Wednesday 20 November 2019

Four fantastic festivals


Sam Thomas celebrating his big win. Photo: Getty Images
Sam Thomas celebrating his big win. Photo: Getty Images

Nick Pulford looks at four vintage Cheltenham years

30 years ago: 1988

Robbie Power celebrates with Sizing John after winning the Gold Cup in 2017. Photo: David Davies/PA
Robbie Power celebrates with Sizing John after winning the Gold Cup in 2017. Photo: David Davies/PA

Charter gets the party started

David Nicholson, who enjoyed so many big-race successes as a jockey and trainer, was in no doubt about the significance of Charter Party's role in his long and illustrious career. "I consider winning a Gold Cup with Charter Party was my best training performance. He was a very talented and very brave horse, but also a very unsound one," he said.

Nicholson, who had 17 winners at the Festival as a trainer, nursed Charter Party through an injury-plagued career punctuated by brilliance. Only two years earlier Nicholson had broken his duck at the Festival after a long wait, with Charter Party winning the race that is now the Ultima Handicap Chase as part of a final-day double.

Partnered by Richard Dunwoody - like Nicholson enjoying his only Gold Cup success - Charter Party was engaged in a two-horse race with Cavvies Clown from the third-last. At the penultimate fence, a mistake from his rival allowed Charter Party to seize control and he galloped clear to win by six lengths.

Charlie Swan and Istabraq jump the last during the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1998. Photo: Sportsfile
Charlie Swan and Istabraq jump the last during the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1998. Photo: Sportsfile

Fred Winter, one of the all-time greats as a rider and trainer, had a poignant triumph in the Champion Hurdle with Celtic Shot, ridden by his stable jockey Peter Scudamore. The 7-1 shot won by four lengths in a bumper field of 21.

This was a fourth Champion Hurdle win for Winter after Bula (1971 and 1972) and Lanzarote (1974), and turned out to be the last of his 28 winners as a trainer at the Festival.

For Scudamore, this was the first of two Champion Hurdle wins, and he still holds it dear. "Whenever I see Charlie we still talk about those times," he says. "We both feel it was a great honour to be representing one of the great National Hunt figures of all time. You always felt slightly in awe of Fred and everything he'd achieved, and winning that race meant a lot."

Winter is the only person to have won the Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National as jockey and trainer, and his achievements are remembered in the name of the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.

Trainer Sir Michael Stoute. Photo: Racing Post
Trainer Sir Michael Stoute. Photo: Racing Post

Desert Orchid's place in the Cheltenham Hall of Fame lay ahead, but for now he had to settle for another bit part at the Festival as he was beaten by Pearlyman in the Queen Mother Champion Chase for the second year running.

Two of the best Flat trainers wrote their names on the roll of honour.

Michael Stoute took the Triumph Hurdle with Sheikh Mohammed's Kribensis, who went on to claim the Champion Hurdle two years later, and Guy Harwood won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle with Vagador.

The only Irish success came in the Stayers' Hurdle with Galmoy, flying the flag alone for the second year running.

Oliver Sherwood enjoyed a big double on the second day with Rebel Song (Sun Alliance Hurdle) and The West Awake (Sun Alliance Chase), and another notable winner was trainer Josh Gifford, who ended a long wait for his breakthrough at the meeting when Golden Minstrel took the Kim Muir Chase and quickly took his score to three with Vodkatini (Grand Annual) and Pragada (Coral Golden Hurdle Final).

20 years ago: 1998

Istabraq and One Man are two-mile champs

A vintage Festival burst into life on the opening day when Istabraq was the headline act with a phenomenal victory in the Champion Hurdle by a record-equalling margin of 12 lengths.

Having won the Royal & Sunalliance Novices' Hurdle the previous year, the Aidan O'Brien-trained superstar returned as 3-1 favourite for the Champion after a winning run of nine and took the 18-runner field apart with a blistering performance under Charlie Swan.

This was a first Champion Hurdle for Ireland since Dawn Run 14 years earlier and started a run of three consecutive victories in the race for Istabraq, putting him in an elite club of five alongside Hatton's Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War and See You Then.

