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.
The ‘Cheltenham Roar’ is, of course, the term used to describe the cacophony of noise, generated by a crowd of 65,000, or more, expectant racegoers, which greets the runners in the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, as the starting tape goes up. Attendances on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival – and at the Festival, as a whole – have been increasing, so it is reasonable to assume that the ‘Roar’ is becoming louder, year-by-year.
Loudness of a sound is measured in decibels (dB) and the ‘Roar’ has been measured at 119dB or, in comparative terms, twice as loud as amplified music in, say, a night club or a rock concert, and very close to the noise levels associated with an ambulance siren, chain saw or firework display. Racegoers beware; exposure to noise at this level for more than a few seconds can potentially cause permanent hearing damage.
Yes. In fact, three different women have trained four different horses to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup six times between them. Jenny Pitman, who made history by becoming the first woman to train the winner of the Grand National in 1983, did so again in 1984, by becoming the first woman to train the winner of the ‘Blue Riband’ event, with Burrough Hill Lad. Indeed, Burrough Hill Lad may have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup again, but for recurring leg trouble, which caused his late withdrawal from the race in 1985 and again in 1986. In any event, ‘Mrs. P.’ won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for a second time, with Garrison Savannah, ridden by her son, Mark, in 1991.
Just over a decade or so later, Henrietta Knight wrote her name into the history books by training Best Mate to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three years running in 2002, 2003 and 2004, making him the first horse since the legendary Arkle, in the Sixties, to do so. She, too, was denied the opportunity for further success when Best Mate suffered a burst blood vessel just a week before the 2005 renewal of the race.
Last, but by no means least, of the headline-making female trainers comes Jessica Harrington who, in 2017 – at the age of 70 and having held a training licence since 1989 – won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with her very first runner in the race, Sizing John. In a strange case of history repeating itself, Sizing John was a late withdrawal from the 2018 race after suffering a fractured pelvis and remains sidelined for the foreseeable future.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the most prestigious race of the National Hunt season and has been run, over 3 miles 2½ furlongs, on the ‘New’ Course at Prestbury Park, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire since 1959. Nowadays, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is the highlight of the fourth, and final, day of the Cheltenham Festival, held annually in mid-March.
The New Course is a left-handed oval, approximately a mile and a half in circumference and constantly on the turn. Although sharper than widely believed, with pronounced undulations, the New Course is essentially galloping and testing in character, with ten, notoriously stiff fences per circuit.
From the start position, horses in the Cheltenham Gold Cup jump two plain fences – which will become the second-last and last in two circuits’ time – in the home straight before continuing uphill out into the country. The fourth fence is the water jump and the fifth and seventh fences are open ditches, the first of which is jumped uphill. The uphill ditch can prove problematic as horses can see the rising ground on the landing side, which alters their perception of the fence. The second open ditch is followed by two more plain fences and a pronounced downhill run, with another plain fence, back to the point of departure.
The fence after the turn at the top of the hill, which is jumped as the ninth and nineteenth, or fourth-last, has been resited for safety purposes in the past, but still provides its fair share of incident, as does the fence on the downhill stretch; this is especially true on the second circuit, as horses come under pressure. At the end of the second circuit, horses jump the two fences in the home straight for a third, and final, time, making a total of 22 fences in all.