The Cheltenham Festival is always keenly awaited and the highlight of the opening day since 1980 has been the Champion Hurdle.
The race has developed into the premier hurdle race in the calendar and always attracts the cream of the hurdlers from Ireland and the UK.
The Champion Hurdle is open to horses aged four years and above and is run on the Old Course over roughly 2 miles and 110 yards – with horses requiring a combination of natural speed but also stamina to cope with that final climb to the finishing line.
The first ever Champion Hurdle took place in 1927 and was won by Blaris – but the race quickly built in prestige and profile as the second winner was a horse who would figure close in the affections of the British public: Brown Jack. This grand stayer was something of an anomaly – there have been plenty of Flat racehorses who have excelled over hurdles – but Brown Jack’s notable victories on the Flat came after his Cheltenham success and he remarkably went on to win the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot on 6 occasions, a Goodwood Cup, Doncaster Cup, Chester Cup and Ebor Handicap.
In 1931 the race succumbed to frost – the first of 4 abandonments, with the race cancelled due to war in 1943 and 1944, while in 2001 the entire Festival was cancelled due to an outbreak of foot and mouth (more on that later).
In 1932 Insurance beat just two rivals in the smallest ever line-up for the race. Insurance was owned by the prominent figure of the time Mrs Dorothy Paget, who of course owned the remarkable Golden Miller. Insurance himself carved his niche in the history of the sport by winning his second Champion Hurdle in 1933, while Paget added another two victories in 1940 with Solford and in 1946 with Distel.
However, as the Paget era came to a close, the Champion Hurdle entered a golden period and from 1947 to 1955, just 3 horses won the race, all of them etched into the list of greatest ever hurdlers.
Aptly in those early post-war years, the 1947 and 1948 winner was National Spirit who like Brown Jack before him, was equally adept on the Flat but who also developed a liking for Fontwell Racecourse.To this day a race is named in his honour every February.
As good as National Spirit was, he merely heralded the way for two of the greatest hurdlers of all-time. As he was winning his second Champion Hurdle, the horse back in eighth place was about to make history – and happened to be trained by arguably the most important figure in the history of the sport.
Hattons Grace improved considerably over the next season in the care of Vincent O’Brien, a young Irishman who was starting to set the National Hunt world alight and who in subsequent years would dominate the sport on both sides of the Irish Sea and would be partly responsible for the invasion of Irish racing fans to Cheltenham for the Festival each year.
Hattons Grace won the 1949 Champion Hurdle and followed up in 1950 when National Spirit made a mistake at the final flight. In 1951, the two old rivals were back again and it looked as though a battle would ensue when National Spirit came down, leaving Hattons Grace to become the first triple winner of the race.
However, the domination of these two adversaries came to an end in 1952, as the Willie Stephenson trained Sir Ken won the first of 3 Champion Hurdles – and he put together a sequence of 16 wins over hurdles in the process.
Clair Soleil took the crown in 1955, trained by Ryan Price and ridden by Fred Winter, the horse could not have been in better hands and the legendary duo duly won the race twice more in 1959 with Fare Time and in 1961 with Eborneezer.
Another genius of the time was Fulke Walwyn and he trained his first Champion Hurdle winner in 1962 when Anzio took the prize. Three years later Kirriemuir recorded a second win.
In 1966 Salmon Spray won the race for Bob Turnell – and in the process defied an extraordinary bid. Flyingbolt, regarded by some as the only horse to rival Arkle (and from the same Dreaper yard), had won the Champion Chase over 2 miles on the first day of the Festival (in those days the Champion Hurdle was run later in the week). He won the race in brilliant style and amazingly reappeared for the Champion Hurdle quickly afterwards, finishing just 3 lengths behind the winner Salmon Spray.
Saucy Kit’s win in 1967 pre-empted another golden era for the Champion Hurdle and put the name Peter Easterby into the race’s history – it was a place he was about to cement firmly.