Emotions ran even higher on day two after One Man landed the Queen Mother Champion Chase for trainer Gordon Richards and jockey Brian Harding. The popular grey had been well beaten on three previous appearances at the Festival - in the Sun Alliance Chase and twice in the Gold Cup - but this time Richards dropped him back to two miles for the first time since his novice hurdling days and the outcome was extraordinary.

In company with favourite Ask Tom, One Man set a searching pace that proved too much for his companion coming down the hill. With his rivals gasping for air, One Man simply did not stop in an exhilarating display that brought him home four lengths clear. Sadly, after reaching that career high, One Man suffered a fatal injury on his next start at Aintree.

The biggest upset of the meeting came in the Cheltenham Gold Cup of all places when 25-1 shot Cool Dawn, trained by Robert Alner and ridden by Andrew Thornton, eclipsed the leading fancies to score by a length and three-quarters.

It was a big meeting for Thornton, who had already won the Royal & Sunalliance Novices' Hurdle on the high-class French Holly and was having his first ride in the Gold Cup.

Riding honours went to AP McCoy, who ended the week with five winners, his best haul at the Festival. He started the ball rolling with one of the best rides of his illustrious career to win the Arkle Trophy Chase on Champleve by a short head from Hill Society. McCoy also landed a huge gamble in the Gold Card Handicap Hurdle Final with Unsinkable Boxer, having been told by trainer Martin Pipe beforehand that he was "the biggest certainty who would ever walk out on to Cheltenham racecourse", and rounded off the week with victory on two more Pipe-trained favourites, Cyfor Malta in the Cathcart Chase and Blowing Wind in the Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle.

Away from the Pipe stable, McCoy won the Grand Annual Handicap Chase on Henrietta Knight's Edredon Bleu - a relationship that would be crowned with victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase two years later.

Lower down the standings was Ruby Walsh, then 18, who scored the first of his 56 wins at the Festival on Alexander Banquet in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper. This was the first flowering of his relationship with trainer Willie Mullins, which has had such a profound impact on Cheltenham for two decades now.

2008: 10 years ago

Four days of brilliant drama packed into three

This was the year the Festival was blown off course, but not for long. The second of the four days had to be cancelled after high winds put the safety of spectators at risk, resulting in bumper cards on the last two days after the weather had relented and the races were rescheduled.

The storm that blew in on Thursday's 10-race card went by the name of Master Minded, who produced one of the most dominant performances in the history of the Festival with a 19-length victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase from Voy Por Ustedes, the previous year's winner.

The racing started at 12.30 that day with Old Benny's success in the National Hunt Chase and went on to the final race at 5.50, the Champion Bumper won by Cousin Vinny. Among the other highlights along the way, Our Vic landed the Ryanair Chase at his fourth attempt, Albertas Run scored the first of three wins at the Festival in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase and Inglis Drever took the Stayers' Hurdle for the third time.

Having won the race in 2005, Inglis Drever was prevented from defending the title by injury but returned victorious in the next two years.

He was the first horse to win the Stayers' Hurdle three times, a record soon eclipsed by the four-timer of Big Buck's, and remarkably had a different jockey each time. In 2008 it was the turn of Denis O'Regan, following on from Graham Lee and Paddy Brennan.

Friday's racing also started at 12.30 with the first running of the Mares' Hurdle, won by the Donald McCain-trained Whiteoak, but the race everyone was waiting for was the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which featured one of the great rivalries of steeplechasing with the first clash between Kauto Star and Denman.

The two Paul Nicholls-trained heavyweights finished first and second, with stablemate Neptune Collonges completing a memorable 1-2-3 for the trainer, but it was Denman who won the day in emphatic fashion, finishing seven lengths clear of Kauto Star.

Denman's rider Sam Thomas, now a trainer, remembers the day with pride. "I was confident my horse would run his race, but it was going into the unknown against Kauto Star. It was a good friendly rivalry and what it did for racing was amazing," he says.

"People still tell me it's the best Gold Cup they've ever seen and the walk in front of the stands after we'd won was the most magical feeling in the world."

Other big winners on Friday's nine-race card included Fiveforthree (Ballymore Novices' Hurdle) and Celestial Halo (Triumph Hurdle), both partnered by Ruby Walsh as he took the leading rider award.

