Cheltenham is the ‘home of National Hunt racing’ and the Festival in March is rightly tagged as ‘the Olympics of jumps racing’.
There’s nothing quite like that frenzy that grips this Cotswolds countryside as the best jumps performers in Britain and Ireland come side-by-side to do battle for the sport’s most coveted prizes in the early springtime.
The jewel in the crown is of course the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself, the Blue Riband of jumps racing and contest every owner, trainer and jockey wants to win the most.
Originally a Flat Race
When the Gold Cup was first run on the site we now recognise as Cleeve Hill, it was run as a three-mile race on the flat, with no jumps involved, making it unrecognisable from the race we know today.
The inaugural winner in 1819 was a horse called Spectre, pocketing a prize of 100 gns for his owner.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup was first run as a jumps race on 12 March 1924 when 5/1 chance Red Splash scored for trainer Fred Whittington and jockey Dick Rees, beating eight rivals to win the £685 prize.
The great Golden Miller won five Gold Cups from 1932-1936 and he remains the winning-most horse in the race of all-time.
Vincent O’Brien’s Cottage Rake (1948-1950) won three-in-a-row early in the post-war era and helped to bring Irish eyes to Cheltenham – with the unique and good-natured Anglo-Irish rivalry remaining a central theme of the Cheltenham Festival and the Gold Cup to this day.
The Modern Era Begins
The Gold Cup was switched to the “New Course” at Cheltenham in 1959 and it remains there presently. The three-and-quarter-mile journey around Prestbury Park is a demanding test of stamina and jumping, culminating with the punishing climb up the famed Cheltenham Hill that will expose any weaknesses in the would-be Gold Cup heroes. Many a Cheltenham Gold Cup has changed dramatically up that long climb.
Three-time winner Arkle (1964-1966) remains one of the classiest ever Cheltenham Gold Cup scorers, while his trainer Tom Dreaper (five) and jockey Pat Taaffe (four) still stand above their peers as the race’s most successful protagonists.
Amongst the most remarkable feats in the Gold Cup by a trainer came in 1983, when Michael Dickinson was responsible for the first five home – Bregawn leading in stablemates Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House.
Three years later, in 1986, the outstanding mare Dawn Run carved her name into the history books as the first horse to have won both the Champion Hurdle (two-miles) and the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival. The Paddy Mullins-trained Dawn Run remains the only horse to achieve that feat.
There have been few more popular winners than 1989 scored Desert Orchid, David Elsworth’s four-time King George winner adding this prize to his haul to rapturous scenes. A year later, Norton’s Coin shocked the Cheltenham crowd by scoring at odds of 100/1 – still the biggest SP returned on a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner.
The New Century
The Foot and Mouth crisis of 2001 put paid to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the only time since World War II the race has not been run.
Best Mate ensured it returned with a bang, winning a hat-trick of renewals from 2002-2004 for Henrietta Knight and jockey Jim Culloty – the Irishman who would later train 2014 winner Lord Windermere.
A golden era for Paul Nicholls saw him win three Gold Cups from 2007 with duo Kauto Star and Denman exchanging the prize and capturing the public imagination like few horses before or since, given they were boxed side-by-side at Nicholls’ base in Ditcheat.
Denman trounced his rival in ’08 with a virtuoso performance but the mighty Kauto Star made history a year later in becoming the first horse ever to regain the Gold Cup, a feat as yet unmatched.
In 2011, the Nicky Henderson-trained Long Run saw off Denman and Kauto in second and third, with amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen on his back for a memorable success.
Cheltenham’s most successful trainer of all time, Willie Mullins endured many near misses in the Gold Cup before Al Boum Photo finally won the prize in 2019. He and Paul Townend would retain in 2020, though Minella Indo denied him a hat-trick in 2021 as he capped a fabulous Festival for trainer Henry De Bromhead by leading home stablemate A Plus Tard, with Al Boum Photo behind in third.