Whilst the late 1940s and early 1950s had witnessed some tremendous champions, the 1960s ended with a triple champion in Persian War. The horse had already won the Triumph Hurdle before embarking on his run of victories in the Blue Riband event and all of this was achieved despite his owner changing trainers on multiple occasions! The horse was officially rated the best since Sir Ken.
It was another outstanding horse that ended Persian War’s reign as Fred Winter, who had of course ridden 3 winners of the race, trained the brilliant Bula to win successive renewals in 1971 and 1972. Ridden by Paul Kelleway, the horse was simply brilliant but after disappointing in the 1973 renewal of the race, was sent chasing where he embarked on a successful career which included a third placed finish in the 1975 Gold Cup but was tragically cut short following a fall back at Cheltenham in 1977.
The horse that ended Bula’s domination of the hurdling division was Fred Rimell’s Comedy of Errors, who the following year was beaten by another legendary name of the era in Lanzarote. Owned by Lord Howard de Walden and trained by Fred Winter, Lanzarote was quite brilliant at Kempton Park and like Bula before, was sent chasing later in his career with success before being tragically killed in a fall during the 1977 Gold Cup.
In 1975 Comedy of Errors regained his title – becoming the first horse to do so. But by that stage, another superstar was looming large on the horizon.
It had been 8 years since Peter Easterby had trained his first Champion Hurdle winner but in the week that saw Comedy of Errors make history, there was a Yorkshire trained winner of the Triumph Hurdle in the shape of Night Nurse – a horse who would become one of the most popular to grace the sport.
At his best Night Nurse was an almost unbeatable force of nature and at one point he won 10 consecutive hurdle races from 1975-76 which included an undefeated season where he won the Welsh, English and Scottish Champion hurdles. When he was retired he had won 35 races in total, including two Champion Hurdles and a second place finish in the Cheltenham Gold Cup over fences. He was given a rating of 182 by Timeform, the highest ever awarded to a hurdler.
As the 1970s progressed the strength of competition just got better and better. Having beaten the great champion Comedy of Errors, Night Nurse found himself racing against his own stable mate Sea Pigeon, a useful horse on the Flat who had raced in the Derby. Another prolific winner of big hurdle races at the time was Bird’s Nest, trained by Bob Turnell – who on his best days was quite brilliant. Meanwhile, Ireland’s hopes largely rested on a tiny horse with a giant heart: Monksfield.
Night Nurse had won the 1976 Champion Hurdle but all of the above runners, plus Dramatist, Beacon Light and Master Monday, contested the 1977 running. This is in our opinion the greatest collection of high calibre hurdlers ever assembled for one race and it was Night Nurse’s defining moment as he outbattled the toughest of all battlers Monksfield.
The following season Night Nurse’s powers were perhaps slightly lessened and in another memorable renewal, Monksfield fought out the finish with Sea Pigeon, with the old champion back in third. It was a first Irish victory in the race for some time and provided Tommy Kinane – father of Mick Kinane, with a career highlight.
By 1979 Night Nurse had gone chasing and contested the Gold Cup as a novice. The race still retained enormous quality – although sadly it was missing a horse that could have been one of the greatest of all time and whose name is worth mentioning. Golden Cygnet had romped through the 1977/78 season as a novice hurdler and had destroyed his rivals at the Festival in March. He then travelled to Ayr for the Scottish Champion Hurdle where he lead and appeared to have the beating of Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse, before taking a heavy fall. Sadly the fall injured the horse and he was eventually put down. His loss cast a huge shadow on the division which had already been extraordinarily spoilt throughout the whole decade.
The decade ended with another spectacular and memorable battle between those old adversaries Monksfield and Sea Pigeon – Bird’s Nest was again left behind, while the exciting Kybo fell racing down the hill. So just as had happened in 1978 the two rivals were locked in battle at the final flight and fought their way up the hill with no quarter given. In the end it was little Monksfield – this time ridden by Dessie Hughes (father of Richard), who showed amazing resilience in the heavy ground to prevail and it seemed Sea Pigeon was destined to never get his name on the trophy.