Day 1 was run against a backdrop of the strengthening wind that was to wreak havoc and the big spoils in the Champion Hurdle went to Katchit, the previous year's Triumph Hurdle winner who became the first five-year- old to take the crown since See You Then in 1985.

Sizing Europe, who was to become a dual Festival winner over fences in the Arkle Trophy and Queen Mother Champion Chase, travelled strongly down the hill but the 2-1 favourite dropped out quickly after the second-last, with a strained joint in his pelvis later identified as the reason.

That left the battle between Katchit and Osana, with a length separating them at the line. Two subsequent Champion Hurdle winners were beaten on the day. Punjabi was third to Katchit before returning to win the next year, while Binocular, the 2010 Champion winner, was runner-up to Captain Cee Bee in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. The other notable winner was Tidal Bay, who was to become a fans' favourite in his long and eventful career. The then seven-year- old strolled to an impressive 13-length success in the Arkle Trophy Chase.

2017: One year ago

Crown jewels go to those prepared to tear up script

More than ever, with so many big prizes on offer at the Festival, part of the trainer's art is selecting the right target for each individual. Sometimes that involves tearing up a prepared script or being brave enough to take on a big favourite, and never was that better illustrated than at last year's meeting.

In mid-January, two months before the most important four days in the Jump racing calendar, Buveur D'Air was a novice chaser, Sizing John was being tried over a distance as far as two and a half miles for only the second time in his career, Special Tiara's trainer Henry de Bromhead was weighing up whether to swerve Douvan, and Nichols Canyon was being prepared for the Irish Champion Hurdle.

Yet that quartet mopped up the Festival's crown jewels after some radical shifts in position. Sizing John had been to the Festival twice before as a two-miler, being placed behind Douvan as both a novice hurdler and a novice chaser, but he was reinvented as a staying chaser by Jessica Harrington, who guided him to glory in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Harrington's seven-year-old was sent off 7-1 fourth favourite in a field of 13 but showed he had an irresistible package of stamina, brilliant jumping and, crucially, the speed he had demonstrated previously over two miles. Given an excellent ride by Robbie Power, he scored impressively by two and three-quarter lengths from the staying-on Minella Rocco.

Remarkably, this was a first attempt at the Gold Cup for Power and Harrington.

Nicky Henderson has achieved almost everything in Jump racing and the Lambourn maestro reached another milestone when he took the outright record in the Stan James Champion Hurdle with a sixth victory courtesy of Buveur D'Air, who won two novice chases before being switched back to hurdling as late as February. Noel Fehily, Buveur D'Air's rider, secured a notable double when he took the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase aboard Special Tiara, making him only the second jockey to win both races at the same meeting. Douvan, the 2-9 favourite, trailed in seventh for his first defeat over fences, and Special Tiara kept on gamely to score by a head from Fox Norton.

For Fehily, a first Champion Chase success was sweet. "I remember seeing horses like Viking Flagship when I was growing up and it's a race I really wanted to win," he says. "I think if you asked any jockey they'd probably say it's the race that gives you the biggest buzz. There's no room for error - it's a test of speed, they have to stay and jump. It's a great race to watch and to ride in." Nichols Canyon, like Sizing John, was sent up in distance at the Festival, having fallen in the Irish Champion Hurdle, and it proved the right decision by Willie Mullins as he took the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle in a thrilling battle with Lil Rockerfeller and odds-on favourite Unowhatimeanharry.

Ruby Walsh, Nichols Canyon's jockey, enjoyed a record-breaking Thursday, becoming the first to ride four winners in a single day at the Festival. The others were Yorkhill (JLT Novices' Chase), Un De Sceaux (Ryanair Chase) and Let's Dance (Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle) and those four winners were enough to make Walsh leading rider for the fifth year in a row and the 11th in all.

There was a new name on the leading trainer trophy as Gordon Elliott pipped Mullins. Elliott led 5-0 after day two but Mullins responded magnificently and tied the scores at 6-6. On countback, Elliott's three second places (to Mullins' two) put him on top.

Irish Independent

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