Which horse, if any, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2001, depends largely on whether you believe that the Tote Gold Trophy Chase, run over 3 miles at Sandown, was a worthy substitute for the Gold Cup. If you do, you could argue that Marlborough, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Mick Fitzgerald, was effectively the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2001.
However, the Tote Gold Trophy Chase, which was run on the penultimate day of the National Hunt season, April 27, was billed only as ‘a substitute Gold Cup, of sorts’ after attracting just seven runners. Admittedly, one of them was First Gold, trained in Chantilly, France by François Doumen and arguably the best steeplechaser in Europe after winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton and the Martell Cup at Aintree. However, First Gold, who was sent off at 8/13 favourite, blundered and unseated his rider before halfway, leaving Marlborough to beat 33/1 outsider Go Ballistic by a short head in a driving finish.
The four ‘championship’ races usually run at the Cheltenham Festival, including the Cheltenham Gold Cup, were described by Paul Hayward in the Guardian as turning up at Sandown ‘like refugees from a terrible disease’; a apt description in light of the postponement, and eventual cancellation, of the Cheltenham Festival due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. In any event, the Tote Gold Trophy Chase was, as later described by the Racing Post, ‘no substitute for the Gold Cup’, so the words ‘NO RACE’ opposite the year 2001 on the historic trophy seem entirely fair and fitting.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is, of course, a Grade One conditions chase, in which six-year-olds and upwards carry 11st 10lb, five-year-olds carry 11st 8lb and mares receive a 7lb allowance. Consequently, while rank outsiders have regularly finished second, or third, over the years, out-and-out shock winners have been a real rarity. In fact, since the Cheltenham Gold Cup was inaugurated, as a steeplechase, in 1924, just five winners have been returned at starting prices of 25/1 or greater. Gay Donald, in 1955, and L’Escargot, in 1970, both belied odds of 33/1 to win the ‘Blue Riband’ of steeplechasing and, more recently, Cool Ground, in 1992, and Cool Dawn, in 1998, both popped up at 25/1 to keep bookmakers happy.
However, the unlikeliest, and longest-priced, winner in the history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was Norton’s Coin, who prevailed at an eye-watering 100/1 in 1990. Famously one of just three horses trained, under permit, by Carmarthenshire dairy farmer Sirrell Griffiths, Norton’s Coin not only had the temerity to win – beating defending champion, and odds-on favourite, Desert Orchid into third place – but did so comfortably and broke the course record in the process.
The origins of the Cheltenham Festival lie in the so-called National Hunt Meeting and its most prestigious race, the National Hunt Chase. The National Hunt Chase, which is still run at the Cheltenham Festival, was inaugurated at Market Harborough in 1860 and, thereafter, staged at various racecourses up and down the country for the next 40 years or so. The National Hunt Chase was actually run at Cheltenham in 1861, 1904 and 1905, but was run at Warwick in 1902, 1903 and 1906-1910, before finding a permanent home at Prestbury Park in 1911.
The Steeplechase Company (Cheltenham) Limited, under the auspices of Chairman, Frederick Cathcart, petitioned the National Hunt Committee to make the National Hunt Meeting a perennial fixture at Prestbury Park, to be staged in March, as it had been during its itinerant years. The regulatory body agreed and, thus, the Cheltenham Festival – apparently, the term ‘Festival’ was first coined in the Warwick Advertiser in 1907 – was inaugurated, as a two-day fixture, in 1911.