However, a new decade saw a new look to Cheltenham Racecourse which included the opening of the New Course and a change to the course and distance of the Champion Hurdle. From 1980 onwards, the race was to be reduced in distance to its present length with the runners no longer racing past the winning post and out of sight of the grand stands.
Again Bird’s Nest was there with the dual champion and the 10 year old Sea Pigeon. As the field turned for home for the third year running Monksfield and Sea Pigeon had the race between them but this time Jonjo O’Neill was travelling much more strongly on the latter. With the last flight out of the way, Sea Pigeon asserted and this time Monksfield had no answer. Peter Easterby’s charge became the oldest Champion Hurdle winner since Hattons Grace won the third of his titles aged 11. Undoubtedly the shorter distance played to Sea Pigeon’s strengths and this popular veteran had built up a huge following as a dual purpose horse and like Brown Jack before him, had won Ebors and other big races on the Flat. Little Monksfield was carried out on his shield as had raced as an entire horse, maintaining his consistency and will to win for many years – he now retired to enjoy a career at stud.
The 1981 renewal is remembered for the ice cold ride Sea Pigeon was given by John Francome. By this stage, Bird’s Nest remained from the 1970s wars but a new generation of hurdlers including Celtic Ride, Badsworth Boy, Heighlin, Starfen, Pollardstown and Daring Run had entered the fray to take on 11 year old Sea Pigeon. There had been signs that age was finally catching up on the veteran but he had also developed a quirk and needed to be held on to for as long as possible. In the event, as Daring Run and Pollardstown fought out a tremendous tussle, John Francome (replacing the injured Jonjo) held on to Sea Pigeon until the last 100 yards of the race, delivering his challenge to perfection to beat the latter runner in a performance that exuded class.
Sea Pigeon retired the following season and the greatest of hurdling eras was over.
In 1982 For Auction reclaimed the prize for Ireland and the following year the Rimell name was back en vogue as Mercy Rimell trained Gaye Brief to win the race in brilliant style. However, that same meeting saw the mare Dawn Run make her English debut behind Sabin Du Loir in a novice event. At Aintree, the mare took on Gaye Brief and was only just touched off.
The two met at Kempton Park in the Christmas Hurdle of 1983 and with her weight allowance, Dawn Run just beat the champion. With anticipation running high for the rematch, the mare won the Irish Champion Hurdle but then Gaye Brief was withdrawn from Cheltenham due to a back injury sustained when making an error at the last flight in that 1983 renewal.
Dawn Run and Jonjo O’Neill duly won the Champion Hurdle from outsider Cima, with the grey Desert Orchid running a creditable race. Dawn Run followed up with victory in the French Champion Hurdle but was then sent chasing.
The 1984/85 season saw a change in the training ranks as the dominant Michael Dickinson switched codes leaving his mother Monica Dickinson to train a host of racing superstars. Among these ranks was a hurdler of real promise in Browne’s Gazette, who had been a brilliant winner at the 1984 Festival and had followed up in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and Christmas Hurdle. He seemed bomb proof heading to Cheltenham in 1985, with Gaye Brief the former champion not quite the force of old.
However there was drama from the start as the hot favourite whipped round when the tapes rose and Browne’s Gazette was left trailing by many lengths as the field headed off. Despite making up ground to be in contention turning for home, his efforts had exhausted his stamina and the race was left to the 5 year old See You Then, trained by Nicky Henderson, who was the decisive winner.
See You Then had been a good juvenile hurdler when trained in Ireland but had generally found one or two horses too good in the following season in England. However the horse improved, despite suffering from bad legs. He barely made it to the 1986 race and the press named him “See You When” before he returned in glory in Sandown Park’s Oteley Hurdle. He turned the Champion Hurdle into a procession.
A similar pattern emerged in 1987 as Henderson nursed See You Then’s tender legs and he got to the Festival just about in one piece. With Barnbrook Again and American superstar Flattered in the field, the race proved See You Then’s toughest assignment to date but under Steve Smith-Eccles he got the better of the American horse to become only the fourth triple champion.
