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.
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 outsider 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.