in 2002 was a smooth success as he got the better of Irish National winner Commanche Court and former winner See More Business. He followed suit in 2003 with a superb 10 length demolition of Truckers Tavern in a race which had seen the new Irish hope Beef Or Salmon fall.
So the scene was set in March 2004 for Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe’s Best Mate to attempt to emulate Arkle. Beef Or Salmon was back along with Harbour Pilot and the novice Therealbandit but turning for home for a moment, it appeared that Jim Culloty and the dual champion were short of room as First Gold, Harbour Pilot and Sir Rembrandt held him in against the rails.
However, Culloty smoothly moved the horse out wider and at the second last fence he jumped brilliantly into the lead and held on from the last to record his third Gold Cup. No horse had even won two since the days of L’Escargot and Best Mate was a national hero.
Burst blood vessels kept Best Mate out of the 2005 Gold Cup and the race went to the Irish horse Kicking King, who had announced his arrival with an authoritative victory in the King George VI Chase at Kempton. Kicking King won his second King George at Sandown the following season before he too was sidelined and the 2006 Gold Cup developed into a battle between two Irish horses as War Of Attrition got the better of Grand National winner Hedgehunter.
War Of Attrition however, would be yet another winner to succumb to injury and a new era emerged when Paul Nicholls’ French horse Kauto Star won the Betfair Chase in November, confirming that he stayed 3 miles. He followed up with an exhilarating victory in King George from the smart Exotic Dancer and it seemed the only real challenge was his jumping, as he had already made serious blunders something of a trademark at the final fence.
A large field of 18 runners assembled including Beef Or Salmon, Hennessy winner State Of Play, Kingscliff, L’Ami (who had given Kauto Star a hard race at Newbury) and stable mate Neptune Collonges. Plenty of horses were still in with a chance turning for home but between the last two fences, suddenly Kauto Star and Exotic Dancer, the two outstanding horses, pulled away, with Ruby Walsh on the former looking set for victory with a safe jump at the last.
He didn’t get it and again crashed his way through the fence, somehow getting through the other side on four feet before galloping up the hill to glory. Paul Nicholls had trained his second Gold Cup winner but was already facing the prospect of pitting his new champion against another stable star in Denman.
Denman had won the RSA Chase earlier in the week and there had been reports that he was even better than Kauto Star! Both horses enjoyed excellent seasons with Kauto Star winning another King George and Denman obliterating his rivals in the 2007 Hennessy Gold Cup – and by February 2008 the hype was already underway for a racing showdown. The two horses were neighbours at Ditcheat and with Neptune Collonges also due to race, Paul Nicholls was more than halfway towards attempting to emulate Michael Dickinson’s 1983 exploits!
Denman set off in his usual bullying fashion and had the advantage and tried to dominate the race from halfway. By this stage it was clear that Ruby Walsh was niggling at Kauto Star just to keep in touch with the horse described by his charismatic part-owner Harry Findlay as “The Tank”.
Three fences from home, Denman held what looked a decisive lead, with Neptune Collonges giving chase several lengths back and Kauto Star under pressure with Exotic Dancer. Denman was 10 lengths clear turning for home and lengthening his stride as Kauto Star gave vain pursuit. The Tank eased over the second last powerfully and then brushed through the last, still many lengths ahead. But again that famous hill started to bite and Denman’s stamina started to run out as Kauto Star closed. But there was not enough time and Denman was not for catching in an absolutely epic renewal. Kauto Star bravely stayed on to pip Neptune Collonges for second.
Round One had clearly gone to Denman but in the autumn of 2008, there were fears for Denman’s life, let alone his racing career, as he had major heart surgery. Kauto Star had also had an indifferent start to the season, including unseating his rider in the Betfair Chase. However, with Denman on the sidelines, Kauto Star won his third King George and continued his preparations for the Gold Cup. Denman eventually made his much awaited reappearance at Kempton in February but looked a pale shadow of the former horse as he was easily beaten by the Hennessy Gold Cup winner Madison De Berlais.