Injury kept him out of the race for the next two years and Celtic Shot took the 1988 renewal before Beech Road memorably won the race in 1989. Beech Road had been novice chasing and on New Year’s Day 1989 had suffered a heavy fall which left him prone on the Cheltenham turf for many minutes. People feared the worst but thankfully the horse eventually clambered onto weary legs and trainer Toby Balding thereafter returned him to hurdling.
The hot favourite that year was Kribensis, owned by Sheikh Mohamed and trained by Michael Stoute, the grey was a useful Flat performer and had really taken to hurdles, winning all of his starts including the Triumph Hurdle and Christmas Hurdle. Celtic Shot was back again and Mercy Rimell’s Celtic Chief had also impressed.
However all were thwarted by the unconsidered Beech Road who took the race at 50/1 odds from the two Celtics.
In 1990 Kribensis got his revenge in a race which saw the return of See You Then, who by that time was no longer the force of old.
Toby Balding enjoyed a purple patch during this era and Beech Road’s stable mate Morley Street proved a hugely talented animal who was a prolific winner capturing big prizes at Aintree and in the US. He also won the 1991 Champion Hurdle.
Sea Pigeon had been a talented Flat performer before his hurdling career but had not achieved as much as Royal Gait. Sheikh Mohamed’s horse had been controversially disqualified in the 1988 Ascot Gold Cup despite winning the race decisively. Injury had intervened and in 1991, trained by James Fanshawe, the horse embarked on a novice hurdling career. Despite his inexperience, the horse took his place in the 1992 Champion Hurdle field and gained a deserved success. Sadly the following season he suffered a heart attack whilst racing in Ireland.
Morley Street was established as a popular horse and a real character – but he had a brilliant brother in Granville Again, who was trained by the master trainer of the era Martin Pipe. Pipe had broken all kinds of racing records but had yet to win one of the really big prizes. However, Granville Again confirmed the promise he had demonstrated so many times with a hard fought Champion Hurdle win for Peter Scudamore in his final season riding.
Mares do not figure too prominently in the history of the Champion Hurdle but in 1994 Flakey Dove got the better of the novice Large Action. Bother were back the following season along with Mysilv and the Irish darling Danoli but it was another Flat recruit, Alderbrook, who brilliantly took the race. Alderbrook had been very smart, winning Group races for Julie Cecil, before moving to Kim Bailey’s stable. His initial hurdling efforts were desperate but in the spring of 1995 he got his act together winning the Kingwell Hurdle at Huntingdon before his ultimate performance.
Alderbrook was all the rage to defend his crown in 1996 and was set to be partnered by Graeme Bradley. However, Bradley had a falling out with connections, having failed to arrive on time for an important gallop. With Richard Dunwoody booked for the favourite, Bradley jumped aboard another fancied runner in Collier Bay. Jim Old’s horse had won in Ireland and memorably followed up at Cheltenham, with his jockey mockingly pointing to his wrist where his watch would have been!
By 1997 the Martin Pipe-AP McCoy partnership was in full swing. In the Champion Hurdle, the pair had Make A Stand, a hugely progressive front-runner who had made his mark in winning the Tote Hurdle at Newbury. In the Champion Hurdle, Make A Stand set off many lengths clear and never saw another rival.
That same meeting however, confirmed that there was a new name to consider in future Champion Hurdles. Whilst Istabraq had achieved very little on the Flat, he had moved to Ireland and Aidan O’Brien’s all-powerful stable, where he quickly asserted himself as a novice hurdler of rare vintage. The Irish “banker” of the meeting duly won his Festival target despite being bumped.
The following season he sailed serenely through the biggest Irish hurdle races and arrived at Cheltenham a hot favourite. In the race itself, Charlie Swan was never in trouble and Istabraq proved himself a real champion, galloping away from stable mate Theatre World.
The next season proved similar as Istabraq dominated Irish races and routed the main English hope French Holly in the Irish Champion Hurdle. A second effortless crown followed and a defeat by Limestone Lad in November 1999, did little to dissuade people that Istabraq was about to be crowned a triple champion.
