The Cheltenham Gold Cup
Run on the New course at Cheltenham racecourse in March, the Grade 1 chase provides the highlight of the four-day Cheltenham Festival and, with prize-money of £625,000, is the most valuable jumps race in Britain and Ireland after the Grand National. The Irish cider brand Magners is the current sponsor of the Gold Cup – which is run on the Friday of the Cheltenham Festival – having signed a four-year deal that began in 2019.
The Gold Cup represents the ultimate challenge for the very best staying chasers, with 22 fences to be jumped during the relentless three miles and two and a half furlongs, and a punishing finish up the famous Cheltenham hill.
Many of jump racing’s most celebrated battles have been fought up the hill in the Gold Cup, and many big reputations have fallen victim to the fierce climax. But just as many stars have risen gloriously to the occasion to claim their place in history, among them such greats as Golden Miller, Arkle, Best Mate and Kauto Star.
Gold Cup Winners
Gold Cup 2015
T: Mark Bradstock
J: Nico de Boinville
Gold Cup 2016
T: Gordon Elliott
J: B. J. Cooper
Gold Cup 2017
T: Mrs J. Harrington
J: Robbie Power
Gold Cup 2018
T: Colin Tizzard
J: Richard Johnson
AL BOUM PHOTO
Gold Cup 2019
T: W. P. Mullins
J: P. Townend
What happened last year?
Willie Mullins has saddled more Cheltenham Festival winners than any other trainer but he went into Gold Cup day last year without ever having won the showpiece race.
Ever since star chaser Florida Pearl could manage only third as the 5-2 favourite in the 1999 Gold Cup, Mullins had tried and failed to bag the elusive prize – a failure made all the more painful by the fact he saddled the runner-up in six of those years. But that all changed last year when the losing streak was finally broken by a horse who went into the race with less confidence behind him than some of the big Mullins runners of previous Gold Cups. He even had two better-fancied stablemates against him in the line-up.
The bookmakers rated Paul Townend’s mount Al Boum Photo the third string of the four-strong Mullins team, with 8-1 fourth favourite Kemboy and 9-1 shot Bellshill both shorter in the betting. Kemboy had the briefest of involvement, unseating David Mullins at the first fence, while Bellshill was pulled up by Ruby Walsh mid-race after a series of jumping errors.
Then Invitation Only crashed out at the tenth fence, sadly suffering a fatal injury, leaving the 12-1 chance Al Boum Photo as the last of the Mullins quartet with a circuit still to go and the trainer’s hopes of a first Gold Cup seemingly hanging by a thread. Mullins later admitted: “With three of them out before the first circuit had finished I was just thinking, here we go again.”
Approaching the final turn Native River and Might Bite, who had fought out a thrilling finish in the previous year’s Gold Cup, were at the head of affairs but Al Boum Photo was travelling well among a host of challengers just behind the pair. He moved to the front jumping the second-last and stormed up the hill for a pulsating two-and-a-half-length victory from a staying-on Anibale Fly. A delighted Mullins admitted afterwards: “I’d resigned myself to maybe never winning a Gold Cup, so I said I wasn’t going to obsess about it. I just thought maybe it wasn’t to be.”
Kemboy beat his stablemate two months later in the Punchestown Gold Cup and both are among the leading fancies for the 2020 Gold Cup.
Approaching the final turn Native River and Might Bite, who had fought out a thrilling finish in the previous year’s Gold Cup, were at the head of affairs but Al Boum Photo was travelling well among a host of challengers just behind the pair. He moved to the front jumping the second-last and stormed up the hill for a pulsating two-and-a-half-length victory from a staying-on Anibale Fly. A delighted Mullins admitted afterwards: “I’d resigned myself to maybe never winning a Gold Cup, so I said I wasn’t going to obsess about it. I just thought maybe it wasn’t to be.” Kemboy beat his stablemate two months later in the Punchestown Gold Cup and both are among the leading fancies for the 2020 Gold Cup.
History of the Cheltenham Gold Cup
The first running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was in 1819 but it bore little resemblance to today’s race as it was a Flat contest over three miles and staged on Cleeve Hill, which overlooks the site of the modern-day Cheltenham racecourse.