By Gold Cup Day Denman’s condition had improved and Paul Nicholls gave him the go-ahead with Neptune Collonges and Exotic Dancer again back for more. As the field raced at the top of the hill, the three Nicholls runners occupied the first three places with Barber’s Shop and Exotic Dancer also in contention.
Three fences from home and Neptune Collonges held the lead but Kauto Star on his outside jumped past and moved ominously well, while Denman, racing wider still moved past the grey and upsides Kauto Star – so as the pair turned into the home straight, they were locked in battle. This time however, it was Kauto Star who powered away on the turn and into an unassailable lead, becoming the first horse ever to regain his Gold Cup title. Denman ran an incredible race in second and was immediately dismounted by Sam Thomas. The horse received as rapturous a round of applause as the winner, underlining how much the Cheltenham Festival crowd appreciated the context of what they were seeing.
Bother were back the following year too, when Kauto Star was aiming to join Best Mate, Arkle and Cottage Rake as a triple winner of the race. He had won a fourth King George to emulate Desert Orchid’s record at Kempton Park, while Denman had achieved the impossible by winning a second Hennessy off top weight on an emotional afternoon. Kauto Star had also won the Betfair Chase but his victory had been by no more than an inch from Imperial Commander and Nigel Twiston-Davies very publicly retained his faith in his chaser.
The 2010 Gold Cup turned horribly wrong for Kauto Star as he suffered a heavy fall and the race was left to Imperial Commander who powered clear of Denman’s brave effort. Having won the Betfair Chase that autumn, Imperial Commander was fancied in many quarters to repeat his Gold Cup success in 2011. There appeared to be a changing of the guard as Denman had not been the same force and Kauto Star had relinquished his King George crown to a young French chaser called Long Run. Trained by Nicky Henderson, Long Run was ridden by amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen for his father and had been a promising novice chaser. His Kempton winner really catapulted him into Gold Cup contention but on the day, the race was run on fast going.
Imperial Commander sustained an injury and was pulled up along with several other runners unable to cope with the ground but as they turned for home, the race boiled down to a classic confrontation of old versus new. Denman and Kauto Star were again duelling but Long Run was poised to pounce and when Whaley-Cohen asked him to quicken, his younger legs and determination proved decisive. Denman again ran his heart out to finish second, with Kauto Star a fine third. It would be the last time the two titans would meet on the track and Denman later retired having won one Gold Cup and finished second in three others.
Kauto Star’s career continued and it seemed he was now succumbing to old age. However, the autumn of 2011 provided racing fans with a glorious Indian summer in the horse’s career as he out-jumped and dominated Long Run in the Betfair Chase and repeated the feat in the King George – winning his fifth version of that race. This astonishing horse had once again forced his way into people’s thoughts for the Gold Cup. As 12, this was likely to be his final Gold Cup and it was his sixth appearance in the race.
However, as the Festival approached, Kauto Star suffered a heavy fall at home and it was touch and go whether he would make the line-up with Paul Nicholls providing regular press updates.
Kauto Star did line-up as one of 14 runners in the race but Ruby Walsh felt he was not travelling early on and pulled the old warrior out of the race. Despite carrying thousands of pounds of punters’ money, the horse returned to a hero’s welcome as the rest of the field raced on.
Long Run looked to have a big chance with 5 horses still in contention, while The Giant Bolster was running a huge race for an outsider, Time For Rupert retained his chance and Burton Port was also handy. In behind these horses came Synchronised, a horse owned by JP McManus, who had seemed a mud lover earlier in his career and had slogged his way to Welsh National glory.
He had demonstrated he was a classy horse when winning the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown but was now running on a much faster surface. Unsurprisingly, McCoy was hard at work to keep his horse in contention but the jockey’s urgings gradually brought the horse into the race and that final climb played into his hands as he raced away from The Giant Bolster and the one-paced Long Run. Sadly Synchronised broke a leg whilst running loose, having fallen at Becher’s Brook in the Grand National a matter of weeks later.