However, on the eve of the 2000 Champion Hurdle, drama ensued as Istabraq was reported to have suffered a nose bleed. The alarm did not stop the horse from running and he earned his place in history with another memorable win. At the time it seemed hard to see what could stop Istabraq’s relentless progress to an unprecedented fourth win in the race. Foot and mouth proved the ultimate block as the entire 2001 Cheltenham Festival was cancelled, possibly denying history.
Istabraq made the line-up for the 2002 race but by this time there were signs that physically he was not the same athletic horse he had been. He had suffered a couple of alarming falls but also retained enough ability to win races. However, In this Champion Hurdle he managed to jump one hurdle before Charlie Swan felt unhappy and pulled up the horse. Despite the thousands of pounds lost on the horse, he received a rapturous round of applause from an appreciative crowd aware they were witnessing his racing swansong.
The race itself went to the ex-French horse Hors La Loi III who at this stage was trained by James Fanshawe. In 2003 the popular grey handicapper Rooster Booster just improved and improved and ran out a super winner of the Champion Hurdle.
However, another Irish era beckoned with Hardy Eustace winning at the 2003 Festival under Kieran Kelly. Tragically Kelly was killed before the 2004 Festival where Hardy Eustace – trained by Dessie Hughes who had ridden Monksfield, made the running and bravely repelled all rivals to record a surprise win.
Other Irish hurdlers were adding to the challenge in 2005, with Mac’s Joy, Brave Inca and Harchibald all strong contenders. Rooster Booster by now appeared to be on the decline and Harchibald had taken on the English hurdlers and won. However, he was a hold-up horse who needed to be delivered as late as possible.
In the race itself, Paul Carberry played it cool, aiming to emulate John Francome’s Sea Pigeon ride. Over the final flight Hardy Eustace grittily held his lead with Harchibald cantering all over him. As the two raced up the hill Carberry asked Harchibald for his effort – and the horse put his head in the air and refused to go past the brave Hardy Eustace. It was a memorable second success for Hardy Eustace and not altogether unlike Monksfield’s wins.
Brave Inca and AP McCoy proved tenacious winners in 2006 and another Irish winner joined the fray in 2007 as Sublimity upset the Irish status quo to take the race. See You Then had been the last 5 year old to win the race but in 2008 little Katchit – Alan King’s brave little front runner, upset the form book to add a Champion Hurdle victory to his 2007 Triumph Hurdle success.
The following season was dominated by Nicky Henderson’s brilliant Binocular who was strongly supported by punters. However, the 2009 race went to his stable mate Punjabi – who had finished third in Katchit’s Triumph Hurdle a couple of years before. In the race Punjabi just got the better of Celestial Halo, as Binocular just came up short finishing a narrow third.
Binocular continued to win big races during the 2009/10 season but was then declared a doubtful runner in the Champion Hurdle just days before the race, due to a health scare. To the shock of many people he did make the final line-up however and finally gained his success in the race under a superb AP McCoy ride.
For the last couple of years the race had however been robbed of a horse many felt might be challenging for the ultimate honour. Hurricane Fly had been a truly brilliant novice hurdler before injury had prevented him running at Cheltenham. Among his victims had been Go Native, a horse that would win the 2009 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – and one who was also a serious Champion Hurdle contender and had won big prizes in England.
Hurricane Fly returned in the autumn of 2009 and continued to dominate Irish hurdle races – but again injury prevented him from running at Cheltenham in 2010. However he was back at Punchestown and beat several leading Champion Hurdle contenders as well as former champion Punjabi, suggesting he was probably the best hurdler in training.
Finally he got a clear bill of health for a whole season in 2010/11 and having again cleared up the domestic races, he went to Cheltenham to face the unbeaten and highly touted Peddlars Cross. Binocular had been banned from racing having been administered medication that would not be out of his system in time. The two main protagonists were in contention at the final flight of a furious race which had seen Overturn set a good gallop and having jumped the last flight, Hurricane Fly scampered up the Cheltenham hill and Peddlars Cross was unable to catch him.