Jump racing started to grow in popularity in Britain at the turn of the century and in 1924 the first Gold Cup over fences took place on the Old course at Cheltenham (it was moved to its current home on the New course in 1956), although it was regarded as a less prestigious race than the four-mile National Hunt Chase and served mainly as a trial for the Grand National.
That began to change in the 1930s when Golden Miller became the first real star of the Gold Cup, raising the status of the race with his unmatched five successive victories between 1932 and 1936. For good measure he also won the Grand National in 1934. Golden Miller’s owner Dorothy Paget is also the most successful owner in the race with seven victories, with Roman Hackle (1940) and Mont Tremblant (1952) adding to Golden Miller’s five wins.
The next multiple winner was Cottage Rake, who took all three runnings between 1948 and 1950 for legendary Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien. He triggered Ireland’s fascination with the Gold Cup but it was the arrival of another horse in the 1960s who put the seal on the love affair.
Arkle, trained in Ireland by Tom Dreaper and regarded as the greatest jumps horse of all time, landed the first of his three consecutive Gold Cups in 1964. He obliterated his rivals in the following two runnings and such was his superiority before his final victory, he was sent off at 1-10. He remains the shortest-priced winner in the race’s history. Dreaper went on to win two more Gold Cups with Prince Regent (1946) and Fort Leney (1968), claiming the title of the most successful trainer in the history of the race, while Arkle’s jockey Pat Taaffe was also on board Fort Leney and his four victories make him the Gold Cup’s most successful jockey.
Dual Gold Cup-winning trainer Michael Dickinson may have trained fewer winners of the race than Dreaper but in 1983 he pulled off one of the most remarkable feats in Cheltenham Festival history. Bregawn was the one who gave Dickinson his second Gold Cup but the trainer was also responsible for the horses who finished second, third, fourth and fifth.
The 1986 winner Dawn Run became only the fourth mare to land the Gold Cup but, more significantly, the first horse to win the Champion Hurdle (1984) and the Gold Cup, while three years later Desert Orchid recorded one of the most popular successes in the race and entered the record books as the only grey to ever win.
The 1990s witnessed a couple of historic results. First up was shock 1990 winner Norton’s Coin, trained in Wales by Sirrell Griffiths, a dairy farmer who had only three horses in his stable. His starting price of 100-1 is to this day the longest of any Gold Cup winner. Four years later The Fellow, trained by Francois Doumen, became the only French winner of the Gold Cup, having been beaten by a short head in both 1991 and 1992.
The new millennium brought with it an unwelcome moment in Gold Cup history when the entire Cheltenham Festival was cancelled in 2001 due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. A replacement race for the Gold Cup, called the Gold Trophy Chase, was staged at Sandown six weeks later. The next three runnings, from 2002 to 2004, were all landed by Best Mate, who is the most recent of the four horses to have won the race three or more times and the first since Arkle completed his treble in 1966.
Best Mate was also the last horse to win a Gold Cup on a Thursday, as 2005 ushered in a major change when the Cheltenham Festival was extended from three days to a four-day meeting. As a result, the Gold Cup was switched from its traditional slot on Thursday to become the highlight of the new Friday raceday.
There was more history made in 2009 when Kauto Star became the first Gold Cup winner to regain his title. Having won the race in 2007, he lost the title to his stablemate Denman the following year but gained his revenge when defeating his great rival 12 months later.
1989: Desert Orchid toughs it out
The hugely popular grey Desert Orchid was the Christmas gift that kept on giving to his legion of fans, with four victories in the prestigious King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day between 1986 and 1990. But his finest moment came in the 1989 Gold Cup, a race judged by Racing Post readers in a 2005 poll to be the greatest of all time.
There was a lot stacked against Desert Orchid that day. He hated running at left-handed tracks and had a particularly disappointing record at Cheltenham, where he had tackled two Champion Hurdles and two Champion Chases without success. He was no fan of heavy ground either, but had to contend with a surface so muddy following heavy rain in the morning that there had been doubts about the race going ahead.
One who was certain to relish the heavy ground was Yahoo, and he looked the surefire winner when sweeping past Desert Orchid approaching two out as his rival started to struggle in the mud. A determined Desert Orchid kept in touch but his brave battle seemed doomed to failure after Yahoo jumped the last in front and started to pull away.
