In March, 2021, just a week before the start of the Cheltenham Festival, Co. Meath trainer Gordon Elliott was banned for a year – the last six months of which were suspended – by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) for bringing the sport into disrepute. The ban, which was reciprocated by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), followed an investigation into a photograph, widely circulated on social media, showing Elliott cheerfully sitting astride a dead horse. The horse in question was later revealed to be Morgan, a 7-year-old owned by Gigginstown House Stud, who died of a suspected heart attack on the gallops at Elliot’s Cullentra House Stables.
Elliott apologised, more than once, for what he described as an ‘indefensible moment of madness’ and accepted his punishment, which also included €15,000 in court costs, without appealing. Nevertheless, several high-profile owners, including Simon Munir, Isaac Souede and Cheveley Park Stud, removed their horses from the yard and severed all ties with Elliott. Elliott was allowed to return to training on September 9, 2021 and, at the time of writing, has already made his first entries ahead of his return to racing. Of the owners who left, Elliott said, ‘I still speak to them all and the gate is always open. I understand completely why they had to go.’
The race now acknowledged as the two-mile hurdling championship, the Champion Hurdle, was established in 1927 and, in 91 runnings since, has been won on six occasions by six different mares. African Sister, ridden by Keith Piggott, father of Lester, was the first to strike a blow for the fairer sex, in the last Champion Hurdle to be run before the outbreak of World War II, in 1939.
However, it would be another 45 years before Dawn Run – who would later make history by becoming the only horse to complete the Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup double – carried Jonjo O’Neill to victory for Paddy Mullins, father of Willie, in 1984. A decade later, Flakey Dove, trained by Richard Price and ridden by Mark Dwyer, added her name to the roll of honour, but there was another lengthy hiatus before the arrival of the next winning mare.
Nevertheless, in 2016, Willie Mullins emulated his father by winning the Champion Hurdle with Annie Power and, in the style of ‘London buses’, her victory was quickly followed by those of Epatante in 2020 and Honeysuckle in 2021. Indeed, in recent years, the dominance of the likes of Epatante and Honeysuckle in the two-mile hurdling division has led some observers to call for the abolition of the 7lb weight-for-sex allowance that mares currently receive from their male counterparts in ‘championship’ races, such as the Champion Hurdle. Proponents of the move argue, with some justification, that the result of such races should be determined on merit alone, regardless of the sex of the participants.
Compared with the likes of Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, Henry de Bromhead is a relative newcomer to success at the Cheltenham Festival. However, in recent years, he has emerged as a force majeure on both sides of the Irish Sea and, in 2021, became the first trainer in history to saddle the winners of the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup at the same Cheltenham Festival.
Henry de Bromhead took over the training licence at the family stables in Knockeen, Co. Waterford from his father, Harry, on January 1, 2000. However, it was not until 10 years later that he saddled Sizing Europe to win the Arkle Challenge Trophy, but he garnered further acclaim by saddling the same horse to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2011, the year in which he also won the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase with Sizing Australia.
In 2015, the late Alan Potts, owner of Sizing Europe and Sizing Australia, decided to remove all his horses from the Knockeen stable, but de Bromhead has continued to thrive. At the last count, he had 15 Cheltenham Festival winners to his name, having won the Queen Mother Champion Chase three times, with Sizing Europe in 2011, Special Tiara in 2017 and Put The Kettle On in 2021 and the Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup once apiece, with Honeysuckle and Minella Indo, both in 2021.
The ‘going’ is the official description of the ground conditions at a racecourse. It is determined by the moisture content and measured by the Clerk of the Course, either by using a device called a GoingStick, or subjectively. Of course, some horses have distinct going preferences, so accurate going reports allow their connections to make informed decisions about where they should run.
On turf racecourses, the going can be described as ‘hard’, ‘firm’, ‘good to firm’, ‘good’, ‘good to soft’, ‘soft’ and ‘heavy’. ‘Firm’ corresponds to a GoingStick reading of 10 and ‘heavy’ to a GoingStick reading of 5; beyond those upper and lower limits, the ground is generally considered unraceable. Indeed, ‘hard’ going is no longer considered safe for National Hunt racing in Britain.
On synthetic, or all-weather, racecourses, the going on the Fibresand, Polytrack or Tapeta racing surface can be adjusted, to some extent, by harrowing or rolling. The Clerk of the Course relies on the traditional, subjective approach to describing the going, rather than empirical readings from the GoingStick. Going descriptions for all-weather racing a limited to ‘fast’, ‘standard/fast’, ‘standard’, ‘standard/slow’ and ‘slow’, which correspond to dry, moist, wet and sodden underfoot conditions.