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Monday, 10 December, 2018

Champions and self-doping horses: a short history of the Betfair Hurdle

Nicholas Godfrey on Britain's richest handicap hurdle

Ryan Price inspects Hill House after the horse had romped home in the 1967 Schweppes Gold Trophy, provoking a huge controversy
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1 At £155,000, the Betfair Hurdle is Britain's richest handicap hurdle. The race that has been run at Newbury since 1964 and is now the Betfair Hurdle was actually established in 1963, with the inaugural running taking place at Aintree under the Schweppes banner in what was to become one of the most famous of racing sponsorships – so famous, indeed, that older generations still often refer to the two-mile handicap as the Schweppes.

2 The race was run as the Schweppes Gold Trophy until the Tote took over in 1986 (hence Tote Gold Trophy and totesport Trophy when everyone went annoyingly digital lower-case). Betfair have been the official backers since 2012. Champion Hurdle-type horses have often contested the race: Persian War (1968) and Make A Stand (1997) claimed the hurdling crown after winning at Newbury.

Findon frolics: Capt Ryan Price (left) and stable jockey Josh Gifford, who won four of the first five runnings of what is now the Betfair Hurdle and was then the Schweppes

3 In its early years, the race was synonymous with the formidable dual-purpose great Captain Ryan Price, who won four of the first five runnings in tandem with stable jockey Josh Gifford. Price was a one-off, memorably described by John Oaksey as an "ex-Commando, fearless horseman, dedicated animal lover, outspoken self-publicist and, let no-one doubt or question it, brilliant trainer of racehorses". He once quelled strike action at his Findon stable by knocking out the alleged ringleader with a single punch.

4 Price may have drunk deep of the early Schweppes but his successes were to gain a notorious place in racing folklore, starting with Rosyth, who won the first two. Following a series of unplaced 'efforts' after his Aintree victory 12 months previously, Rosyth showed dramatic improvement to score by a couple of lengths. Despite being ridden by Gifford, Rosyth was the apparent second string as Price also saddled the unplaced favourite Carapult. The stewards of the National Hunt Committee disregarded evidence that the horse broke blood vessels and flourished in the spring; Gifford suspended for six weeks and his trainer warned off for the rest of the season. Price lost many horses when his licence was suspended, among them the 1966 Grand National winner Anglo.

5 Price and Gifford were back in 1966 to win with Le Vermontois before Hill House completed their quartet of Schweppes victories 12 months later. Two weeks before the Schweppes, Hill House refused to race at Kempton and then the following week finished a well-beaten fourth at Sandown. He won at Newbury by 12 lengths; horse and jockey returned to the winner's enclosure accompanied by hearty booing and catcalls from the crowd. The scene upset Price's wife Dorothy so much that she never went racing again.

Make A Stand: one of two horses alongside Persian War to follow up in the Champion Hurdle after winning the race that is now the Betfair Hurdle

6 The Hill House controversy wasn't over there, however, as the horse tested positive for the steroid cortisol, but was found to have manufactured the drug within his own body, leading to a nickname of 'the horse who could make his own dope'. He was once described as 'the Pablo Escobar of his day' in an Independent article by the brilliant Richard Edmondson.

7 Neblin, the 1987 winner, was ridden by Stan Moore, who is now a successful trainer in Lambourn. Although the eight-year-old had decent form in his former life in Ireland, he was allotted only 9st8lb after joining Toby Balding, who described him in one interview as his "secret weapon". After eyecatching runs at Kempton and Sandown, and having been backed ante-post from 66-1 into 10-1 he beat Mrs Muck convincingly at Newbury and followed up in the County Hurdle. "The celebrations went on for about two days," recalled Moore.

When he won the Tote Gold Trophy under Adrian Maguire, King Credo was trainer Steve Woodman's only winner of the entire 1992-93 season

8 When King Credo won the Tote Gold Trophy in 1993 under Adrian Maguire, he was his trainer Steve Woodman's sole winner of the entire season. "My dad [Syd] had died in 1986 and King Credo was an absolute lifeline, as it was a serious struggle with just a handful of horses," recalled the Chichester trainer.

9 With five winners, Nicky Henderson is the most successful trainer in the history of this ultra-competitive contest. The champion trainer has struck with Sharpical (1998), Geos (2000 and 2004), Landing Light (2001) and My Tent Or Yours (2013); he has five entries this time including well-fancied mare Kayf Grace, Ascot winner Jenkins and Pricewise selection Lough Derg Spirit.

Violet Dancer (Josh Moore) jumps the last en route to winning the Betfair Hurdle in 2015 for Gary Moore, who has landed the big handicap three times in the last ten runnings

10 Gary Moore has the best recent record in the race, having won three of the last ten runnings with Heathcote (2007), Wingman (2008) and Violet Dancer (2015) at odds of 50-1, 14-1 and 20-1 respectively. His son Jamie rode the first two, with Josh getting the leg-up on the third, which was real family success, as the rider suggested, saying: "I have Hayley [sister] and Jamie to thank. Jamie was kind enough to let me ride this horse and Hayley has been riding him out on his own at home which has really helped him. " Meanwhile the Moore team have Fontwell winner Knocknanuss in this Saturday's race.

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He was once described as 'the Pablo Escobar of his day' in an Independent article

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