The 2013 Gold Cup saw the arrival of a new set of key players. Bobs Worth had won the RSA Chase the season before and had followed up with an eye catching victory in the 2012 Hennessy Gold Cup in which he beat Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant. He was then saved for Cheltenham, a course he had never lost on. Long Run had been soundly beaten by the exciting young horse Silviniaco Conti in the Betfair Chase but then beat Captain Chris in a heavy ground King George. He had still never finished out of the money in any start. Then from Ireland came Sir Des Champs, another 2012 novice chase winner at the Festival, who had won the Hennessy Gold Cup on his latest start.
At the fourth last fence Long Run held the lead from Sir Des Champs, with Silviniaco Conti and The Giant Bolster still in contention and Bobs Worth under pressure behind these. Three out and Silviniaco Conti landed steeply and fell, leaving Long Run and Sir Des Champs almost level and The Giant Bolster under pressure and Bobs Worth in hot pursuit turning for home.
At the second last the two leaders were locked in battle, while their two pursuers closed menacingly. Between the last two fences, Bobs Worth got in front of Long Run, with Sir Des Champs between the pair, seeming to run out of stamina and The Giant Bolster now on the retreat. At the last fence Bobs Worth jumped well and maintained his advantage as Sir Des Champs rallied into second place and Long Run finished third.
Second season chasers have a good record in the Gold Cup and the RSA Chase proved the key to the 2014 renewal in the most dramatic of finishes.
Coming to the final fence, perhaps six horses were still in with a chance of victory, with King George winner Silviniaco Conti just in front, challenged by the previous year’s winner Bob’s Worth, with The Giant Bolster once again in the mix and the two-time Thyestes Chase winner On His Own staying on.
From further back Lord Windermere, the forgotten horse, the 2013 RSA Chase winner who had lost his way, also began to rally under Davy Russell. The horse had raced poorly throughout the race and had seemed completely out of the love with racing, but all of a sudden found renewed impetus and got closer and closer to the leaders in the home straight.
With the final fence negotiated, the race was still in the balance; Lyreen Legend faded, while Bob’s Worth and Silviniaco Conti both seemed to slightly wander up the hill, racing on the inside of the course.
Meanwhile on the stand side, On His Own had edged in front of The Giant Bolster, with Lord Windermere still staying on.
In the final few strides Lord Windermere got his head in front, but drifted towards the stands, carrying his rival with him, but just getting up, with The Giant Bolster, again placed, beaten less than a length. Victory for Lord Windermere gave his trained Jim Culloty a huge boost, as he returned to the scene of his triumphs when riding the great Best Mate. It also underlined the value of previous Festival form and the significance of the RSA Chase as a spawning ground for future champions.
In 2015 there was a real changing of the guard. Former Gold Cup heroes Bobs Worth and Lord Windermere were back along with the likes of The Giant Bolster and On His Own, but also in the mix were second season chasers of the calibre of Hennessy Gold Cup winner Many Clouds, the improving Road To Riches, Irish Hennessy winner Carlingford Lough, Thyestes Chase winner Djakadam, fast-improving Holywell and Smad Place.
However, there was another intriguing ingredient to this race as the novice chaser Coneygree, with just three chases under his belt, was given the Gold Cup go-ahead by his trainer Mark Bradstock. Coneygree had quickly forged a reputation for galloping his rivals into the ground mercilessly, as he had demonstrated in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase and when taking on seasoned chasers in the Denman Chase at Newbury in February.
He set out to do exactly the same with bold front-running tactics at Cheltenham and one by one, his more experienced rivals dropped away until just Djakadam, Road To Riches and Holywell remained in contention in the home straight.
In a thrilling contest Coneygree took the last fence in front and began the climb at that famous Cheltenham hill. Holywell and Road To Riches cracked but Djakadam, himself just a 6 year old, began to inch closer to the leader. However, Coneygree dug deep and Nico De Boinville passed the post with his whip raised to the heavens.
Coneygree became the first novice to win the Gold Cup since Captain Christy back in 1974.