Hurricane Fly’s return to the track the following season was delayed and he was reportedly not the same horse. Whilst there was some doubt as to whether he would race, he retained favouritism with many punters. The race provided a bit of a surprise as Rock On Ruby got the better of the brave Overturn, with Hurricane Fly running a lack lustre race in third.
Hurricane Fly had something to prove last season and duly arrived at Cheltenham for the rematch with Rock On Ruby, with Binocular back for another tilt and Grandouet and Zarkandar also expected to provide stiff competition. Grandouet fell and Hurricane Fly did not travel smoothly in the race and Ruby Walsh was hard at work to hang on to the coat tails of the leaders as Rock On Ruby and Zarkandar set sail for home. However, as they raced down the hill for the final time, Hurricane Fly responded and racing to the final flight had the measure of his rivals, galloping clear to become only the second horse to regain the crown, after Comedy of Errors. Binocular was subsequently retired.
Hurricane Fly has since become the world record holder for the number of Grade 1 victories he has earned. He might already have added a third win in the Champion Hurdle, but for injury earlier in his career.
2014 saw the Fly make his bid to join the immortals but he put in a rare lack lustre display which saw his effort tamely peter out before the last flight. The new cast of Champion Hurdlers made their mark, as Jessica Harrington’s Jezki won a terrific scrap with My Tent Or Yours, with The New One finishing best of all up the hill, having been badly hampered earlier in the race.
One of the beauties of the Champion Hurdle is that every season there is regeneration, as a new crop of challengers takes on the existing establishment. That was once again beautifully illustrated in 2015, as the unbeaten Faugheen, winner of all nine starts, took on Jezki and Hurricane Fly.
The Fly had already made his mark on the season by winning an emotional fifth Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January, while Faugheen had blown away his rivals at Ascot and in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park.
Faugheen set off in front at Cheltenham and although he made a mistake at the third last flight, he quickened turning for home and drew away from the two former champions and it was left to Arctic Fire to chase home hurdling racing’s new superstar.
In February 2016, news broke that Faugheen was injured and would miss the defence of his Champion Hurdle crown.
That same day, the brilliant Willie Mullins mare Annie Power, made her mark in a mares race at Punchestown. It soon became transparent that she would replace Faugheen in the Cheltenham Festival showpiece.
A year earlier, Annie Power had taken an horrendous fall at the final flight, in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, having been beaten in the 2014 World Hurdle too.
Yet in 2016, Annie Power and Ruby Walsh were in a league of their own in the Champion Hurdle.
The mare was straight into the lead and never saw another runner, coasting home to a brilliant 4 1/2 lengths victory from My Tent Or Yours and Nicholls Canyon.
The following year, Annie Power was retired and in foal to Derby winner Camelot. There would be a new Champion in 2017.
Nicky Henderson’s Altior had swept all before him and had gone chasing, after a brilliant novice hurdling career, which saw him beat the highly-vaunted Min and stable mate Buveur D’Air, in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
The latter had won a Grade One contest at Aintree, before embarking on his own chasing career, which yielded two victories from as many starts.
But, with Altior looking like a dominant force over fences, the decision was taken to send Buveur D’Air back over hurdles, halfway through the 2016/17 season.
A warm-up race at Sandown Park saw Buveur D’Air in the line-up for the Champion Hurdle.
With a choice of JP McManus runners, Barry Geraghty decided to ride Yanworth, leaving Noel Fehily to ride Buveur D’Air.
The Henderson runner hit the front from the grey Petit Mouchoir, coming to the final flight – and bound up the Cheltenham hill for a memorable victory, with stable mate My Tent Or Yours, coming through late on to finish third in the race, for the third time.
If there was an air of uncertainty over the form and that Buveur D’Air’s championship had been an afterthought, he banished those questions the following season with an unbeaten run of form into the Champion Hurdle.
On heavy going, Buveur D’Air took on ten rivals.
In a much tougher race, he and Barry Geraghty were all-out to beat Melon by a neck, with Mick Jazz coming home third.
The Champion Hurdle Past Winners