As far as National Hunt racing is concerned, the ‘Timeform era’ began with the publication of the first Timeform Black Book in that sphere in 1962. Consequently, the Timeform era excludes such post-war luminaries as National Spirit, Hatton’s Grace and Sir Ken who, collectively, won the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival eight years running between 1947 and 1954.
However, Timeform Annual Ratings provide as reliable a measure as any of the relative merits of hurdlers from the late twentieth century onwards. Leading the way, according to the respected ratings organisation, is Night Nurse, trained by Peter Easterby, who won the Champion Hurdle in 1976 and 1977 – on the latter occasion beating what the Racing Post described as the ‘strongest of fields ever assembled’ – and was awarded a Timeform Annual Rating of 182.
Indeed, it is difficult to argue with the assertion of the Racing Post because second in the 1977 renewal of the Champion Hurdle was Monksfield, trained by Des McDonogh, who would win the prestigious hurdling event in 1978 and 1979; in so doing, Monksfield would earn a Timeform Annual Rating of 180, which places him joint-second on the all-time Timeform list. Sharing second position is the triple Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq, trained by Aidan O’Brien, who lifted the hurdling crown, on both sides of the Irish Sea, in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and was robbed of the opportunity to do so again in 2001, when the Cheltenham Festival was abandoned, in its entirety, due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup was first run, as a steeplechase, in 1924 but, surprisingly, the winner of what is, nowadays, the most prestigious race in the British National Hunt calendar has been disqualified just once. The unfortunate horse in question was Tied Cottage, trained by Dan Moore and ridden by Tommy Carberry, who made all the running to beat Master Smudge by eight lengths in the 1980 renewal of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. However, a post-race urine test revealed a minute trace of theobromine, a prohibited substance that has physiological effects similar to caffeine, believed to have come from a batch of contaminated foodstuff, and Tied Cottage was disqualified in favour of the runner-up at a subsequent enquiry. The disqualification was a ‘double whammy’ for connections, who had seen Tied Cottage fall at the final fence the previous year, handing the Cheltenham Gold Cup to Alverton.
In more recent years, controversy reigned when Lord Windermere, trained by Jim Culloty and ridden by Davy Russell, won the 2014 renewal of the Cheltenham Gold Cup by a short head from On His Own, trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by David Casey. In the closing stages, Russell delivered Lord Windermere with a determined challenge but, in so doing, drifted sharply to the right, carrying On His Own with him. The stewards enquired into the result and, although they admitted that On His Own was impeded on his run to the line, they ruled that he suffered only ‘minor interference’, which did not, in their opinion, affect the result.
If you Google ‘Famous Five’, you’ll be introduced to Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog or, in other words, the characters created by Enid Blyton in her collection of adventure stories for children. However, if you add the word ‘Dickinson’ to your search criteria when you’re looking up racing questions, you will discover not fictional tales of twee postwar Englishness, but rather a factual account of an altogether different ‘Famous Five’.
The ‘Dickinson’ in question is, of course, Michael W. Dickinson who, in 1983, pulled off the most remarkable training feat in the history of horse racing by saddling the first five finishers in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Dickinson had already achieved a notable 1-2 in the premier steeplechase with Silver Buck and Bregawn in 1982 and those two were among his five runners – the equivalent of 9% of all the horses in his yard at Dunkeswick, near Harewood, Yorkshire – who lined up for the 1983 renewal.
For the record, those horses were, in finishing order, Bregawn (10/3 favourite), ridden by Graham Bradley, Captain John (11/1), ridden by David Goulding, Wayward Lad (6/1), ridden by Jonjo O’Neill, Silver Buck (5/1), ridden by Robert Earnshaw and Ashley House (12/1), ridden by Dermot Browne. Bregawn made all the running to beat Captain John by 5 lengths, with Wayward Lad a further 1½ lengths behind and a distance back to the other pair. Amateur jockey Dermot Browne, later a trainer, was subsequently ‘warned off’ for 10 years in 1992, and for a further 20 years in 2002, after admitting doping horses.
How much the Cheltenham Gold Cup is worth really depends on whether we’re talking about the value of the prize money on offer or the value of the physical trophy – that is, the Gold Cup itself – presented to the winning owner. In the case of the former, the answer is straightforward; in 2019, the Cheltenham Gold Cup offered £625,000 in prize money, just over £350,000 of which was awarded to connections of the winner, Al Boum Photo.
However, in the case of the latter, the answer requires some educated guesswork regarding the monetary value of the Cheltenham Gold Cup trophy and an appreciation of the historical context in which it is presented. In 2018, Cheltenham Racecourse was reunited with the original Gold Cup trophy, first won by Red Splash in 1924, which was mounted on a plinth bearing the names of all the previous winners and, since 2019, has been presented to the winner as a perpetual trophy.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup trophy reportedly consists of 644g, or approximately 1lb 7oz, of nine carat gold – which even at current scrap gold prices is worth over £7,000 – plated in 18 carat gold to give it its rich, lustrous colour. Of course, the Cheltenham Gold Cup trophy is unique and irreplaceable – the winner owner receives a replica to keep, while the original remains at Cheltenham Racecourse throughout the year – so effectively priceless from an historical and cultural perspective.