Sadly Coneygree suffered a series of niggling injuries that would prevent him from ever reaching his peak – or competing in another Cheltenham Gold Cup.
By 2016, Djakadam was in full bloom, while Ireland’s Gold Cup challenge was further strengthened by the Gordon Elliott-trained Don Cossack.
In the 2015 King George VI Chase, Don Cossack had been in contention when falling in the home straight, leaving Cue Card and Vautour to fight out an epic finish, which the former just won.
Cue Card was on track for a million pound bonus in the Gold Cup, having earlier won the Betfair Chase too.
There was controversy – and ultimate disappointment, when connections of Vautour declared they would run in the Gold Cup and then in Cheltenham week, back-tracked and targeted the Ryanair Chase (which they won).
Racing down the hill for the final time, Cue Card appeared to be cantering, but fell three out.
Don Cossack and Bryan Cooper swept into the lead in the home straight and held Djakadam at bay over the final two fences, for a famous victory, with Don Poli third and Carlingford Lough fourth, in an Irish clean sweep.
Sadly it proved to be Don Cossack’s final race as leg injuries curtailed his racing career.
Irish dominance of the blue riband continued in 2017 with an improving young chaser.
In what had become an open division, the 2016/17 season had been illuminated by the exciting novice chaser Thistlecrack, who had won the Stayers’ Hurdle the previous season and had gone unbeaten over fences since.
Colin Tizzard pitched the novice in against stable star Cue Card, in the 2016 King George VI Chase – and it was the novice that eclipsed the veteran.
All roads appeared to lead to the Cheltenham Gold Cup and a bid to emulate previous novice winner Coneygree.
However, the Cotswolds Chase on Trial Day, saw Thistlecrack lose his unbeaten record to the gallant Grand National winner Many Clouds, who tragically lost his life when pulling up after an epic race. Thistlecrack did not emerge unscathed and a few weeks later was ruled out of Cheltenham with a leg injury.
Cue Card did make the line-up, while Tizzard also fielded his Hennessy and Welsh National winner Native River. Djakadam was back, having finished second in the previous two renewals.
From Ireland, Jessica Harrington also ran the improving Sizing John, a horse who had made his name whilst trained by Henry De Bromheaed, chasing Douvan over shorter distances.
He moved to Harrington earlier in the season and landed the Irish Gold Cup in February, on his first attempt at three miles.
Lizzie Kelly and Tea For Two got no further than the second fence, while Cue Card again came to grief at his nemesis third last fence.
Djakadam blundered two from home and lost his chance.
But Sizing John and Robbie Power came through and powered up the hill to beat Minella Rocco by 2 3/4 lengths, with Native River, on unsuitably fast ground, taking third place.
One again, the curse of recent Gold Cup winners struck and Sizing John was unable to defend his crown in 2018.
The 90th renewal however would serve up an absolute treat.
Colin Tizzard made the decision to run Cue Card in the Ryanair Chase, while Thistlecrack again missed the race. That left his Native River in contention on heavy ground.
Native River was given an easier season and built-up slowly for his second tilt at the Gold Cup.
The main challenge appeared to come from Nicky Henderson’s imposing and handsome Might Bite, who had won the previous year’s RSA Chase, despite wandering on the run-in.
Might Bite had since won the King George VI Chase. Djakadam was back for the fourth successive year.
From the start, Native River and Might Bite dictated the pace and by the second circuit, one by one, horses were dropping off from the main pack.
Turning for home, both horses were still keeping the gallop up and had seen off their rivals.
It all boiled down to who wanted it more over those two final fences.
At the last fence, Richard Johnson and Native River still just held the call over Nico De Boinville and Might Bite.
But on that final climb, on heavy ground, Native River’s undoubted stamina sealed the outcome and he forged on to win a memorable race by 4 1/2 lengths over Might Bite, with Anibale Fly (who would also place in the Grand National) claiming third, ahead of Road To Respect.
It was another epic renewal of a race that creates stories and legends year after year.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup Past Winners