The ‘championship’ or ‘feature’ races run at the Cheltenham Festival are, of course, the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup. The Cheltenham Gold Cup, inaugurated in 1924, and the Champion Hurdle, inaugurated in 1927, were both introduced on the direction of Clerk of the Course Frederick Cathcart, who probably did more than anyone else to raise the profile of the Cheltenham Festival.
The original incarnation of the Stayers’ Hurdle, known as the ‘Stayers’ Selling Hurdle’, was first run at the Cheltenham Festival in 1912, but the race took on a more recognisable form as the ‘Spa Hurdle’ – not to be confused with the Spa Novices’ Hurdle, a.k.a. the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle – in 1946. In 1972, the Spa Hurdle was renamed the Stayers’ Hurdle and, apart from an 11-year period when it was renamed the ‘World Hurdle’, has been known by that title ever since.
The two-mile steeplechasing championship, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, was inaugurated in 1959, when it was known simply as the ‘National Hunt Two-Mile Champion Chase’. However, in 1980, the race was renamed to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, who was a lifelong supporter of National Hunt racing, particularly steeplechasing.
The brainchild of Frederick Cathcart who was, at the time, Clerk of the Course at Prestbury Park, the Cheltenham Gold Cup was first run, as a steeplechase, in 1924. Remarkably, British Pathé News cameras were on hand to record the victory of Red Splash, with the footage later shown in cinemas as part of the weekly newsreel. That was, of course, before the advent of television and televised National Hunt racing did not become a regular feature until much later in the twentieth century.
In fact, it was not until after World War II, in 1948, that Sandown Park became the first British racecourse to host televised National Hunt racing. However, televised racing proved highly popular with armchair viewers and ad men soon recognised the potential of National Hunt racing as an advertising medium. In 1957, the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, now the Ladbrokes Trophy, became the first sponsored race but, even before then, the 1955 Cheltenham Gold Cup had already been broadcast on BBC television, complete with commentary from the inimitable Sir Peter O’Sullevan. The winner was 33/1 outsider Gay Donald, who came home ten lengths ahead of his nearest pursuer, Halloween, with jockey Tony Grantham looking around for dangers throughout the last half mile.
Rated 191 by Timeform, Kauto Star was, unarguably, one of the greatest steeplechasers of all time. All told, he won 19 of his 23 steeplechases and amassed just shy of £2 million in winning prize money alone. As far as the Cheltenham Festival is concerned, Kauto Star made his first appearance, as a 6-year-old, in 2006, when he was sent of 2/1 favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He fell at the third fence on that occasion but, having won his next five races, including the King George VI Chase at Kempton, he returned to Cheltenham in 2007, for his first crack at the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Sent off 5/4 favourite, he quickened into the lead at the second last fence and, despite hitting the last, stayed on strongly to beat Exotic Dancer by 2½ lengths. The following year, 2008, Kauto Star was once again sent off favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, at 10/11, but proved no match for his stable companion Denman, who beat him 7 lengths. Nevertheless, he was back again in 2009, making history by becoming the first horse to regain his title with an impressive, 13-length win over Denman. That was that, in terms of winning, but Kauto Star actually ran in three more Gold Cups, making six in all.
No, contrary to the information supplied by a certain free, Internet-based encyclopaedia, Desert Orchid never started favourite for the Champion Hurdle. He did run in the Champion Hurdle, sponsored in those days by Waterford Crystal, twice, in 1984 and 1985, but the favourites in those renewals were Dawn Run, at 4/5, and Brown’s Gazette, at 4/6, respectively.
On the first occasion, after a successful season, which had included victory in the Grade One Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown Park, Desert Orchid was actually sent off 7/1 second favourite behind Dawn Run. However, having disputed the lead with the favourite for most of the way, Desert Orchid came under pressure on the downhill run to the third-last flight and weakened out of contention to finish among the backmarkers.
On the second occasion, despite winning his preparatory race, the Oteley Hurdle – now the Contenders Hurdle – at Sandown, Desert Orchid was sent off as a largely unconsidered 20/1 chance in the Champion Hurdle. Once again, as was his customary style, he was always well to the fore, chasing the breakneck pace set by rank outsider Northern Trial. However, his early exertions took their toll and he weakened into last place before the field reached the top of the hill and was eventually pulled up in the race won by See You Then.