Michael William Dickinson took over the licence at Poplar House, Dunkeswick, near Harewood, West Yorkshire from his father, Tony, in 1980 and wasted little time in revolutionising National Hunt racing. In three of the four seasons that Dickinson Jnr. held a licence – 1981/82, 1982/83 and 1983/84 – he was Champion Trainer; on the first two occasions, he sent out 84 winners and 120 winners, at a strike rate of 45% and 46%, respectively, from a yard with just 55 stables.
Michael Dickinson first won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1982, when he saddled Silver Buck to beat stable companion Bregawn by two lengths, for a notable 1-2 in the ‘Blue Riband’. However, in 1983, Dickinson saddled Bregawn and Captain John – who had already filled the first two places in the Hennessy Gold Cup the previous November – to finish first and second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and, remarkably, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House to fill the next three places, for a record-breaking 1-2-3-4-5 for the yard. So, strictly speaking, Michael Dickinson won the Cheltenham Gold Cup just twice, but his so-called ‘Famous Five’, will always be remembered as one of the greatest training feats of all time.
The inaugural Cheltenham Festival was staged, as a two-day affair, in 1911, under the auspices of W.A. Baring Bingham, who owned the land at Prestbury Park, and Frederick Cathcart, Clerk of the Course at Cheltenham Racecourse. Cathcart would go on to create the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1924 and the Champion Hurdle in 1927, but even before the addition of those two races, in 1923, the Cheltenham Festival had been extended to a three-day meeting. Various races came and went over the years, but the Festival remained a three-day meeting until 2005, when it was extended to four days, with the addition of several new races, including the Ryanair Chase and the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase.
The Cheltenham Festival continues to evolve and, nowadays, consists of 28 races, including twelve at Grade One level. One of the four main ‘championship’ races – namely the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup – is the feature race on each of the four days and is complemented by two, or three, other Grade One races each day, plus a selection of lesser Graded races, Listed races and competitive handicaps.
It is quite well known that just one horse, Dawn Run, has ever won the Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and that Paddy Mullins’ brilliant racemare was ridden to both victories – but not in between – by John Joseph ‘Jonjo’ O’Neill. Of course, Jonjo O’Neill retired, as a jockey, shortly after his historic Gold Cup win, but several jockeys still riding have also completed the Champion Hurdle – Cheltenham Gold Cup double, albeit on different horses.
Reigning champion jockey Richard Johnson rode his first Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Looks Like Trouble, in 2000 and, so far, his one and only Champion Hurdle winner, Rooster Booster, in 2003. Barry Geraghty, too, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup before the Champion Hurdle; he partnered Kicking King to victory in the ‘Blue Riband’ event in 2005 and completed the double on Punjabi in 2009. Rupert ‘Ruby’ Walsh actually won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009, before winning the Champion Hurdle for the first time on Hurricane Fly in 2011; nevertheless, he has since won the prestigious hurdling event three more times, on Hurricane Fly, again, in 2013, Faugheen in 2015 and Annie Power in 2016, to become the joint-leading rider in the history of the race.