The most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was Pat Taaffe, who partnered the legendary Arkle to three consecutive victories in 1964, 1965 and 1966 and added a fourth, courtesy of Fort Leney, also trained by Tom Dreaper, in 1968. However, of jockeys still riding, two have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice apiece.
The first of them is four-time British Champion Jockey Richard Johnson, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the first time on Looks Like Trouble, trained by Noel Chance, in 2000. A 30-length winner of what is now the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at the 1999 Cheltenham Festival, Looks Like Trouble was pulled up in the King George VI Chase at Kempton, but made it 2-2 at the Festival when staying on gamely to beat Florida Peark by 5 lengths.Later in his career, in 2018, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup again, on Native River, trained by Colin Tizzard, who got the better of an epic duel with Might Bite to win by 4½ lengths.
The second dual Gold Cup winning jockey in the current ranks is, of course, Paul Townend, who recorded back-to-back victories on Al Boum Photo in 2019 and 2020. On the first occasion, Al Boum Photo was only third choice of four runners trained by Willie Mullins but, nevertheless, ked turning for home and stayed on strongly to win by 2½ lengths. Later that year, Townend succeeded Ruby Walsh as stable jockey to Willie Mullins and rode at his first Cheltenham Festival in that capacity in 2020. As defending champion, Al Boum Photo was sent off favourite for the Gold Cup and, although all out in the closing stages, held on to win by a neck.
Cheltenham Racecourse, in Prestbury Park, Gloucestershire, is home to the four-day Cheltenham Festival, staged annually in March and, undoubtedly, the highlight of the British National Hunt season. During the Festival, most of the racing takes place on the Old Course, on the Tuesday and Wednesday, and the New Course, on the Thursday and Friday. Both courses are left-handed, undulating and feature a stiff, uphill finish, known colloquially as the ‘Cheltenham hill’.
On the New Course, in particular, where the emphasis is on stamina, rather than speed, conversation invariably turns to the severity of the ‘hill’, which has taken on mythical proportions and garnered a fearsome, if not entirely warranted, reputation. The stiffness of the finish is, no doubt, exacerbated by the pronounced downhill run to the home turn, but the ‘hill’ is not, as some commentators suggest, the ‘north face of the Eiger’. In fact, over the last three furlongs, the ground rises just 10 metres, or 33 feet, with a percentage slope of just 1.67%. Indeed, the angle between the horizontal plane and the surface of the ‘Cheltenham hill’ is less than 1º so, while it has been the scene of many iconic finishes, it is nowhere near as steep as folklore suggests.
The Champion Hurdle, run over 2 miles and 87 yards on the Old Course at Cheltenham, was inaugurated in 1927 and is currently the feature race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. Fillies and mares receive a 7lb allowance from their male counterparts but, remarkably, in 90 runnings of the two-mile hurdling championship, just five of them have won.
The first of them, African Sister, won way back in 1939, before the start of World War II, but it would be another 45 years before the most famous mare of them all, Dawn Run, completed the first leg of what would become an historic Champion Hurdle – Cheltenham Gold Cup double two years later. Thereafter, it would be another decade before the unheralded Flakey Dove, trained by Leominster husbandman Richard Price, lifted the spoils in 1994 and another twenty-two years before Annie Power – who was anything but unheralded – laid the ghost of her final-flight fall in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle the previous year to rest in 2016.
However, the last mare to win the Champion Hurdle was Epatante, who justified favouritism on the 69th birthday of her owner, J.P. McManus, in 2020. Indeed, at the time of writing, Epatante is vying for favouritism with another mare, Honeysuckle, for the 2021 renewal of the Champion Hurdle so, like London buses, two or three may turn at once!
By way of clarification, by ‘Cheltenham Gold Cup’ we mean the Cheltenham Gold Cup in its current guise, as a steeplechase, which was first run on March 12, 1924, rather than the three-mile Flat race, which was first run at nearby Cleeve Hill, rather than Prestbury Park, over a century earlier. Nowadays, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is the most prestigious contest in National Hunt racing but, in its early days was overshadowed by other races, notably the National Hunt Chase.
Nevertheless, the inaugural running was covered by British Pathé News, under the title ‘Chasing’s Ascot’, and produced a thrilling finish. The eventual winner, Red Splash, trained by Fred Withington and ridden by Dick Rees, edged his nearest pursuers, Conjuror II and Gerard L by a neck and a head and won the princely sum of £685 for his trouble.
As a footnote, the original Cheltenham Gold Cup presented to winning owner Major Humphrey Wyndham, which consists of nearly a pound-and-a-half of nine carat gold, plated with 18 carat gold, was returned to Cheltenham Raecourse by its previous owner in 2018; since 2019, it has been presented to winning connections as a perpetual trophy.