But Desert Orchid would not give up and, as he began to drift left towards Yahoo on the far side of the track, he gradually reeled in the leader in the closing stages to seize a thrilling length-and-a-half victory in front of wild celebrations under a sea of umbrellas. His rider Simon Sherwood summed up the performance, saying: “I’ve never known a horse so brave. He hated every step of the way in the ground and dug as deep as he could possibly go.”
1986: Dawn Run gets up
Dawn Run entered the record books in 1986 as the only horse to win the Champion Hurdle (in 1984) and Gold Cup, and became the fourth mare to win the latter. However, it was the pulsating manner of her victory that made this such a special Gold Cup.
All had gone well as Dawn Run cut out the running until she made a mistake at the water jump and an even worse one five out, after which it all became a bit of a struggle. Jonjo O’Neill forced her back into a brief lead jumping two out before Wayward Lad and Forgive ‘n Forget quickened ahead.
After a fine jump at the last, Wayward Lad pulled away going up the hill and looked set for victory as he left Dawn Run two lengths in his wake with 50 yards to run. But seemingly out of nowhere Dawn Run summoned one final, irresistible surge to close in again as Sir Peter O’Sullevan, in one of his most famous commentaries, cried: “The mare’s beginning to get up!”
Get up she did, passing Wayward Lad in front of an ecstatic crowd to score by a length.
1964: Arkle beats Mill House
Arkle is today regarded as the best jumps horse of all time, and it was in the 1964 Gold Cup that he first signalled his claim to that title. The race was billed as a heavyweight showdown between the superstar from Ireland and the previous year’s Gold Cup winner Mill House, a great in his own right who had already beaten Arkle in that season’s Hennessy.
Mill House was favoured in the betting as the 8-13 favourite, with Arkle 7-4. Only two others lined up, at 20-1 and 50-1. Willie Robinson, on board Mill House, quickly pressed on in a move designed to break his rival but Arkle swept alongside the leader at the second-last fence and the pair jumped it together. They battled it out to the final fence but, after jumping it with a narrow lead, Arkle pulled away with ease to score by five lengths in a time that broke the course record by four seconds.
Arkle won the next two Gold Cups, beating Mill House by 20 lengths in 1965 and trouncing his rivals by 30 lengths in 1966, when his SP of 1-10 made him the shortest-priced Gold Cup runner in the history of the race.
2004: Best Mate completes his hat-trick
Thirty-eight years after Arkle completed his Gold Cup hat-trick, the feat was repeated by Best Mate.
Having triumphed in 2002 and 2003, Best Mate was sent off the 8-11 favourite to land the hat-trick but in the event had to call on all his resolution to see off a determined Harbour Island and a fast-finishing Sir Rembrandt. The Best Mate story is as much about the popular wife-and-husband team who masterminded the hat-trick as it is about the horse himself.
Trainer Henrietta Knight, renowned for her eccentricities and superstitions, insisted on watching Best Mate’s bid for a third Gold Cup on a small TV in the interview room by Cheltenham’s winner’s enclosure, where she had seen his previous two victories. This she did in the same lucky blue suit and string of pearls she had worn in 2002 and 2003. After Best Mate crossed the line in front, cameras captured Knight running towards her husband Terry Biddlecombe by the winner’s enclosure for a tearful embrace that encapsulated the unrestrained joy of the occasion.
Best Mate was favourite to make it four Gold Cups the following year but a broken blood vessel in the week before the race ruled out his bid for a fourth success. Much worse was to come on his next outing later that year when he collapsed and died of a heart attack after being pulled up in the William Hill Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter.
2009: Kauto Star regains his crown
The 2009 Gold Cup featured a highly anticipated rematch between the two dominant chasers of their era, who became fierce rivals despite hailing from the same stable of champion trainer Paul Nicholls.
Kauto Star had won his first Gold Cup in 2007 but relinquished his crown to Denman the following year when the horse nicknamed The Tank set a trademark punishing gallop that had most of his rivals beaten a long way out. The defending champ put up more resistance than the rest but could get no closer than seven lengths to the impressive winner.
Twelve months later Kauto Star was back for another go at Denman as he attempted to become the first Gold Cup winner to regain the crown. After a foot-perfect round of jumping he cleared the third-last alongside his rival and the pair settled down to fight it out. But that fight was short-lived as Kauto Star was gone in a matter of strides and kept pulling clear for a scintillating 13-length victory.